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Cognitive Technology: How Far Do We Go?
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Thu, Sep 27th 2012
As an Alzheimer's advocate as well as someone who cares deeply about our nation's veterans who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, I am always excited to read about a study that focuses on treating these types of conditions. But the study I read about today made me, well, take pause.
The study was published in the Journal of Neural Engineering, a journal whose existence I was not aware of until now. Just think for a minute about the phrase "neural engineering." Now think about similar concepts, such as "genetic engineering," and their ethical implications. Hmmm.
Anyway, these researchers constructed a very unique brain implant that improved cognitive performance and decision making in monkeys. Sounds good so far, doesn't it? The device was designed to manipulate brain activity so that the brain avoids mistakes and makes good decisions.
How in the heck does it do that? Well, when a monkey (or a person, for that matter) makes a decision, choice, or judgment, it's accompanied by a complex sequence of neural activity, where brain cells "talk" to each other in a specific combination. In this study, the researchers first taught the monkeys to choose a certain image from a group of similar images. When they had learned the task relatively well, the researchers used the brain implant to record the neural sequence associated with the correct choice.
This recorded sequence was then "fed" to the monkeys' brains - specifically to their prefrontal cortexes, where many complex decisions are made. Guess what happened? After being fed the correct neural sequence, the monkeys' performance jumped 10 percent.
However, these monkeys were not experiencing any kind of brain damage. To test whether the implant would actually help a damaged brain, the researchers gave the poor monkeys cocaine until they were performing poorly without the implant. When the coked-up monkeys were then fed the correct neural sequences, their performance bumped back to above normal range.
I can't deny the impressiveness of the study or its implications for treating people with brain disorders. It would be wonderful if a device could actually help people with dementia, traumatic brain injury, and similar diagnoses function more independently through making better decisions.
But here's my concern: The types of decisions humans encounter on a daily basis are astronomically more complex than choosing an image out of a group of similar ones. For most of these decisions, there is not just one correct answer; instead, there are myriad ways to respond depending on the situational details as well as the individual's personality, history, and values.
How in the world could a device be programmed to account for this level of complexity without invoking the spirit of Big Brother? It certainly feels like the creator of the device would be making pretty important decisions about right and wrong and imposing those neural sequences on the prefrontal cortexes of those unaware of its implications.
I smell a serious ethical conundrum regarding the applicability of this device. I'm not saying the research should be abandoned, but I sincerely hope the neural sequences in the brains of the developers encompass a sensitivity for the human condition.
Hampson, R. E., Gerhardt, G. A., Marmarelis, V., Song, D., Opris, I., Santos, L., Berger, T. W., & Deadwyler, S. A. (2012). Facilitation and restoration of cognitive function in primate prefrontal cortex by a neuroprosthesis that utilizes minicolumn-specific neural firing. Journal of Neural Engineering, 9(5), http://iopscience.iop.org/1741-2552/9/5/056012/article.
Thank you! - Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. - Sep 28th 2012
Thank you for your comment, Dr. Forman. I agree that I hope only good comes from this kind of research!
Technologies and Medications - Dr. Allan Florman - Sep 28th 2012
I work as a psychiatrist and I think that the technologies and medications needed to predict and prevent mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s are still in the early stages of development, but I hope that this research will almost certainly lead to better treatments.