Study «Impact Assessment of Neuroimaging»

Images of the brain are arousing keen interest – but people often overestimate their significance.

Introduction | Results | Procedure | Downloads | Events | Contacts | Links


What is neuroimaging?
The various procedures known as “neuroimaging” enable us to view the structure and functioning of the brain in patients and healthy test subjects. Measuring equipment gathers large quantities of data, without any need for brain surgery. Powerful computers use the data to calculate images that look like cross-sectional recordings of the brain. The most important methods are (functional) Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f)MRI and Positron Emission Tomography (PET).

Opportunities and risks of neuroimaging
There are considerable opportunities in the field of diagnostics, where imaging techniques can be used to detect brain diseases early on, and surgical procedures can be performed with greater precision. The procedures are also of value in basic research, because they help us to understand how the brain functions. But there is still some controversy on tests that have no direct connection with diseases: what knowledge do they provide to educational research, for marketing or for identifying potential criminals?

Why conduct a TA-SWISS study on the «Impact Assessment of Neuroimaging»?
Neuroimaging is developing at great speed, and the range of applications of the procedure is constantly growing, including outside the field of medicine. So far, even at international level, no TA study has been conducted to investigate what effects this has.

Aims of the study

  • To evaluate the future prospects of using neuroimaging.
  • To assess the reliability of statements on brain functions that relate to character traits, personal skills and inclinations. This is something that should be discussed in relation to criminal law, educational research and marketing, for example.
  • To clarify the part that neuroimaging might play in developing new drugs – for treating dementia, for instance.
  • To discuss the problem of defining limits between treating a disease and increasing the performance of the brain or improving the well-being of healthy people (enhancement).
  • To refer to the legal situation in Switzerland, taking the current legislation on research on human beings into account.
  • To provide an overall assessment of the situation and to formulate recommendations, directed at decision makers, and especially at political groups.



Results of the study
The past few years have seen the development of efficient neuroimaging techniques that enable non-invasive investigation of brain structures and functions in living people, opening up new possibilities for research on the human brain.

The present and potential range of applications of neuroimaging is considerable. Not only does it make a valuable contribution to basic biological research and biomedical research; it also has considerable – and increasing – significance in clinical diagnostics, in monitoring the course of diseases and healing processes, in neurosurgery and in pharmaceutical research. But neuroimaging was, and is, of particular importance in investigating cognitive performance.

There is also a growing interest in extending the use of neuroimaging techniques into new fields of application. These range from the screening and prediction of cognitive skills and performance or deviant behaviour through personality analysis to lie detection and mind reading.

The TA-SWISS study clearly shows that fears that neuroimaging alone can be used to read minds, for example, and to draw far-reaching conclusions about a person’s personality are unfounded, at the present stage of research. .

The following recommendations have been formulated to further develop the potential of neuroimaging, but also to draw up safeguards against the misuse and overestimation of the methodology it is recommended:

  • to closely follow developments in the field of neuroimaging, and in the neurosciences generally, and to play an active part as the need arises;
  • to initiate a social dialogue on the aims, potential, research findings, limits, framework conditions and possible consequences of neuroimaging, and to play an active part in that dialogue;
  • to regulate research on human beings, uniformly and in accordance with international standards, in a federal law for the present legislation in Switzerland is fragmentary and contradictory;
  • to further improve the conditions under which interdisciplinary research is conducted in the field of cognitive neuroscience, and biomedical research findings transferred into clinical routine;
  • to strive for high standards of quality with regard to quality assurance and professional standards in cognitive neuroscience, biomedical research and also in medical practice;
  • in particular, to tackle the problems of informed consent, accidental findings and data protection that have arisen because of neuroimaging; and
  • to provide continued support for research into the possible health risks that could be associated with certain MRI applications, and to adapt the safety provisions accordingly.




  • Fundamentals are based on an evaluation of specialist literature.
  • For more detailed background, about 20 selected experts are interviewed and questioned about current trends in biomedical research and on open questions on ethics, law, business and society.
  • Based on the results of the interviews and research, specific aspects are discussed in detail.
  • The main findings of the individual sub-areas are integrated into an interdisciplinary assessment. Recommendations are then formulated.

