We’ve all heard about Elon Musk’s quest to develop an ultra-high bandwidth brain machine with his startup Neuralink. According to Neuralink’s official website, the brain-machine interface would have the potential to treat a wide range of neurological disorders, restore sensory and movement function, and eventually expand how we interact with each other, with the world, and with ourselves. Some Scientists have also suggested using brain implants to help treat humanity’s brain conditions from depression to PTSD and Alzheimer’s to epilepsy.
But does the future of brain implants truly have the power to improve humanity? Or is it too good to be true?
The potential foundations, of course, already exist. Deep-brain stimulation (DBS), electrodes that are implanted into a specific part of the brain and send pulses culpable areas, is already used on thousands of people to reduce tremors for people diagnosed with OCD, Parkinson’s disease and more. Researchers are starting to discover whether similar devices and new implants can help people with other complex neurological problems. Musk’s project seeks to eventually treat neurological disorders and restore motor and sensory function to those without it.
For some who are genetically predisposed to certain disorders, they may opt to snip their DNA or get their genes rewritten. Still, those with a disorder could be prescribed a brain implant, either an electrical film on the brain’s surface or a network of thin wires weaved into the brain’s anatomy.
Dr. Edward Chan, a professor of neurological surgery at UC San Francisco says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 20 or 30 years, such devices will be as ubiquitous as cardiac pacemakers.”
Brain implants may very well challenge the typical ways we think about human augmentation. These devices highlight how we can reprogram ourselves to replace and restore functions. Chang, along with UCSF colleagues, is now testing several applications for brain implants, including if it’s capable of treating mental health problems and restoring movement and speech to patients with paralysis.
Could brain implants turn someone into a different person? It’s not an unfounded concern. Certain changes to the human brain, like neurodegeneration, can cause dramatic changes in character. It’s not impossible that it could change and improve upon aggressive behavior, learning disabilities, and poor memory.
A handful of patients who have undergone implantation have identified with their device as if it became part of them or they felt controlled by it. However, it’s unsure if this can be labeled as a distorted sense of self, says neuroethicist, Dr. Winston Chiong. There is an indication in some research that it could influence complex personality traits. However, Dr. Chiong indicates that fears over whether the brain implant may threaten someone’s personhood isn’t bearing out as they collect more data. Regardless, it remains an issue to keep checking in on, especially as researchers pursue technology that is capable of treating mood disorders and other psychiatric conditions.
Now that brain implants are evolving, as artificial intelligence plays an even larger role, experts are talking about devices being developed that can monitor someone’s brain function and make adjustments in real-time. These AI-controlled implants will surely present ethical quandaries that interventions like pharmaceutical drugs do not hold. Ultimately, brain implants may make us reconsider parts of ourselves we thought were fixed or permanent.
The Impact of the Implant
Asking if we want to remain the same or change will have tremendous personal and societal implications. Neural implants could shift cultural norms. We must also remember that ideals of health or ability may make us not tolerate it in other people, opening up a series of highly ethical questions. But whether we like it or not, we’re already going down the road to implementing neural networks, so ethicists and researchers need to be prepared over the pros, cons and regulations. Increasingly, social scientists like those in UCSF’s Program of Bioethics work alongside clinical investigators to help address ethical concerns, building a roadmap during open discussions.
The story of the brain implant will soon be part of the human story — and the future that awaits future generations. It’s up to us to learn as much as possible about these emerging technologies. We should consider how they work and their potential for good, while also considering the possible dangers. Ultimately, humans need to ask themselves who they want to be and why and how we should value certain characteristics of the human experience.