Legal, ethics and engineering experts discuss user-controlled brain implants

Mary Guiden

The recent WeRobot conference in Seattle covered regulating robots, teleoperated robotic systems and robot economics. Tony Dyson, the man who built R2-D2 for "Star Wars" was the featured speaker on Friday evening; his presence at #WeRobot resulted in lots of Twitter posts with photos.

On Saturday, a team of CSNE researchers—with law student Patrick Moore—took part in a discussion about "Personal Responsibility in the Age of User-Controlled Neuroprosthetics," one of eight papers accepted by conference organizers. In the paper, authors tell the story of Janet Parsons, 64, who is living with an advanced stage of Parkinson's disease. Her disease has not been responsive to conventional therapy, making her a prime candidate for implantation of a deep brain stimulation (DBS) system. 

Janet is not a real person, the authors note. And this type of system is not widely available at the current time. To date, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved DBS as a treatment for essential tremor, Parkinson's disease, dystonia and obsessive compulsive disorder. Medtronic, the Minnesota-based medical device manufacturer, said that more than 125,000 patients worldwide have received DBS therapy with one of their systems.

But the authors use her story to explore issues and questions that are likely to arise as deep brain stimulation systems—specifically ones that are controlled by the user—are implanted in people. In the paper, Janet's implant has allowed her to return to doing many activities that, prior to surgery, were impossible. She starts hiking again and returns to work, thanks to the increase in fine motor control.

She also is involved in a car accident when she's not quite able to multitask (driving and reprimanding her grandchildren, who are acting up in the back seat, at the same time). This leads to a discussion of negligence, which is defined as the failure to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances. Janet also experiences difficulties in the workplace; she falsifies records and misappropriates funds to cover up investment losses.

Questions that came up from the audience and moderator, Meg Leta Jones, assistant professor of Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University include:

  • Can a person [with a deep brain stimulation system] be obligated to maintain a given state of mind?
  • What does it mean to have volitional control [over such a system]?
  • How does volitional control change our interpersonal relations?
  • Is this the future of modern medicine and, if so, should I be worried about it?

Big strides have been made with deep brain stimulation, said Margaret Thompson, PhD student in the Dept. of Electrical Engineering and a member of the BioRobotics Lab. New electrodes are designed differently than they had been in the past, and researchers have identified new places to put the electrodes to get better results, she said.

Jeffrey Herron, also a PhD student in Electrical Engineering, discussed the opportunities and challenges that exist with DBS systems. "We don't have 24/7 data on neural signals, and DBS provides a signal source," he said. Herron said that researchers have to rely on altruism when engaging people in studies, since one of the first things they tell people—when walking them through the consent form—is that they will not benefit from the research, he said. 

Despite the questions raised through the stories of this fictitious person, Moore emphasized the positives that can happen with DBS systems in his closing remarks. "I hope people see this technology as something that empowers them, and it becomes aspirational," he said.

Co-authors on the paper include Moore, Timothy Brown (PhD student in the Dept. of Philosophy), Herron, Thompson, Tamara Bonaci (PhD student in the Dept. of Electrical Engineering), Sara Goering (professor, Dept. of Philosophy) and Howard Chizeck (professor, Dept. of Electrical Engineering).