The latest advances in brain imaging technologies provide powerful means to investigate neurological and psychiatric diseases and thus improve diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, neuroimaging allows the in vivo investigation of how the brain works and has therefore been extensively used to find neural correlates for cognitive functions. This line of research has led to the advance of non-clinical applications, which have received extensive coverage also by the lay press, such as the assessment of the brain correlates of lie detection, the analysis of brain responses to specific commercial brands (neuromarketing), or even the investigation of covert racial biases or political preferences.
This wide scope of applications raises a number of social, legal and ethical issues that cannot be dealt with by scientists alone but need discussions among key stakeholders. In clinical imaging, the main issues are related, for example, to the possible stigma associated with the detection of abnormalities of brain structure and function in conditions such as schizophrenia or personality disorders, or to the possibility to diagnose in the early preclinical phase neurodegenerative conditions for which no preventive treatment is available. The ethical questions raised by non-clinical applications are also evident, and are related to key issues such as privacy and legal competence, or to the incidental detection of brain abnormalities in healthy volunteers.
This Research Topic addresses some of these controversial issues, by providing an overview of the scope and limits of brain imaging with a focus on psychiatric conditions. Core feature of this Research Topic is to include considerations from different stakeholders involved in the development of these technologies, like scientists, sociologists and lawyers. We believe that this kind of approach, engaging competences that only infrequently interact in a direct discussion, is mandatory in dealing with issues related to the social impact of scientific research. The contributions included here represent a continuation of the debate which started among the authors and other experts during the "brains in dialogue on brain imaging" workshop that was organized in March 2009 in Cambridge UK by the bid-brains in dialogue project of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of SISSA (Trieste, Italy; www.neuromedia.eu).