Commentary on “The Future of Brain Implants”
Neuroprosthetics have helped hundreds of thousands of patients out of deafness, blindness or paralysis. There are a few reasons why retinal and cochlear implants will continue to advance more quickly than other forms of brain implants. Retinal and cochlear implants are at the periphery of the nervous system (retina and inner ear) and are thus much more amenable to manipulation versus deeper areas of the brain (Ex. hippocampus). They also do not dictate one’s identity as directly as other parts of the brain do, and so they face fewer ethical challenges.
Perhaps not emphasized enough in the article is the fundamental differences between traditional forms of electrical stimulation and optogenetics. The different forms of electrical stimulation described in the article involve artificial implants. Optogenetics, however, require a permanent change in gene expression in a particular set of neurons. While that is not a problem in the retinal neurons, which do not directly encode one’s personality and have well described circuitry, scientists generally will be a lot more unwilling to change gene expression in deeper areas of the brain. Additionally, the utility of optogenetics is limited to already light-sensitive neurons in the retina. Any use of this technology in other areas of the brain would require more invasive manipulation.
Although there are still technical hurdles and risks, it is not unreasonable to stay optimistic as scientific breakthroughs are often beyond our wildest imagination. Indeed, University of Washington researchers have demonstrated what they believe is the first human-to-human brain interface, controlling a colleague’s motion via electromagnetic signals. Preliminary as it is, ethical worries from the public are not entirely groundless.
As the authors question in the end, what kind of world might these transforming devices create? If school performance could be enhanced overnight by an electrode, how would we evaluate talent and diligent work? If perception and mood could be altered by pressing a button, what would distinguish humans from programmed machinery? Going down the road, should we be prepared for mind reading and mind control?
Special thanks to Dean Lee and Yu Serena Shen for their perspective on this topic.
Managing Editor: Nicole Epsy