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Dec 12, 2010

Contacting the brain aspects of a technology assessment of neural implants

Contacting the brain aspects of a technology assessment of neural implants.

Biotechnol J. 2008 Dec;3(12):1502-10

Authors: Decker M, Fleischer T

The public interest in neural implants has grown considerably in recent years. Progress within related research areas in combination with increasing--albeit overly optimistic and indiscriminate--mass media coverage have led to the impression that the possibilities of neural prosthetics have grown enormously. But a closer look reveals that the reasons for the intensified interest are varied and cannot be attributed to technical progress alone. Some neural prostheses that have been under development for many years have not left the clinical development phase despite intensive research activities. Other implants, like cardiac pacemakers and cochlea implants, are mature products that have already been implanted in a large number of patients. From the public perspective and in media reports, progress in the development of neural implants is associated with new achievements in other fields of neuroscience. Communications on new applications of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) may suggest that a number of cognitive functions are now easily accessible with technological means. The fact that the interpretation of the results of fMRI studies depends on many conditions and is partly disputed also within the scientific community has been discussed in many publications but only very limited, in the general media. Besides this, research results and implementations in the area of electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography have sparked further debate on the question of free will, on determinism and indeterminism, and have attracted a large media response. The purpose of this paper is to discuss some societal and ethical aspects of neural implants from a technology assessment perspective. Technology assessment (TA) aims at providing knowledge about impacts and consequences of (new) technologies as well as about political and societal ways of dealing with them. It reflects about implementation conditions of technology and potential technology conflicts. Over the last years, neural implants became a subject for TA since they have gained a higher attention in both the political arena and the general public. Especially the ethical and social implications of technologies that electrically stimulate the brain and the possibilities of changing personality traits, changing moods, and perhaps enhancing human cognitive capabilities are central issues in related discussions. In this paper, we want to briefly summarize some of the key arguments as well as topics for future discussion and research.

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