Scientists are continuously improving methods to read out brain activity and adjust or control it with brain stimulation techniques. Researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience believe that these advances will lead to many new possibilities to restore brain functions that got lost or impaired as a result of an accident or disease. In the more distant future, similar technologies might also be applied to the healthy brain. According to the researchers, it is important to start considering all the consequences of such developments for our society. They explain their position in a paper that was published on 2 May in the leading journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Technology has already reached a stage in which electrodes on electronic chips that are implanted into the brain can read the ongoing activity of specific brain areas. This technique allows, for instance, that patients with paralysis control a robotic arm or computer cursor directly with their ‘thoughts’. The reverse is also possible: with similar electronic chips, information can be directly transmitted to either the peripheral nerves or the brain. Cochlear prosthesis, for instance, use this principle to let people with impaired hearing hear again, while stimulation of deep brain areas can relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
The neurotechnological applications that exist today primarily act on relatively simple brain mechanisms and the precision with which they read and write information from and to the brain is limited. However, as our knowledge of more complex brain mechanism increases and techniques to read from and write to the brain become more sophisticated, the possibilities for more advanced neurotechnology will rapidly increase as well. Progress will likely first improve the efficiency of therapeutic neuroprostheses, but sooner or later, technologies will also be considered that aim to enhance the capacities of the healthy brain. Along these lines, neuroprostheses that create direct connections between the brain and the internet, or that facilitate entirely new forms of communication based directly on brain activity are not inconceivable. In their publication, the researchers discuss both the great potential of novel neurotechnologies and their possible implications for important issues like mental privacy and human identity.
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