Brain research faces ethical issues
Plugging the brain into machine interfaces raises many questions, science meeting hears. Photograph: Getty Images
Research advances in building brain-machine interfaces have the potential to change lives in rehabilitation medicine, yet the area is bristling with difficult ethical issues. It opens the potential to control one’s environment with the power of thought alone, but it also raises questions about what it means to be human and how far we should go with this technology, and what would happen if a hacker or a computer virus got into the interface?
The business of wiring the brain directly into a machine or computer has become a Hollywood staple with films such as The Matrix and Robocop, but in reality very real advances are being made in this area, a session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science heard over the weekend. A panel including brain-machine researchers and ethicists debated the issues, including whether augmentation of this kind makes us all a little less human.
One of the panellists, Prof Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University Medical Centre only five days ago published research in Nature Communications into the creation of a completely new sense built into laboratory rats. It allowed them to “feel” the presence of infrared light, he said. “It allows light to be converted into touch,” he said. “The animal is not seeing the light, it is feeling it.” In previous work he and his research team demonstrated how monkeys fitted with brain-machine interfaces could control both real and virtual limbs.
There are good reasons to pursue the research, he argued. Such interfaces could allow a quadriplegic the ability to move limbs, but also add tactile sensations for example to robot hands as they grasp an object. The research helps to provide feedback to help you control a device that is separated from you. Other types of interfaces were also emerging, for example cochlear implants to provide limited hearing or the latest, retinal implants wired into the optic nerve.
Plugging the brain into such devices raised many questions however, said Prof Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania. How might it affect our sense of being human, who should decide to apply the technology and how bad did a disability need to be to warrant intervention.
Plastic surgery was developed to help soldiers with disfigurements after the second World War, but today is used to make often unnecessary cosmetic changes, she said. Would this technology also become used for less than essential purposes? And what would happen if a hacker broke into your interface or someone planted a computer virus? “There will be some pretty important ethical issues,” she suggested.
“From a religious perspective I don’t see a problem with the technology,” said ethicist Brent Waters of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. A bigger issue was what would happen when brain-machine augmentation became commonplace, he said. There was also the potential to misuse the technology. “We have to be vigilant, good things can always be used in bad ways.”
While Prof Nicolelis works with implanted devices, Prof Todd Coleman of University of California, San Diego is researching very thin flexible electronics that can be applied to the skin like a temporary tattoo. These pick up brain waves, providing a signal that could be exploited in different ways, he said. The technology was already in commercial development.