Should we trust giant tech companies and entrepreneurs with reading our brains?

Comments open through September 26

This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News seriesBioethics-in-the-News-logo

By Laura Cabrera, PhD

The search for a brain device capable of capturing recordings from thousands of neurons has been a primary goal of the government-sponsored BRAIN initiative. To succeed would require developing flexible materials for the electrodes, miniaturization of the electronics and fully wireless interaction. Yet this past summer, it was corporately funded Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink that stepped forward with announcements regarding their respective technological investment to access and read our human brains.

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Image description: A black and white graphic of a person’s head with an electric plug extending out of the brain and back of the head. Image source: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Elon Musk, the eccentric technology entrepreneur and CEO of Tesla and Space X, made a big announcement while at the California Academy of Sciences. This time it was not about commercial space travel or plans to revolutionize city driving. Instead Musk presented advances on a product under development at his company Neuralink. The product features a sophisticated neural implant which aims to record the activities of thousands of neurons in the brain, and write signals back into the brain to provide sensory feedback. Musk mentioned that this technology would be available to humans as early as next year.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is also funding brain research to develop a non-invasive wearable device that would allow people to type by simply imagining that they are talking. The company plans to demonstrate a prototype system by the end of the year.

These two corporate announcements raise important questions. Should we be concerned about the introduction of brain devices that have the capacity to read thousands of neurons and then send signals to our brains? The initial goal for both products is medical, to help paralyzed individuals use their thoughts to control a computer or smartphone, or in the case of Facebook to help those with disabling speech impairments. However, these products also are considered to be of interest to healthy individuals who might wish to “interact with today’s VR systems and tomorrow’s AR glasses.” Musk shared his vision to enable humans to “merge” with Artificial Intelligence (AI), enhancing them to reach superhuman intelligence levels.

Time will tell whether or not these grand visions, that currently veer into science fiction, will be matched by scientific progress. However, if they ultimately deliver on their promise, the products could change the lives of those affected by paralysis and other physical disabilities. Yet, if embraced by healthy individuals such technologies could radically transform what it means to be human. There are of course sound reasons to remain skeptical that they will be used. First off there are safety issues to be considered when implanting electrodes in the brain, including damage to the vasculature surrounding the implant as well as tissue response surrounding the device. And that is what is currently known about inserting brain-computer interfaces with only a couple of electrode channels. Consider what might happen with thousands of electrodes. There remain simply too many unknowns to endorse this intervention for human use in the next year or so. There also are salient issues regarding brain data collection, storage, and use, including concerns connected to privacy and ownership.

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Image description: a black and grey illustration of a brain in two halves, one resembling a computer motherboard, the other containing abstract swirls and circles. Image source: Seanbatty from Pixabay

Beyond these concerns, we have to think about what happens when such developments are spearheaded by private companies. Privately funded development is at odds with the slow, careful approach to innovation that most medical developments rely upon, where human research subject regulations and safety measures are clear. It is the “move fast and break things” pace that energizes start-up companies and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The big swings at the heart of these entrepreneurial tech companies also bring considerable risks. When addressing sophisticated brain interfaces, the stakes are quite high. These products bring to mind scenarios from Black Mirror, a program that prompts a host of modern anxieties about technology. On one hand, the possibility of having a brain implant that allows hands-free device interaction seems exciting, but consider the level of information we then would be giving to these companies. It is one thing to track how individuals react to a social media post by clicking whether they “like” it or not, or by how many times it has been shared. It is another thing altogether to capture which parts of the brain are being activated without us having clicked anything. Can those companies be trusted with a direct window to our thoughts, especially when they have a questionable track record when it comes to transparency and accountability? Consider how long it took for Facebook to start addressing the use of customer’s personal information. It remains unclear just how much financial support Facebook is providing to its academic partners, or whether or not volunteers are aware of Facebook’s involvement in the funding-related research.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as academic partners to these enterprises may act as a moderating force on the tech industry, yet recent examples suggest that those kinds of checks and balances oftentimes fail. Thus, when we hear about developments by companies such as Facebook and Neuralink trying to access the thoughts in our brains, we need to hold on to a healthy skepticism and continue to pose important challenging questions.

