Not Science Fiction: Brain Implants

While reading a headline in The New York Times on Friday, the term "Brain Implants" couldn't help but pop out and grab my attention. 

Brain implants, or neural prostheses, evoke mental images of mad-scientists, corrupt governments, and super secret organizations and programs from movies like The Bourne Identity. So of course my interest was peaked.

But brain implant technology has been developing for good, it appears. On Thursday, a new report in The Journal of Neural Engineering details how rhesus monkeys have been used to develop a probe threaded through the forehead into the cerebral cortex that can "sharpen decision making and restore lost mental capacity" in monkeys.

rhesus monkey.jpg

The experiment had the monkeys learn to play a matching game, where they observed the functioning of neurons. They used recordings of "correct" signal patterns to replay while the monkeys were in the middle of playing, and with that help their performance would improve 10%.

Researchers then dosed the monkeys with cocaine to impair performance, which fell by 20%. With the probe turned on, however, "they do a little better than normal," says Robert Hampson, one of the study's authors.

Further investigation revealed that research on neural prostheses has been going on for at least a decade. Many experiments have been with mice, which is why this recent study is so compelling - rhesus monkeys are much more similar to human beings cognitively. According to the NYT, this is "the first demonstration in primates of the sort of brain prosthesis that could eventually help people with damage from dementia, strokes, or other brain injuries."

If brain implants can improve mental function, they could one day help those who suffer from brain damage or degeneration (they could even treat Alzheimer's!). At the same time, let's be realistic: these aren't being developed exclusively for the needy - these could be used to increase the capacity and performance of a normal brain. Thinking of this in terms of science fiction, this could certainly have implications for national security - how could you defeat a team of spies and secret agents with super-human intellects? How can you protect civilians from being manipulated and preyed upon by these people?

If celebrities and the uber-wealthy can get human growth hormone injections and cures for AIDS, how will the availability of brain implants affect society? Will the wealthy switch from paying their children's way into exclusive schools to buying chips for all their children? Will affording brain implants become a pre-requisite for getting into an Ivy-league school? Will normal human minds be able to compete with "enhanced" ones? How far will the wealth gap widen?

brain enhancement.jpg
I think that every technological advance comes with consequences, and sometimes scientists have a responsibility to be wise about what they uncover. Brain enhancements definitely pull some ethical cords for me. I'm really interested in what you guys think.


While I found your blog interesting, I too found it a little scary. It definitely brings up a lot of ethical questions. What conditions are considered severe enough that a brain implant would be necessary or appropriate? It also makes me think about the "miracle cure for mental illness" in the 1940s and 50s that was the prefrontal lobotomy. Who knows what kind of implications the brain implant can or will have.
In tying with the use of the prefrontal lobotomy to "treat" mental illness, I wonder if this probe can also help with certain kinds of mental illness. If this technology could help people with brain damage or degeneration, could it also help people who were born with these conditions in addition to those who developed it due to an accident or disease later in life?

Caitlin - taking that a little further, could brain implants be used to "correct" "mental illnesses?" The line between mental illness and personality can be blurry at times, and brain implants could certainly eliminate the personality traits an authority deems undesirable.

If brain implants can control access to our neural pathways, I can see brain implants being a quick solution to revolutionary/anti-governmental thought or "dangerous ideas."

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