Neuroscience Promises: Current & Future Applications of Brain Imaging Technology


Though fMRI and PET techniques are now being used in clinical situations for a wide variety of non-psychiatric conditions, the promise of a new understanding of many mental disorders is confidently made by a large number of neuroscientists, both in the UK and abroad. Many others in the medical fields, however, remain highly sceptical of such claims. This research stems from an emphasis that the impact of brain imaging technology on society, through its apparent demonstration of a biological basis of mental illness, cannot be underestimated. Crucially, even without being a standard diagnostic technique , brain imaging is already significantly endorsing the rise of a new biological psychiatry.

The project will consist of an anthroplogical investigation into current brain imaging research for two conditions, depression and schizophrenia. It seeks to investigate the apparent contemporary disparity between the promise of neuroscience and its current clinical applications. It will critically assess, in three separate countries, the ways in which brain imaging is currently used, the clinical applications that local researchers predict it will be applied to , and the way in which the distance between these two is negotiated. It will compare the ways in which the different national policies reflect this, incorporating strategic and ideological positions in future research developments.

Using the collection of qualitative data from a variety of groups including patients, associated with the current research developments and clinical use of brain images, the project will explore the ways in which the technology is conceived, and the ways in which expectations are held about its relevance in the future. It will consequently address a number of broad questions concerned with the status of medical knowledge and the current gap that exists between bio-technical innovation and clinical application in terms of how they are reflected in a specific set of narratives.

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An international collaborative research project to investigate how brain imaging is shaping narratives of mental illness amongst researchers, clinicians and patients.

This project will investigate the use of brain imaging at a number of research sites in the UK and abroad. It will address a range of questions concerning the status of medical knowledge and the rise of biological psychiatry, with a particular focus on depression and schizophrenia. At the centre of our investigation will be a comparative examination into the gap that exists between the aspirations associated with this technology and its current clinical application..

Research Design

For many neuroscientists the rapid and continual development of neuro-imaging is already demonstrating conclusively not only a biological basis to the complete range of normal human experience, but of specific mental disorders as well. Many hope that in addition to providing a means of making or confirming diagnosis, the technology will be used for screening, to identify new risk factors, and to assist the production of new pharmaceutical therapies.

This project seeks to investigate the apparent disparity between these extensive promises of neuroscience and its present clinical application. It will investigate what patients think of the technology, how it may be shaping their own conceptions of illness, and what ideas they hold about future developments. In parallel, it will track when brain imaging is currently used, the clinical applications that local researchers predict it will be applied to, and the way in which the distance between these two is being shaped and negotiated.

We do not dismiss the potential of this technology. However, we wish to suggest that an important area of current attention must be directed to the way in which this disparity, between promise and application, is having influence in the present; in terms of policy, in research and in the shaping of ideas about particular conditions.

Policy and Academic Implications

This project will contribute to others in the IHT Programme that are investigating the ways in which innovations in health technologies are shaping current practice. However, rather than trying to clinically evaluate the technology we hope to provide detail into how the promise of developments may already be changing notions of illness, symptoms and treatment within particular health care systems.

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Simon Cohn

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Research Findings

Findings are available here - pdf

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