Ethical issues regarding neural brain implants

Ethical issues regarding neural brain implants
14 March 2024 J.W.H

Putting a pc inside someone's brain once gave the look of the sting of science fiction. Today it’s reality. Academic and industrial groups are testing “brain-computer interface” devices to enable individuals with disabilities to operate more independently.

But Elon Musk's company, Neuralink, has put the technology at the middle of debates about security, ethics and neuroscience.

In January 2024, Musk announced that Neuralink had implanted its first chip within the human brain.

The Conversation Project asked two scientists on the University of Washington School of Medicine – bioethicist Nancy Jecker and neurosurgeon Andrew Ko, who implants brain chips – for his or her thoughts on the ethics of this latest horizon in neuroscience.

How does the brain chip work?

Neuralink's coin-sized device, called N1, is designed to permit patients to perform activities by specializing in them, without having to maneuver their bodies.

People collaborating in the corporate's PRIME study – short for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface – undergo surgery to put a tool within the a part of the brain that controls movement. The chip records and processes the brain's electrical activity, then transmits this data to an external device comparable to a phone or computer.

The external device “decodes” the patient's brain activity by learning to associate certain patterns with the patient's goal: for instance, moving the pc cursor up the screen. Over time, the software can recognize the pattern of neuron firing that consistently occurs when the participant imagines that task after which perform the duty for that person.

Neuralink's current research focuses on helping individuals with paralyzed limbs control computers or smartphones. Brain-computer interfaces, commonly called BCIs, will also be used to manage devices comparable to wheelchairs.

Several corporations are testing BCI. How is Neuralink different?

Non-invasive devices placed on the skin of the top have long been utilized in clinical trials but haven’t received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for industrial development.

There are other brain-computer devices, comparable to Neuralink, which can be fully implanted and wireless.

But the N1 implant combines more technology in a single device: It can goal individual neurons, record data from hundreds of locations within the brain, and wirelessly charge its small battery. These are essential advances that could lead on to raised outcomes.

Why is Neuralink facing criticism?

Neuralink received FDA approval for human trials in May 2023. Musk announced the corporate's first human trials on his social media platform X – formerly Twitter – in January 2024.

However, information concerning the implant is sparse, aside from a brochure geared toward recruiting study participants. Neuralink has not registered on, as is customary and required by some academic journals.

Some scientists are concerned about this lack of transparency. Sharing details about clinical trials is significant since it helps other researchers find out about areas related to their research and might improve patient care. Academic journals may be biased toward positive outcomes, stopping scientists from learning from failed experiments.

Staff on the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, warn that Musk's term “science by press release,” while increasingly common, just isn’t science. They advise against counting on someone with an enormous financial stake in research results as the only real source of data.

When scientific research is funded by government agencies or philanthropic groups, its purpose is to advertise the general public good. Neuralink, in turn, embodies the private equity model that’s becoming increasingly common in science.

Companies that pool funds from private investors to support scientific breakthroughs may seek to do good, but in addition they seek to maximise profits, which could also be contrary to the most effective interests of patients.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated animal cruelty at Neuralink after employees accused the corporate of rushing tests and botching procedures on test animals in pursuit of results, in keeping with a Reuters report.

According to a letter from the USDA secretary to legislators, which was reviewed by Reuters, the agency's inspection didn’t reveal any violations. However, the Secretary noted an “adverse surgical event” in 2019 that Neuralink self-reported.

In a separate incident, also reported by Reuters, the Department of Transportation fined Neuralink for violating regulations on the transportation of hazardous materials, including flammable liquids.

What other ethical issues does the Neuralink study raise?

When brain-computer interfaces are used to assist patients with disabling conditions function more independently, for instance by helping them communicate or move around, it may possibly significantly improve their quality of life. In particular, it helps people regain a way of their very own agency or autonomy – considered one of the important thing assumptions of medical ethics.

Regardless of fine intentions, medical interventions can have unintended consequences. In the case of BCI, scientists and ethicists are particularly concerned concerning the potential for identity theft, password hacking and blackmail. Given how devices gain access to users' thoughts, there may be also the likelihood that their autonomy might be manipulated by third parties.

Medical ethics require that physicians help patients while minimizing potential harm. In addition to bugs and privacy risks, researchers worry concerning the potential antagonistic effects of a totally implanted device like Neuralink because its parts can’t be easily replaced after implantation.

When considering any invasive medical intervention, patients, providers and developers seek a balance between risks and advantages. At current levels of safety and reliability, the advantages of a everlasting implant would should be great to justify the uncertain risks.

What's next?

For now, Neuralink's research is targeted on patients with paralysis. Musk, nevertheless, said his ultimate goal for BCI is to assist humanity – including healthy humans – “keep pace” with artificial intelligence.

This raises questions on one other fundamental principle of medical ethics: justice. Some kinds of supercharged brain-computer fusion could deepen social inequality if only wealthy residents had access to the upgrades.

However, of more immediate concern is the likelihood that the device will increasingly prove helpful for individuals with disabilities but turn out to be unavailable resulting from lack of research funding.

For patients whose access to a tool is tied to a trial, the prospect of losing access once the trial is accomplished may be devastating. This raises thorny questions on whether it’s even ethical to supply early access to breakthrough medical interventions before full FDA approval.

Clear ethical and legal guidelines are needed to balance the advantages of scientific innovations comparable to the Neuralink brain chip with patient safety and social well-being.

Nancy S. Jecker, Professor of Bioethics and Humanities, School of Medicine, University of Washington, and Andrew Ko, Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery, School of Medicine, University of Washington

This article has been republished from Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read original article.

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  • J.W.H

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