Project start: August 2004 | completion: spring 2006



Media information
17.11.06 Die Folgen von Hirnbildern für Strafrecht und Datenschutz (PDF 18 KB) (only in German)
05.05.06 Deceptively nice images of the brain (PDF 41 KB)
05.05.06 Neuroimaging: The four most important methods (PDF 19 KB)
09.12.04 Questioning views of the brain (PDF 44 KB)

Views of the brain (PDF 690 KB)

Impact Assessment of Neuroimaging. Final report of the Centre for Technology Assessment TA-SWISS 50/2006, Bärbel Hüsing, Lutz Jäncke, Brigitte Tag, Zurich, vdf, IOS Press, 2006. 342 S. The electronic version is available for downloading Impact Assessment of Neuroimaging (pdf)



22.11.06 Hirnbilder – Konsequenzen für Strafrecht und Datenschutz
Zürcher Hochschule Winterthur. Only in German. For more information, please go to the German version.

Parliamentary Lunch
08.05.06 Views of the brain, neuroimaging and its consequences, Hotel Kreuz
Programme (PDF 14 KB). In German and French.



Supported by

  • Centre for Technology Assessment TA-SWISS
  • Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMW)

Persons participating

TA-SWISS Project Supervisors

  • Dr Adrian Rüegsegger, TA-SWISS. e-mail

Project mandataries

  • Dr Bärbel Hüsing, Biologist, Fraunhofer Institute for System and Innovation Research ISI, Karlsruhe (Project Manager)
  • Prof. Peter Bösiger, Physician, Institute for Biomedical Engineering, Zurich University and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (FIT)
  • Prof. Lutz Jäncke, Neuropsychologist, Institute for Psychology, University of Zurich
  • Prof. Brigitte Tag, Jurist, Institute of Criminal Law and Procedure, University of Zurich

Supervisory group

  • Dr Hermann Amstad, Medical practitioner, Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences SAMW (chairman of the support group)
  • Dr Andrea Arz de Falco, Theologian, Biomedicine Division, Federal Office of Public Health
  • Prof. Lazare Benaroyo, Medical practitioner and ethicist, Lemanic Centre for Ethics, University of Lausanne
  • Regula Burri, Sociologist, Collegium Helveticum, Federal Institute of Technology FIT Zurich
  • Prof. Michael Hagner, Neurophysiologist and research scientist, Professor of Scientific Research, Federal Institute of Technology FIT Zurich
  • Dr Christian Heuss, Neurobiologist and scientific journalist, Radio DRS 2, Basel
  • Alain Kaufmann, Biologist and sociologist, Interface Sciences-Société, Imédia, University of Lausanne
  • Prof. Theodor Landis, Medical practitioner, Department of Neurology, Geneva University Hospital
  • Dr Dieter Meier, Physician, MR Centre, Institute for Biomedical Engineering, Zurich University Hospital
  • Prof. Hanns Möhler, Neuropharmacologist, Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Federal Institute of Technology FIT Zurich
  • Prof. Walter Perrig, Psychologist, Department of Psychology, University of Berne
  • Prof. Beat Sitter-Liver, Ethicist, Department of Philosophy, University of Fribourg
  • Prof. Dominique Sprumont, Jurist, Institute of Health Law, University of Neuchâtel



Further Links


Short Title: Neuroimaging
Long Title: Impact Assessment of Neuroimaging
Short Description: High-tech equipment and complex calculations can be used to reveal the activity of the brain. But what good are such colourful «images of the brain»? The TA-SWISS study shows the potential of so-called imaging techniques, for example in diagnosing diseases and in neurosurgery. The study investigated quite different fields of application as well, such as criminal law and marketing. It also demonstrates the limits and risks of these methods.
Start: 2004
End: 2006
Partner Institutes:
Scope Countries:
Contact Person: Rüegsegger, Adrian
Home Page URL:
Project Leader: TA-SWISS
Other Members:

Project in brief

High-tech equipment and complex calculations can be used to reveal the activity of the brain. But what good are such colourful «images of the brain»?  The TA-SWISS study shows the potential of so-called imaging techniques, for example in diagnosing diseases and in neurosurgery. The study investigated quite different fields of application as well, such as criminal law and marketing. It also demonstrates the limits and risks of these methods.

Timetable: Project completed (2006)

Publications: book and summary

Project mandatary: Dr Bärbel Hüsing, Fraunhofer Institute for System and Innovation Research, Karlsruhe