Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Alternative Use of Neuroimaging: A Public Perception Survey


In the October 4th issue of Plos One, Wardlaw and colleagues published the results of a survey about the public and the expert perception of neuroimaging use in society (link).  This fascinating societal insight in the current and future use of neuroimaging highlights an often overlook aspect of biomarker and diagnostic research: the potential adoption barrier caused by conflicting information propagated by the general media.  Indeed, the development of some new, or even established, technologies can be thwarted by excessive regulations stemming from unwarranted fears propagated by a media industry hungry for sensational sound bites.

In this case, the authors focused on assessing the opinions of the general public and of medical experts on the medical and non-medical use of neuroimaging in modern society.  In particular, the authors sought to gather opinions about the claim that modern neuroimaging can be used for detecting lies in a judicial context, preferences in a marketing context, and racial attitude in a social context.

While the public and the experts all agreed that conventional medical uses of neuroimaging (i.e. detection of brain pathology and certain mental illness) are trustworthy and well established, both groups showed little faith in uses of neuroimaging in non-medical applications.  However, the survey revealed that the experts had little awareness of the use of neuroimaging in US court, grossly underestimating the number of cases where neuroimaging have been used as evidence over the past few years.  Similarly, a third of the experts reported no familiarity with the use of neuroimaging in the fields of neuromarkerting and commercial lie-detection.  Interestingly, although the majority of experts felt that the actual state of neuroimaging was not accurately represented by the general media, few felt compelled to rectify the situation.

Looking ahead, the experts were generally more optimistic about the future of neuroimaging than the general public.  While the relative skepticism from the public may provide some degree of protection against the misrepresentation of neuroimaging capabilities by the general media, the relative enthusiasm of the experts means that there is no shortage of expert opinions that can be used out of context by the general media to promote sensational claims about neuroimaging capabilities.

Although this paper does not intend to address the entire field of biomarker and diagnostic development, these findings should serve as a lesson for the entire field.  Consistent communication about the true capabilities of a new biomarker / diagnostic technology should be an integral part of the final stage of diagnostic development.  Failing to do so could result in the public misperception of the advantage and/or risk of a new promising technology.

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