The Potential Risks of Human Brain Implantation

Elon Musk’s startup Neuralink has been working on a plan to implant a brain chip embedded in a human skull since its founding in 2016.

After years of animal testing, Musk announced in December that the company plans to begin human trials within six months (although this isn’t the first time he’s said such trials are on the horizon).

Neuralink has spent over half a century figuring out how to convert brain signals into digital output – imagine being able to move a cursor, send text messages, or write a word processor just by thinking.

And while the initial focus is on medical uses, such as helping paralyzed people communicate, Musk aims to make Neuralink chips a mainstream phenomenon — “put a Fitbit in your skull,” as he puts it.

Musk’s company is not the only group working on brain-computer interfaces or systems that facilitate direct communication between the human brain and external computers. Other researchers are considering using BCI to, among other things, restore lost senses and control prostheses.

While these technologies are still in their infancy, they have been around long enough for researchers to better understand how neural implants interact with our brains.

As Anna Wexler, assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, says: “Of course, it causes change. The question is, what changes does it cause and what impact does it have? matter?”

Tampering with the subtle processes of the human mind is hard work, and the results are not always desirable or intended. People using BCI may feel deeply addicted to the devices, or as if their sense of themselves has changed. And before we get to the point where people are lining up to have a smartphone implanted in their brains, it’s important to understand its unique ethical risks.

From science fiction to multi-billion dollar industry

In the 1974 film The Terminal, a man is given a brain implant to deal with seizures. Although the operation seems successful at first, things go wrong when the constant exposure to the chip causes a psychotic rampage.

And while people have yet to build flying cars, manned missions to Mars, or build convincing replicas, BCI may be the most important technology that will not only catch up, but in some cases outstrip early sci-fi images. Over 200,000 people around the world are already using some type of NCI, most of them for medical reasons. Perhaps the best-known use case is cochlear implants, which allow the deaf to hear to some extent.

Another notable use case is seizure prevention: Existing devices can monitor brain signaling activity to predict seizures and alert a person to avoid certain activities or take preventative medications.

Some researchers have proposed systems that not only detect seizures but also prevent them with electrical stimulation—a mechanism roughly described in Terminal Man. Transplants have been performed on people with Parkinson’s disease, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and epilepsy in human trials for many years.

Recent advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscanning materials have made devices less invasive and more scalable, naturally attracting a wave of private and military funding. Paradromics, Blackrock Neurotech and Synchron are just some of the project-supported competitors working on devices for people with paralysis.

And in November last year, startup Science unveiled the concept of a bioelectrical interface to treat blindness. And last September, Magnus Medical received US Food and Drug Administration approval for targeted brain stimulation for the treatment of major depressive disorder.

Meanwhile, Neuralink has faced a history of over-promising — like not meeting schedules — and has reportedly launched a federal investigation into allegations of animal rights violations. Analyst firm Grand View Research has estimated the global brain implant market at $4.9 billion in 2021, with other companies predicting that number could double by 2030.

Currently, BCIs are limited to the medical field, but a wide range of non-medical applications for this technology have been proposed. A study published in 2018 described how participants used BCI to interact with multiple apps on an Android tablet, including typing, messaging, and browsing the web, simply by imagining the appropriate movements. More speculative applications include video games, virtual reality manipulation, or even receiving input such as text messages or videos directly, bypassing the need for a screen.

This may sound like science fiction, but the truth is that we have reached a point where the cultural and ethical barriers to this type of technology are starting to surpass the technical barriers. Despite the fictional nature of the Terminal, its disastrous role raises real questions about the unintended consequences of BCI.

change mind

There have been no confirmed cases of severe irritation caused by BCI, but compelling evidence suggests that the devices can cause cognitive changes outside of their intended use. Some of these changes have been positive. After all, BCIs are looking to change certain things about their users.

