The brain is the control center of all functions in the human body, so when something goes wrong in the brain or when communication channels between the brain and body are damaged the effects can be detrimental. This has lead researchers to find a way to correct brain dysfunctions or to restore nervous communication. The current, and most direct, solution on the cutting edge of medicine is brain implants. Brain implant research dates back to 1964 when a Spanish neurologist used a brain implant to stop a charging bull with the push of a button (citation). Since then brain implant application has advanced past the control of a bull or monkey to tackle more sophisticated and serious issues. Some of these being paralysis, Parkinson's disease, and epilepsy. However, as with any experimental medical treatment, researchers have run into some ethical issues in research and in future applications. The main concerns being the safety and longevity of the devices, exploitation of the technology, and the potential societal issues of future applications.
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The Mayo Clinic defines epilepsy as “a central nervous system (neurological) disorder in which brain activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures or periods of unusual behavior, sensations, and sometimes loss of awareness.” (Mayo Clinic Staff, “Epilepsy”, 2019). Physicians and researchers have been using brain implants to track brain activity before, during and after these seizures occur in order to better understand why they occur and how to better treat them. However, one ethical issue of these implants is the safety of them, after all these patients are having an artificial device implanted into their brains. An animal trial of such a device that records and remotely stores epileptic brain activity was published in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine. The trial was successful in monitoring the epileptic activity of the dogs but also had three of the seven dogs die which is 28.5% of infection from implantation (Kremen et al., 2018). While this number is still relatively low researchers must still be extremely transparent in explaining the risks that come with such a procedure to patients and participants and be extremely candid in assessing the risk/benefit comparison.
Another disease that can be treated with brain implants is Parkinson’s disease, which is a disorder in the brain that causes an overabundance of dopamine which then leads to tremors, loss of movement and eventually death (“What Is Parkinson’s?,” 2019). Currently, deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been an effective treatment in combating Parkinson's symptoms. DBS involves surgically implanting an electrode into the brain to provide constant stimulation to an area called the basal ganglia (Medical Design Technology, 2018). Researchers have been developing a system of DBS that can “self-tune” without the need for a clinician to adjust frequencies, patients in these trials are implanted with the electrode system and monitored for the duration of the trial. However, the ethical issue comes at the end of the trial when it has to be decided who is now responsible for the care of the participants if they choose to keep the implants? A similar trial using DBS to treat depression came to the solution that the company would provide batteries to the patients who chose to not have their implants removed but the patient would be responsible for any further medical care (Underwood, 2017). Research trials like these should solve this issue by putting a system in place for care after the trial, like in the previously mentioned depression trial.
While research trials for brain implants have many ethical issues of their own the applications of this research have caused some ethical turmoil in the science community. One of the main goals for the application of brain implants is to restore the use of paralyzed limbs. A trial in Australia is using brain implants to control a robotic exoskeleton that would move the paralyzed limb and has already had some success (Power of Thought, 2016). However, while the intended use for this technology is ethically sound many people are concerned about the possibility of this exoskeleton technology being weaponized. Another future use of brain implants that has stirred up concern is a DBS chip that would essentially erase painful memories, such as trauma or triggering events (Glannon, 2017). While this technology could be revolutionary for post-traumatic stress disorder treatment, it is also a scary thought that someone else could have control of what memories you have and don’t have. These concerns have become such an issue that a group of over two dozen physicians, neuroscientists, and ethicists have called for ethical guidelines to be drawn up (Experts call for ethics rules, 2017). Their proposed guidelines fall into three major categories, privacy, autonomy, and social equality. For privacy, they propose users should “opt-in” to having their information shared. As for autonomy and social equality, specifically military uses, they are calling for an international convention to set standards, like the Geneva convention but for brain technology.
- Early brain implant. (2009). In R. Carter, The brain book: an illustrated guide to its structure, function and disorders. London, UK: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc. Retrieved from https://libproxy.library.unt.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/dkbrain/early_brain_implant/0?institutionId=4982
- Epilepsy. (2019, August 10). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/epilepsy/symptoms-causes/syc-20350093.
- Kremen, V., Brinkmann, B. H., Kim, I., Guragain, H., Nasseri, M., Magee, A. L., … Worrell, G. A. (2018). Integrating Brain Implants With Local and Distributed Computing Devices: A Next Generation Epilepsy Management System. IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine, 6(Volume: 6), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1109/jtehm.2018.2869398
- What Is Parkinson’s? (2019, January 9). Retrieved from Parkinson’s Foundation website: https://www.parkinson.org/understanding-parkinsons/what-is-parkinsons
- Self-tuning brain implant could help treat Parkinson's disease patients. (2018). Medical Design Technology, Retrieved from https://libproxy.library.unt.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/2048194359?accountid=7113
- Underwood, E. (2017, December 8). Researchers grapple with the ethics of testing brain implants. Retrieved from Science | AAAS website: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/researchers-grapple-ethics-testing-brain-implants
- The power of thought - with brain implants. (2016). Electronics News, Retrieved from https://libproxy.library.unt.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1769073914?accountid=7113
- Glannon, W. (2017). Brain Implants to Erase Memories. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2017.00584
- Experts call for ethics rules to protect privacy, free will, as brain implants advance. (2017). Medical Design Technology, Retrieved from https://libproxy.library.unt.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/2006299139?accountid=7113
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