DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory program will attempt to develop implantable technology to bridge gaps in the injured brain and restore normal memory function to people with memory loss caused by injury or disease. (Credit: DARPA)

Ethicists Argue as Disabled Embrace Brain Implants

Brain implants have been going on since 2016 with the experimental “Braingate” program designed to give people with healthy brains who are disabled by paralysis, limb loss or neurodegenerative disease the ability to communicate with a computer and to control wheelchair movements.

The only problem is that the neural implants are wired, which leads to a build-up of scar tissue in the brain that interferes with the signal and will make it impossible to continue the trial program that has improved the lives of test subjects like Dennis DeGray who has been able to communicate through a computer link via email, despite being paralyzed.

DeGray and others are optimistic that Elon Musk’s plan to introduce a wireless Neuralink implant could be their chance to live a more normal life. The implants are being tested on monkeys, but Musk hopes to start human trials by next year.

While the Utah array used in Braingate has about 400-500 electrodes, Neuralink could have as many as 10,000, making it vastly more powerful. Musk isn’t interested in helping disabled people, but rather boosting human intellectual ability. His company raised $158 million to pursue development.

” ‘Our goal is to record from and stimulate spikes in neurons in a way that is orders of magnitude more than anything that has been done to date and safe and good enough that it is not like a major operation,’ said Musk in his presentation, adding that the procedure would be more like laser eye surgery than brain surgery. Medical concerns drive the device’s development, according to Musk, but he also worries about the threat posed by artificial intelligence and believes this could provide a way of keeping up with it.”

Other companies, such as Paradromics, are also racing to get their versions of a brain implant to market. The company, led by founder and CEO Matt Angle, said Paradromics hopes to  begin a clinical trial in the early 2020s. The company has raised about $25m, mostly from the defense agency DARPA.

Meanwhile, some scientists worry that the technology would enable governments to read your mind (a la “Minority Report”), some ethicists fear that the technology is moving too fast for humanity to prepare for it and some theologians think people like Musk are playing God.

The Royal Society, the UK’s academy of sciences, warns that brain implants could allow the potential for abuse by governments, which could “read minds” and exploit people who could become telepathic. They want the UK government to establish an investigatory body to monitor them and potentially craft regulations.

“Neural interfaces ‘pose new risks: the risks of moods or thoughts being accessed by companies, governments or others; risks to privacy and human rights; and the risks of widening social inequalities,’ the report states. They could even change the very nature of what it means to be human, it says.”

Healthcare magazine discussed the array of brain implant technologies ramping up, including “Kernel“:

“Kernel is the brain child of multi-millionaire Bryan Johnson, formed with the sole purpose of augmenting human intelligence. Aided by researchers at NYU, MIT, Columbia, USC, and Northwestern University, the company is developing its own hardware and software to treat neurological diseases such as epilepsy, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. “

Another is from Synchron, a U.S.-based neural interface company, which is developing The STENTRODE™, the world’s first endovascular electrode array in a minimally invasive implantable device designed to interpret signals from the brain.

“The STENTRODE™ may ultimately help diagnose and treat a range of brain pathologies, such as paralysis, epilepsy and movement disorders. It has the potential to fundamentally change the way of life for patients with a wide range of neurological disorders.”

In spite of all the potential to ameliorate disorders and to help disabled people, as well as boost intellectual capacity up to 35%, at least one Christian-oriented website questioned whether the implant could “wind up violating God’s design.”

“Bioethicists say implanting brain chips involves serious ethical concerns. When the debate was still young, roughly 20 years ago, Michael Dertouzos wrote that ‘even if it would someday be possible to convey such higher-level information to the brain — and that is a huge technical ‘If’ — we should not do it. Bringing light impulses to the visual cortex of a blind person would justify such an intrusion, but unnecessarily tapping into the brain is a violation of our bodies, of nature, and for many, of God’s design.’ “