Dr. Michael Bruchas is a senior researcher on the team responsible for technology that has been developed in the form of a microchip implant that allows drugs to be administered to the brain. What’s next? -Video games intravenously injected into children’s veins? What does this new technology mean for main stream science and what challenging questions does it pose for neuroethicists. With rapid technological advancements like these that interfere with complex autonomous organic structures, serious moral and ethical questions abound, impinging on the field of ethics.
Though this particular device has only been tested in mice a new implant has been developed by a team of researchers that wirelessly delivers drugs to the brain without any contribution from the patient. One has to ask will the chip also be able to transmit information such as: medical history; make analysis, and possess the capacity and authority to administer a Direct Debit account to make payments for treatment. Bruchas looks forward to the future, and hopes such devices will one day be used in human subjects.
Minuscule in design,no wider than a human hair, and as imperceptible. The device is a marriage of brain implants with a remote control drug delivery system with the capacity to genetically modify individual neurons (which has Civil Liberties analysts reeling). To demonstrate the amount of control this device has over a brain, investigators made mice walk in circles by injecting a morphine-like drug directly into their ventral tegmental area (VTA), a brain region responsible for motivation and reward.
This newest advancement compares to previous techniques used on psychiatric patients in the Archaic 70’s whereby electrodes or injections of substances were directed into the brains of humans and animals
Dr. Frederic Gilbert, a Bioethicists at the Australian Research Council, councils caution. “As in many fields, the ethical questions are often raised too late in the development of novel technologies; optogenetics is no stranger to this.”
Opto-genetics is a branch of neuro-science that uses photostimulation to control neurons that have been genetically sensitized to light. This new device has optogenetic capability. This raises several ethical questions, such as, does being an optogenetically implanted person make you ‘other’ than human? With respect to the new wireless implant, who or what will control administration of the drugs? If it’s an automated system there is no oversight in real-time as it were, how does the patient retain a sense of agency?
Obtaining consent from human patients, if the technology were to cross-over to human use, could prove problematic especially if they’re mentally ill. Which poses another question: What kind of drugs will be dispensed and for what purposes? Serious moral objections to the non-medical use of cognitive enhancement pharmaceuticals such as Adderall and Ritalin—that make people “speedier” and more focused—have been made in the past. These drugs are argued to give people an edge over everyone else, and only those with resources can access them. Call on scientists to keep in mind the somber history of neuro-science and psycho-surgery.
In the 30s and ’40s, doctors and the press extolled electro-shock therapy and frontal lobe lobotomy as miracle treatments; even President John F. Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, was lobotomized. Nevertheless these treatments were adopted by the criminality and the medical constabulary alike in the torture of marginalized people. And also its use by the CIA in the research of Mind control and behavior manipulation, irreparably damaging to the recipients.
While we shouldn’t let this history prevent us from acknowledging the benefits these
disciplines have produced and their potential to alleviate human suffering in the future, it is also a sober reminder that breakthrough scientists can be selectively naive about the purposes to which their discoveries are likely to be put.
In defence of this technology Bruchas submits- “We are developing this with the intent of helping mental health disorders and neurological disease. We’re putting this knowledge out there with the idea that this is going to help people.”
Although hopeful, Bruchas remains cautious with regards to the potential magnitude of his work. “You do want to be thinking about these issues because this space does move very rapidly, and if it moves too rapidly without taking a step back and thinking about it, that’s a risk you take.”