Laura Cabrera photoLaura Cabrera, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Translational Neuroscience at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, September 26, 2019. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Cabrera: Should we improve our memory with direct brain stimulation?Can brain scans spot criminal intent?Forgetting about fear: A neuroethics perspective

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Dr. Laura Cabrera and co-authors published in ‘Nature Biomedical Engineering’

Laura Cabrera photoCenter Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera and co-authors Charles Sadle and Dr. Erin Purcell have an article in the August 2019 issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering. In “Neuroethical considerations of high-density electrode arrays,” the authors state that “the development of implantable electrode arrays that broadly and seamlessly integrate with brain tissue will require innovation that responsibly considers clinically relevant neuroethical concerns.”

The full text is available online via Nature (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

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Exploring life with a spinal cord injury

Spinal Cord Injury: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

Mark Van Linden photo

Mark Van Linden, MSA

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Look at him zip around in that wheelchair. He is so independent and inspirational. But I wonder how he goes to the bathroom, if he’s really as happy as he seems, does he have sex, how does that work, is he in pain, does he work? What are the health problems he has to deal with, what are medical expenses? There are many dimensions to a happy and healthy life, and everyone would agree that life is complicated. But when multiplied by a spinal cord injury (SCI), the complexity of life can be off the charts—what we used to take for granted becomes a monumental challenge. This talk will explore life with SCI from a first-person perspective.

October 16 calendar iconJoin us for Mark Van Linden’s lecture on Wednesday, October 16, 2019 from noon until 1 pm in person or online.

Mark Van Linden grew up in Lansing, MI and had a very stable and nurturing childhood. Raised by his Dad, Mark attended a private high school, played basketball in college, graduated with a BS in manufacturing, and started out in his career as a manufacturing engineer in the automotive industry. His career was going very well; seemingly right on schedule he met a girl, got married, started a family, and the American Dream was well on its way to reality. Then in 2009, it was discovered that he had an aortic aneurysm, and the required surgery would replace his entire aorta from the arch to the femoral artery. During that surgery, at age 39 with two kids ages 2 and 4, he became paralyzed from the waist down. Everything he knew was now turned upside-down, and a new life was about to begin.

In person: This lecture will take place in C102 Patenge Room in East Fee Hall on MSU’s East Lansing campus. Feel free to bring your lunch! Beverages and light snacks will be provided.

Online: Here are some instructions for your first time joining the webinar, or if you have attended or viewed them before, go to the meeting!

Can’t make it? All webinars are recorded! Visit our archive of recorded lecturesTo receive reminders before each webinar, please subscribe to our mailing list.

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Philosophy, Mental Illness, and Mass Shootings

This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News seriesBioethics in the News logo

By Robyn Bluhm, PhD

Over the past month, mass shootings have occurred in Gilroy, CA, in Chicago, in El Paso, and in Dayton. Most recently, the FBI has arrested a man in Las Vegas who had been planning a shooting spree. It’s common, after such a shooting occurs, to speculate about the mental health of the shooter. In a way, this is understandable: we cannot help but feel that anyone who could do such a thing is not mentally well. We can’t imagine what it would be like to be someone who is capable of meticulously planning and carrying out a mass killing like the one in Charleston, or Parkland, or Sandy Hook, or Pittsburgh, or Las Vegas, or so very many other places in the United States.

It’s true that some of the people who have become mass shooters have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. But there are many reasons to reject the narrative of the mentally ill mass shooter. For one thing, it does not really fit the facts: the relationship between mental illness and mass shootings is murky at best. For another, it does a grave disservice to people who have a mental illness. As Devan Stahl has shown, associating mass shooting with mental illness stigmatizes people living with mental health conditions, who already face significant stigma.

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Image description: multiple rifle-style gun are shown laying on a green surface. Image source: Phanatic/Flickr Creative Commons

Mental illness stigma is a complex phenomenon reflecting multiple beliefs. Research has shown that people tend to view those with mental illness as dangerous and unpredictable. Biological explanations of mental illness, in particular, can lead people to think that those with mental illness are fundamentally different from those who do not have such a diagnosis. Again, these beliefs are not supported by data. But they do provide people with the comforting sense that there is an explanation for mass shootings. Notably, it’s an “internal” explanation that focuses on the shooter himself, rather than on broader social and policy issues relevant to the phenomenon. And for some, that fact, too, is comforting.

