Category: Optogenetics

complex ethics of emerging brain technologies

Imagine infusing thousands of wireless devices into your brain, and using them to both monitor its activity and directly influence its actions. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and for the moment it still is – but possibly not for long. Brain research is on a roll at the moment. And as it converges with advances in science and technology more broadly, it’s transforming what we are likely to be able to achieve in the near future. Spurring the field on is the promise of more effective treatments for debilitating neurological and psychological disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and depression. But new brain technologies will increasingly have the potential to alter how someone thinks, feels, behaves and even perceives themselves and others around them – and not necessarily in ways that are within their control or with their consent. This is where things begin to get ethically uncomfortable. Because of concerns like these, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) are cohosting a meeting of experts this week on responsible innovation in brain science. Berkeley’s ‘neural dust’ sensors are one of the latest neurotech advances.   Where are neurotechnologies now? Brain research is intimately entwined with advances in the “neurotechnologies” that not only help us study the brain’s inner workings, but also transform the ways we can interact with and influence it. For example, researchers at the University of California Berkeley recently published the first in-animal trials of what they called “neural dust” – implanted millimeter-sized sensors. They inserted the sensors in the nerves and muscles of rats, showing that these miniature wirelessly powered and connected sensors can monitor neural activity. The long-term aim, though, is to introduce thousands of neural dust particles into human brains. The UC Berkeley sensors are still relatively large,

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Tomorrow, I will be speaking at the Marshal M. Weinberg Seminar on Optogenetic Manipulation of the Brain at the University of Michigan – not a subject I must admit that I am that familiar with.  Fortunately, there are other speakers who will be doing much of the heavy-lifting, including Karl Deisseroth – a leading optogenetics researcher, and author of a recent in-depth article in Scientific American on controlling the brain with light.  My role – I suspect – is to bring a broader social and technological perspective to the benefits and risks of this rapidly emerging field as part of the closing panel discussion – neatly titled “Mind Control: What do you think?” Here, I must confess that I’m going to be relying an awful lot on the preceding talks to round off my education in optogenetics before I launch in.  But I have been doing some preparatory work on optogenetics, and in particular the plausibility of its possible use in manipulating brain function at a sophisticated level. By way of background, optogenetics is a relatively young field that revolves around the study and use of specific genetic sequences – opsins – to enable the modulation of cellular and sub-cellular processes in the presence of light.  Its roots stem back to early research into optically-modulated biological processes in microorganisms.  But it wasn’t until a number of fields began to converge that the possibility of utilizing these seemingly esoteric processes began to emerge. For decades now, it has been known that some microorganisms have the ability to respond to light by producing  proteins that switch or otherwise modify specific cellular processes. This might have remained a curiosity if it wasn’t for the increasing ability to cut and paste functional genetic sequences from one species to another, and the realization that to

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

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