Wexler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, interviewed people with Parkinson’s disease who underwent deep brain stimulation — a surgical treatment that involves implanting thin metal wires that send electrical impulses to the brain to relieve movement symptoms — and found that many of them had their symptoms disappear. Feeling good before treatment.

Erin Klein and Sara Gering, researchers at the University of Washington, observed positive changes in personality and self-perception in people who used BCIs.

In a 2016 article on attitudes and ethical considerations associated with DBS, they report that study participants often felt that therapy was helping them reclaim an “authentic” self that had been undermined by depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

One patient said: “I started to wonder who I am, what depression is and what triggered it.” Speaking in late 2022 about similar studies, neuropsychologist Cynthia Cobo described an increased sense of control and autonomy among the patients she interviewed.

But not all of the changes researchers have found are beneficial. In interviews with people who have had NCI, Frederick Gilbert, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania who specializes in applied neuroethics, noticed some strange effects.

He said: “The concepts of personality, identity, agency, authenticity, autonomy, selfhood are very compact, ambiguous and opaque dimensions. No one really agrees with what you mean, but we have had cases where it was clear that the BCI was about changes in personality or expression of sexuality.”

In several interviews, Gilbert observed that patients reported feelings of non-recognition of themselves, or what is commonly referred to in the study as “alienation”.

“They know they’re on their own, but it’s not like it was before the transplant,” he said. Some have expressed a sense of having new abilities unrelated to the implant, such as a woman in her 50s who injured herself while trying to lift a pool table that she thought she could move on her own.

And for people who use BCI to help with significant medical limitations, it makes sense that the treatment could have a positive psychological impact. But when it comes to considering brain chips for general use, there are many concerns about the downsides.

Smartphone in your head

As technology improves, we are getting closer to seeing “Fitbit in your skull.” But there is reason to be careful. After all, if it was that easy to become addicted to a phone, just think how addictive it could be if it were connected directly to your brain.

Gilbert spoke of a patient he interviewed who developed a sort of decision paralysis and ended up feeling unable to leave the house or make a decision about what to eat without first consulting a machine that showed what’s going on in his brain.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a device that complements the solution, but at the end of the day, the device kind of replaced the person in the solution, taking them out of the loop,” Gilbert said.

Sometimes a patient may rely so much on their devices that they feel they cannot function without them. Gilbert encountered several study participants who became depressed after losing support for their devices and having them removed, often because the particular trial ended or funding ran out.

One of the participants in the study, who was given a device to detect signs of epileptic activity, said in an interview: “You gradually grow and get used to it. He becomes me.”

This type of addiction is further complicated by the fact that BCIs are difficult to financially support and maintain, and brain surgery is often required to remove and re-implant them. Since BCIs are still in the experimental stage, there are no global standards or stable financial support, and many devices are at risk of suddenly losing funding. And early adopters may be shaken by supply chain issues, hardware upgrades, or a company going bankrupt.

There are also privacy concerns associated with computer access to your brainwaves. “If you get a device that helps you move your prosthetic arm, for example, that device will pick up other sources of noise that you might not need outside of your brain,” Gilbert said. “There is a lot of background noise. , and background noise can be decoded. This noise is sure to be transformed.” And it’s somewhere in the cloud.”

A person can learn a lot by studying your brain waves, and if a hacker gets access to your data, he can in a sense read your mind, looking for certain expressions of brain signaling activity.

And because BCIs are still mostly limited to the medical field, most early adopters are happy to make those compromises.

“If someone has a disability that makes them unable to communicate, they will generally be happy if there is technology that allows them to do so,” Wexler said.

But, aside from the idea that non-medical BCIs are likely to present a host of new challenges, it’s not clear if the trade-offs will be worth having Fitbit in your head.

And while we are still a long way from the cyborg future of electronically connected minds predicted by the likes of Elon Musk, the exponential growth of the industry is making ethical considerations previously limited to science fiction more relevant. And if a brain chip can change key traits of your personality, companies shouldn’t be in a rush to plant it in people’s minds.

Source: Science Alert