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New study uses brain activity to evaluate skills, we discuss the ethical implications

November 9, 1953: A machine which runs on electricity and is used in measuring certain kinds of brain activity.
November 9, 1953: A machine which runs on electricity and is used in measuring certain kinds of brain activity.
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A new study published last Wednesday in the journal Science Advances shows how skilled surgical practitioners exhibit different brain activities from unskilled practitioners.

Researchers used brain scan technology to examine what’s happening inside surgeons’ brains while they performed surgical simulations. In determining these findings, scientists used technology known as fNIRS, short for functional near-infrared spectroscopy. With fNIRS, a person wears a cap embedded with tiny lasers that beam near-infrared light into the skull. The light reflects back out and can be captured by a detector. Researchers can find out from the quality of the detected light if blood flowing to the brain is oxygenated or not. More oxygenated blood means an increase in brain activity.

The study was able to identify novice surgeons from experienced ones by analyzing those brain activities. Results show that part of the brain involved in planning complex behaviors was more active in the novice physicians. While skilled surgeons had more activity in the motor cortex, which is essential for the execution of movement.

Some critics say such technology raises some ethical concerns. Skeptics question the accuracy of such results. Will those scans capture all aspects of the brain, or just a fraction? Should scans be limited to certain parts of the brain? How can information gathered via those scans be used without infringing on a person’s privacy? We discuss.


Arun Nemani, lead author of the brain scan study; senior data scientist for a Chicago-based startup called Food Genius

Elizabeth Hillman, professor of biomedical engineering and principal investigator at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute; member of a neuroethics advisory group for the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN initiative (short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies)