Last Wednesday, Bwog Writer Jessica Weinfeld attended the seminar Innovation in Neurotechnology, Innovation in Governance?” where four speakers gave talks on the intersection of neurotechnology and government regulation.

Last Wednesday evening in the Schapiro Center’s Davis Auditorium, a crowd gathered to hear about the interesting intersection of two complex fields: neuroscience and law. The audience heard from four different speakers: Dr. Nina Frahm, a Postdoctoral Scholar at Aarhus University; Dr. Banerjee, the Vice President of Research and Development at Synchron; Dr. Ramos, Vice President of Neuroscience and Society at the Dana Foundation; and Professor Yuste, a Professor of Biological Sciences and Neuroscience here at Columbia University.

From left to right: Dr. Frahm, Dr. Banerjee, Dr. Ramos, and Dr. Yuste

Dr. Nina Frahm began with an introduction on neurotechnology and its many accomplishments. Neurotechnology encompasses any technology that interacts with the brain. By detecting brain activity, neurotechnology can provide valuable information and potential solutions for mental and psychiatric disorders as well as issues in the workplace and educational system. Research and development for such technologies has received funding from the private sector as well as the public sector, beginning under George H. W. Bush in the 1990s.

However, as this technology develops to the point where it can effectively interact with the brain itself, approaching the point of science fiction, it is important to enact regulations. We must be careful, Dr. Frahm emphasized, so that we know the line where treatment of brain disorders becomes enhancement, and collected brain data becomes commercial exploitation.

In the new field of neuroethics, bioethicists can discuss how best to protect individuals’ privacy, autonomy, and agency with government regulation. With international nonbinding resolutions and recommendations, or “soft law,” we can establish expected standards for companies’ and countries’ behavior. With “hard law” rules, legal systems can enforce more defined standards in the court of law.

In Chile, neurorights, or rights aimed at protecting brain activity, are enshrined in the constitution for liberty of decision-making, fair access to brain-changing technology, and the privacy of brain data. Chile is the first nation in the world to cement these rights into hard law. In 2006, the European Union had a public engagement “Meeting of Minds” to discuss the implications of neurotechnology, but no clear laws emerged. 

In much of the world, there remain no hard regulations for neurotechnology. Dr. Frahm quoted the director of the Translational Center for Neurotechnology as saying, “We’re pushing the frontier in terms of regulation…These scenarios currently have no frame and are open to all kinds of abuse. We understand this is something special.” 

Dr. Banerjee, who comes from a research background and holds a PhD in electrical engineering, spoke next. After working for several years in the corporate research world, she went into neurotechnology because she wanted to create innovations that would be impactful and meaningful for many people. She now works on implantable neurotechnology, which is directly implanted into patients’ brains and thus very heavily regulated. In deep brain stimulation, for instance, electrodes are implanted directly into the brain to send electrical signals into the brain to treat debilitating mental conditions, including changing tremor response.

The startup Synchron, where Dr. Banerjee works, is developing a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) in order to allow paralyzed patients to use technology with their thoughts. Synchron has already succeeded in feeding electrodes into paralyzed patients’ brains by route of the jugular vein. It is the goal of the company that the implanted electrode will be able to interpret brain signals and serve as a computer mouse for paralyzed patients, enabling them to communicate with the world and interact with their environment.

“If you have a mouse, now the world unlocks… suddenly, you can turn on the lights, you can change the temperature,” said Dr. Banerjee, explaining how Synchron’s neurotechnology can help paralyzed patients reconnect with the world. Synchron has succeeded in implanting their device in a handful of patients across the world. Dr. Banerjee herself had just returned from visiting a few of them, and she was hopeful that the device could greatly help them. Dr. Banerjee said that she hoped that “the headlines and the fear” don’t inhibit scientists’ ability to make a difference with neurotechnology.

After Dr. Banerjee, Dr. Ramos advocated for an effective governance of neurotech, one that is proactive, inclusive, and practical. Governance, she said, is not purely formal regulation, but also extends to the manner in which the government and people interact with technology and allow it to shape the world order.

In discussing the need for proactive governance, Dr. Ramos reflected on her years at the NIH, where she worked from 2012-2021. The NIH funded a flagship technology effort called the Brain Initiative, which aimed at “revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain” by developing technologies to record and modulate brain function at excellent resolutions. The original blueprint of the Brain Initiative included: “Because the brain gives rise to consciousness, our thoughts, our most basic human needs, mechanistic studies of the brain have already resulted in new ethical and social questions.” Before the research had even begun, there was already a proactive approach to possibly ethical questions that could arise. The flagship also connected ethicists with researchers and looked over neurotechnology efforts to preemptively identify ethical questions.

Inclusive governance, which seeks to include all members of society in the decision-making process, is often dismissed because of the false deficit model, Dr. Ramos says. This model states that because the public is uneducated, they cannot be trusted to make scientific decisions; were the public educated, they would agree with scientists. Dr. Ramos called this a myth, explaining that social scientists have shown that resistance to technological advances typically stems from value conflicts, access concerns, and distrust of regulatory institutions. At the Dana Foundation, where Dr. Ramos currently works, grants are given based on a vision of beneficial brain science that benefits society, including for educational initiatives. “Public engagement is a critical component of neurotechnology governance,” Dr. Ramos said.

Governance, Dr. Ramos says, should also be applied with a practical frame. She showed a few examples of hyperbolic media headlines, one of which falsely suggested that scientists might be growing sentient brains in labs. One practical application of neuroscience, she suggested, could be in law, as neurotechnology could help with decisions to incarcerate or rehabilitate individuals who have been convicted of a crime. “Neuroscience is advancing rapidly,” she said, “often outpacing public dialogue about both the potential harms…[and] the potential benefits.”

In Dr. Yuste’s talk, he again emphasized the need for practical law to regulate the use of neurotechnology. “We’re talking about our thoughts, our perceptions, our memory, our emotion, our imagination, our decision-making, our conscience…it comes out of the neural circuits that we have.”

Neurotechnology can be of great benefit to science in discovering more about the brain and treating brain diseases. Future innovations may eventually even allow for a brain-computer interface that would replace gadgets like cell phones. But the technology could also be abused.

In a study of thirty neurotechnology companies, all were found to allow themselves to sell brain data to third parties. So far, the Chilean constitution is the only law that protects brain activity to prohibit these practices. However, similar constitutional amendments are being voted on in Brazil and Mexico. Furthermore, in the EU, it may be possible to expand the reading of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to include prohibitions on collecting and repurposing brain data.

In an era of rapidly-changing possibilities, it seems, everything is possible. And our lack of current regulation on neurotechnology may soon cause issues for the rapidly-evolving field.

Featured Image via Event Description

Photo by Bwog Staff