TCS Daily

Brave New Brains, Revisited

By Gyongyi Gaal - June 25, 2002 12:00 AM

A few weeks ago, the Economist magazine, in an article titled "The Future of Mind Control," suggested that rapid developments in neuroscience might prove more worrisome than cloning and genetic manipulation. Glenn Harlan Reynolds discussed the concerns raised by the Economist here on TCS and basically agreed with the Economist that neuroscience raises the more immediate and serious ethical questions.

The arguments put forth by Reynolds and the Economist were useful but incomplete. Getting a proper handle on both the potential benefits and pitfalls of brain science is critical as science progresses and as developments in this rapidly changing field begin to affect the public.

For example, Reynolds understated the potential threats posed by neuroscience. He pointed out that in our modern society, the government may already be controlling the minds of unruly children via encouraging the widespread use of Ritalin and other medications. Despite these concerns, Reynolds concluded that although neurological sciences may pose some risks of serious misuse by seemingly well-intentioned governments, the actual likelihood of misuse is not high.

"There are no reports of scientists using -- or even talking about using -- electrical brain stimulation, neurotransmitter manipulation, or other techniques in ethically troubling ways," Reynolds said. "And this is despite their work receiving little in the way of special scrutiny from regulators, or extended attention from bioethicists."

But this assertion misses the mark a little bit. Throughout its history, brain research has been repeatedly misused. Perhaps the most obvious example is the use of lobotomy. Another example is the use of electroconvulsive therapy. A third is overuse and abuse of neurochemical substances.

Even the best doctors today often conveniently suggest medication instead of exploring the root causes of physiological problems or concentrating on solving (and not just merely treating) depression in adults, hyperactivity in children, and early stages of the neurological impairment.

The controversial return of electroconvulsive therapy and deep implants for depression are still widely debated in medical and scientific circles (although there is overall consensus regarding related treatments for advanced stages of epilepsy or to alleviate various symptoms of Parkinson's disease-related movement disorders).

The Economist, on the other hand, overstated the potential problems raised by neuroscience. It praised potential diagnostic and therapeutic applications of neuroscience while worrying about potential invasions of privacy, involuntary control, and enhancement issues. That's fine so far as it goes. The problem is that some of their arguments are anecdotal and downright questionable.

The article starts with quoting a dubious example of a woman who appeared to have fallen in love with her neurophysiologist after appropriate brain stimulation, which was intended to ease her depression. But the Economist failed to bolster this anecdote with any scientific evidence or data and conveniently omitted the equally anecdotal stories of when women apparently fell in love with their teachers, coaches, psychologists, or doctors.

And some perspective is in order. The recent disquieting reports of toddlers made to mindlessly echo hateful statements about people of different religions, faiths, or races, or teenagers collecting and trading pictures of suicidal "martyrs," did not require direct futuristic mind control. The only sensory input needed came from terribly misguided family members, educators and society.

Neuroscientists themselves are of several minds (no pun intended) about the current state and future of experimentation and discovery, and several researchers examining the advances in brain-computer interaction recently met for nearly a week at a conference center in New York to discuss recent developments.

While substantial progress has been made of late in noninvasive biofeedback experiments, most agreed that there is now the need to advance towards more invasive technologies that provide access to neural signals at increasingly higher spatiotemporal resolution. This would be essential for high dimensional, continuous, voluntary, instantaneous motor control of extremities, bladder regulation, respiratory or reproductive functions.

What seems to characterize the field right now is friendly competition. Several research groups will soon be ready to progress further in the field of activating prosthetic arms with direct brain activity and they are eagerly monitoring each other's progress. It is already possible to elicit locomotion and reaching movement via functional electric stimulation using electrodes implanted directly into leg and hand muscles of patients with injured spinal cords. Severed hands can be reattached, and hand transplants can now lead to substantial functional improvement. Roboticians should also get further involved at this stage to develop even more advanced prosthetic devices including exoskeletons and more robotic assistive mobility devices such as fairly autonomous wheelchairs.

The problem is that such prosthetic devices may not be cost effective without serious subsidization, or at least not at the early stages. Moreover, while greater invasiveness brings with it the potential for greater reward, it also carries the potential for new kinds of abuse or misuse.

Fortunately the science of mind control is still in rudimentary stages, giving the public more than enough time to become educated about developments and potential problems. Professor Reynolds is correct that the real ultimate danger is not of the science itself but from potential totalitarian involvement by the government. Neuroscientists alone cannot avoid such a development, either by refusing to contribute to progress or by delivering their results with conditions and restrictions attached to start with.

Dr. Gyongyi Gaal is a physicist, a research scientist in the field of neuroscience. Her special interests are neuroprosthesis, motor control, biologically inspired robots and robot helpers. The author publishes the
Neuroprosthesis News website.

TCS Daily Archives