How philosophy can help us think about mass shootings and mental illness

But, I think, there is another way of thinking about the link between mental illnesses and mass shootings that may actually be helpful. Rather than focusing on whether individual mass shooters (or the majority of mass shooters) are mentally ill, we can think about the similarity between mass shootings and (some) kinds of mental illness. The philosopher Ian Hacking has written about the phenomena of transient mental illness, by which he means: “an illness that appears at a time, in a place, and later fades away. It may spread from place to place and reappear from time to time. It may be selective for social class or gender, preferring poor women or rich men. I do not mean that it comes and goes in this or that patient, but that this type of madness exists only at certain times and places.”

Two aspects of his analysis may be useful here. First, he draws an analogy between these conditions and the concept of an ecological niche, which provides a place in which a species can thrive, whereas other places do not allow it to live at all.

Second, he emphasizes that categories of human beings are different from other categories: a tiger, for example, does not care whether we classify her as a tiger, whereas human beings often care deeply about how we are categorized. Because of this, categories of human beings are prone to what Hacking calls “looping effects.” He means that people and the categories into which they put them interact with and change each other. Once a category is “out there” in the world, people may come to identify with it and behave accordingly. During the 1980s, for example, mental health professionals began to see increasing numbers of people with multiple personality disorder, in part as a result of numerous books, televisions shows, and media stories that described this phenomenon. But groups of people also behave in ways that change the characteristics associated with a category. Over time, people who were diagnosed with multiple personality disorder began to exhibit more, and more differentiated, personalities.

Hacking’s analysis is useful even if we don’t think that “being a mass shooter” is a form of mental illness. (It’s also worth noting that even those who think that mass shootings are caused by mental illness don’t think that “being a mass shooter” is a kind of mental illness.) In fact, multiple personality disorder is not recognized as an illness by mental health professionals. Instead, what matters is that it was a recognizable way to behave, or, in Hacking’s words, to be a person – and also that it came into being in a particular kind of social context that, somehow, fostered this way of being a person.

Thinking about mass shootings in Hacking’s terms may help us to understand them. For one thing, mass shooters occupy a very specific niche: they exist almost uniquely in the United States during the past few decades. Appeals to mental illness as a cause can’t explain this fact. Moreover, mass shootings tend to follow a pattern – now that the category exists, members of the group tend to behave according to its rules. But (and this is the other half of the looping effect), we should also be alert to ways that the rules of the category may be changing over time. Recent mass shootings, for example, have been linked to white supremacy. It also seems to be becoming more common for mass shooters to leave a manifesto.

Perhaps most importantly, Hacking gives us a way to think about preventing mass shootings. Blaming mass shootings on mental illness implies that we can do nothing about them, especially if we view people who have a mental illness as essentially different from those who don’t have one. If men who become mass shooters do so in a very particular niche, then the way forward is to destroy the niche which lets them thrive.

Robyn Bluhm photoRobyn Bluhm, PhD, is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and Lyman Briggs College. She is a co-editor of The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, August 29, 2019. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Bluhm: “Ask your doctor” – or just check Instagram?Antibiotics: No Clear CourseTo Floss or Not to Floss? That’s not the question

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Announcing the Fall 2019 Bioethics Brownbag & Webinar Series

Green brownbag/webinar iconThe Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences at Michigan State University is proud to announce the 2019-2020 Bioethics Brownbag & Webinar Series. The series will begin on October 16, 2019. You are invited to join us in person or watch live online from anywhere in the world! Information about the fall series is listed below. Please visit our website for more details, including the full description and speaker bio for each event.

Fall 2019 Series Flyer

Oct 16 calendar iconSpinal Cord Injury: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

There are many dimensions to a happy and healthy life, and everyone would agree that life is complicated. But when multiplied by a spinal cord injury (SCI), the complexity of life can be off the charts—what we used to take for granted becomes a monumental challenge. This talk with explore life with SCI from a first-person perspective.

Mark Van Linden, MSA, is President of Adversity Solutions LLC and a spinal cord injury patient since 2009.

Nov 13 calendar iconSpeaking for the Dying: Life-and-Death Decisions in Intensive Care
Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Seven in ten older Americans who require medical decisions in the final days of life lack capacity to make them. For many of us, our biggest life-and-death decisions—literally—will therefore be made by someone else. But how will they decide for us?

Susan P. Shapiro, PhD, is a Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation.

