When your genetic information is held against you
My friend Jan Zilinsky recently sent me this blogpost from the NeuroCritic which investigates the repercussions of having biomarkers held against individuals.
In this case, the biomarker was in the brain and indicated a propensity for taking financial risks. Or maybe it didn’t really – the case wasn’t closed – but that was the idea, and the people behind the research mentioned three times in 8 pages that policy makers might want to use already available brain scans to figure out which populations or individuals would be at risk. Here’s an excerpt from their paper:
Our finding suggests the existence of a simple biomarker for risk attitude, at least in the midlife [sic] population we examined in the northeastern United States. … If generalized to other groups, this finding will also imply that individual risk attitudes could, at least to some extent, be measured in many existing medical brain scans, potentially offering a tool for policy makers seeking to characterize the risk attitudes of populations.
The way the researchers did their tests was, as usual, to have them play artificial games of chance and see how different people strategized, and how their brains were different.
Studies like this are common and I don’t see a reason they won’t become even more common. The question is how we’re going to use them. Here’s a nasty way I could imagine they get used: when you apply for a job, you fill in a questionnaire that puts you into a category, and then people can see what biomarkers are typical for that category, and what the related health risks look like, and then they can decide whether to hire you. Not getting hired doesn’t say anything about your behaviors, just what happens with “people like you”.
I’m largely sidestepping the issue of accuracy. It’s quite likely that, at an individual level, many such predictions will be inaccurate but could still be used by commercial interests – and even be profitable – even so.
In the best case scenario, we would use such knowledge strictly to help people stay healthy. In the worst case, we have a system whereby people are judged by their biomarkers and not their behavior. If there were ever a case for regulation, I think this is it.