UK Scientific Group To Study Ethics Of Neurotechnologies
March 1, 2012

UK Scientific Group To Study Ethics Of Neurotechnologies

The same technology currently used to help stimulate parts of the brain and help stroke, dementia, and depression patients could be adapted to create weapons that can be fired with a single thought and other non-medical purposes, leading a prominent group of British scientists to open an investigation into the ethical, social, and legal issues surrounding what they refer to as "novel neurotechnologies."

One type of this technology, known as deep brain stimulation (DBS), is currently used to help control the tremors of Parkinson's patients, BBC News Health and Science Reporter James Gallagher wrote on Wednesday. This technique and others like it are currently utilized by "thousands of patients," he said.

In this form of treatment, electrodes are placed in select areas of the brain, and are then connected to a battery in the patient's chest. The battery provides electrical bursts that help alleviate the symptoms, and it has been successful enough to lead medical professionals to consider using DBS for other disorders, including depression and Tourette's syndrome, Gallagher added.

However, possible future uses for such technology have the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB) concerned. For example, a story published by the Telegraph on Thursday suggests that it could be altered to create weapons that could be fired through mind-control. Additionally, Reuters reporter Kate Kelland raises the possibility of using the technology to artificially enhance a person's strength, or give them super-human concentration.

"Intervening in the brain has always raised both hopes and fears in equal measure. Hopes of curing terrible diseases, and fears about the consequences of trying to enhance human capability beyond what is normally possible," said Thomas Baldwin, chairman of the NCB group analyzing the issue and a philosophy professor at York University, in comments published by both Reuters and the Telegraph.

He added, "These challenge us to think carefully about fundamental questions to do with the brain: What makes us human? What makes us an individual? And how and why do we think and behave in the way we do?"

Baldwin specifically expressed his concern over the possible weaponization of such technology, telling Fiona Macrae of the Daily Mail, "It is not just science fiction. If you really can make contact with thoughts and get devices controlled by them, then you can have funny kinds of warfare. I don´t think it is unrealistic if you have the unlimited funds of the Pentagon to project ourselves towards some kind of Star Wars future."

Other possible technological developments that could come out of this field of research, according to Macrae, include "thinking caps" or headsets which stimulate the brain with electrical currents and have been shown to improve a person's mathematical ability; mind-to-mind communication in which people can use a computer to share their thoughts with each other, not unlike a telepathic telephone; and even wheelchairs and robotic limbs than can be controlled by thought, which the Daily Mail reporter suggests are "on the horizon."

Some of Baldwin's colleagues on the panel include Jonathan Cole, an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Southampton and a Clinical Neurophysiology Consultant at Poole Hospital; Maria Fitzgerald, a Professor of Developmental Neurobiology at University College London; Jenny Kitzinger, Director of Research at the Cardiff School of Journalism; Graeme Laurie, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and Director of Research at the University of Edinburgh School of Law; and Jack Price, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology and Director at the King´s College London Centre for the Cellular Basis of Behavior.

Rounding out the team are Nikolas Rose, Professor of Sociology and Head of Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King´s College London; Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor of Neurobiology in the Open University Department of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences as well as Emeritus Professor of Genetics and Society at Gresham College, London; Ilina Singh, a bioethics and society expert from the London School of Economics and Political Science; Vincent Walsh, Professor of Human Brain Research at the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience; and Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading.

According to Kelland, Warwick is a "supporter" of neurotechnology research and a believer that some of these types of technologies "had great potential in medicine." However, both he and Baldwin told Reuters that there were fears over the safety of using some of the more experimental types of brain implants, as well as the ethics of the use of the technology both medically and in other areas of society.

"If brain-computer interfaces are used to control military aircraft or weapons from far away, who takes ultimate responsibility for the actions? Could this be blurring the line between man and machine?" Baldwin told Kelland.

The BBC reports that the NCB will be seeking views on the issue from the public until April 23 of this year. Their official recommendations regarding neurotechnology aren't expected until sometime in 2013.


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