In person: These lectures will take place from 12:00-1:00 PM in C102 (Patenge Room) East Fee Hall on MSU’s East Lansing campus. Feel free to bring your lunch! Beverages and light snacks will be provided.

Online: Here are some instructions for your first time joining the webinar, or if you have attended or viewed them before, go to the meeting!

Can’t make it? Every lecture is recorded and posted for viewing in our archive. If you’d like to receive a reminder before each lecture, please subscribe to our mailing list.

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Students present research findings at 9th annual Mid-Michigan Symposium for Undergraduate Research Experiences

Michigan State University students Marissa Cortright and Emily Castillo presented a poster at the 9th annual Mid-Michigan Symposium for Undergraduate Research Experiences (Mid-SURE), held July 24 at Spartan Stadium. Their poster, “Perceived Invasiveness of Psychiatric Electroceutical Interventions as Treatment for Clinical Depression,” presented research from an ongoing NIH BRAIN Initiative grant related to the ethical concerns and attitudes toward the use of psychiatric electroceutical interventions (PEIs) in treatment resistant depression.

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Image description: Emily Castillo (left) and Marissa Cortright (right) pose for a photo with their poster at Mid-SURE on July 24. Photo courtesy of Peggy Anderson.

Cortright and Castillo, who are both majoring in neuroscience, have been working with MSU faculty mentors Laura Cabrera, Robyn Bluhm, Aaron McCright, and Eric Achytes. Their poster specifically addressed the invasiveness of multiple PEIs­—electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), deep brain stimulation (DBS), and adaptive brain implants (ABI)—based on the analysis of semi-structured interviews with Michigan-based psychiatrists. Cortright and Castillo concluded that the results of the interview analysis “suggest that while physical features are key for assessments of invasiveness, psychological, emotional, and lifestyle effects also play an important role.”

Cortright and Castillo both enjoyed the experience of presenting at Mid-SURE. “It provided a positive and engaging environment to share my work on the project as well as develop my professional skills,” said Castillo, adding, “I left the day feeling inspired and excited to keep working on a topic that is not only important me, but relevant and meaningful to many others.”

With attendees and presenters from many institutions and disciplines, Mid-SURE provided an opportunity to share research and network with a wide variety of individuals. “Many people were excited to learn about the PEIs and the potential to help lots of patients with treatment resistant depression,” said Cortright. “I learned that many people were interested in other segments of our project, and were anticipating the further research and results. I also learned that many people had no idea that PEIs even existed, and were extremely interested in the psychiatrist perspective on these therapies.”

“By sharing the research findings, I learned how different backgrounds can influence how data is interpreted across different disciplines,” said Castillo. “For example, I had an interesting conversation with a chemist who was curious about how the use of magnets or electrical stimulation can alter the chemical balance of the brain and how that relates to invasiveness. I thought this was an interesting question and enjoyed learning about how he interpreted the data coming from a chemistry background.”

Castillo continued: “My interactions with the other students and professors sparked great conversations about the stigma surrounding PEIs and mental illness. It reminded me how critical this research is in educating the public and informing future guidelines and policies surrounding these treatments.”

As the second year of the project approaches, Cortright and Castillo look forward to continuing the research and analysis. “I’m looking forward to looking deeper into the other neuroethical considerations and understanding how these topics vary between psychiatrists, patients, and the general public,” shared Castillo.

Please visit the project webpage to learn more about the NIH BRAIN Initiative grant “Is the Treatment Perceived to be Worse than the Disease?: Ethical Concerns and Attitudes towards Psychiatric Electroceutical Interventions,” led by Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera.

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International Neuroethics Society on “Neuroethics at 15”

Laura Cabrera photoThe International Neuroethics Society (INS) Emerging Issues Task Force has a new article in AJOB Neuroscience on “Neuroethics at 15: The Current and Future Environment for Neuroethics.” Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera is a member of the task force, which advises INS by providing expertise, analysis, and guidance for a number of different audiences.

Abstract: Neuroethics research and scholarship intersect with dynamic academic disciplines in science, engineering, and the humanities. On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the formation of the International Neuroethics Society, we identify current and future topics for neuroethics and discuss the many social and political challenges that emerge from the converging dynamics of neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence. We also highlight the need for a global, transdisciplinary, and integrated community of researchers to address the challenges that are precipitated by this rapid sociotechnological transformation.

The full text is available online via Taylor & Francis Online (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

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