Brain science starting to impact varied fields

Thu Oct 15, 2009 6:37am EDT
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By Tom Heneghan

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - It used to be that only doctors were interested in brain scans, searching the images for tumors, concussions or other health problems hiding inside a patient's skull.

More and more, though, images showing neurons firing in different areas of the brain are gaining attention from experts in fields as varied as law, marketing, education, criminology, philosophy and ethics.

They want to know how teachers can teach better, business sell more products or prisons boost their success rates in rehabilitating criminals. And they think that the patterns and links which cognitive neuroscience is finding can help them.

"Suddenly, neuroscience is seen as a source of answers to these questions," said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"Neuroscience has gotten to the point now, in 2009, that it can actually explain many different types of human behavior that 10 years ago, certainly 20 years ago, it was nowhere near explaining," she told Reuters at a recent seminar explaining the latest progress in brain research for non-scientists.

Much of this research focuses on brain scans, especially by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which produces images showing the areas of the brain where neurons fire as the patient reacts to stimuli or thinks about something.

Activity at certain points, such as the amygdala where fear and anxiety are processed, sometimes shows connections in a person's behavior that are not visible from the outside. Brain scans also show some of the neural bases for emotions and such complex reactions as love, empathy and trust.