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Ethics profs fret over cyborg brains, mind-controlled missiles

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A British ethics group has started a consultation on the morality of messing about in the human brain in ways that could result in thought-controlled weaponry and super-human capabilities.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics wants to get boffins, policy-makers, regulators and anyone working with or hoping to use futuristic technologies such as brain-computer interfaces, deep brain stimulation and neural stem cell therapy to send in their views on whether poking around in our grey matter is the right thing to do.

These technologies are mostly being developed to try to help people with severe brain injuries or neurological diseases like Parkinson's disease and stroke, but they are also being picked up for military applications and to enhance normal brain functions for commercial gain.

“Intervening in the brain has always raised both hopes and fears in equal measure,” said Thomas Baldwin, chair of the study and Professor of Philosophy at the University of York.

“Hopes of curing terrible diseases, and fears about the consequences of trying to enhance human capability beyond what is normally possible. These challenge us to think carefully about fundamental questions to do with the brain: what makes us human, what makes us an individual, and how and why do we think and behave in the way we do.”

Hi-tech warfare applications creating super-soldiers who can control missiles with their minds are a particular concern for the council.

“For example if brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are used to control military aircraft or weapons from far away, who takes ultimate responsibility for the actions? Could this be blurring the line between man and machine?” Baldwin asked.

BCIs, where a person's brain signals are measured and then converted into output, have already worked in a few reported cases. Medical benefits include a paralysed person being able to control their wheelchair with their mind or a computer being able to talk for people who are mute or have difficulty with speech by processing signals from their brains.

Military applications for BCIs – for example, remotely controlling weapons and machines with the mind – are already being researched and tested. BCIs are also being looked for their commercial value, for example, they could be used for playing video games via brain signals.

Brain stimulation, zapping the brain with electricity or magnetism in order to change brain activity, is already being used in some forms.

Repetitive Transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), which is applied externally, is used to treat depression and also being investigated for use in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Alzheimer's and pain disorders.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS), where the zapping comes from an electrode and wires placed in and around the brain during surgery, is being used to treat Parkinson's and OCD, while research is ongoing for patients with epilepsy, strokes and Tourette's.

DBS is already suspected of causing various complications in patients, including strokes, confusion, speech disorders, depression and possible damage to the brain tissue around the implant.

The third technology the council wants to look into – neural stem cell therapy – is the least well understood. Boffins are looking at the possibility of growing neural stem cells to inject into the brain to replace nerve cells lost due to Alzheimer's disease, strokes or Huntingdon's disease.

According to the council, there's a lot of interest and funding for this research and small-scale human trials are already happening, but the treatment is not yet widely available in the UK.

The concerns with this therapy are a risk of tumours formation and the possibility of changes in mood, behaviour or ability.

The council's consultation is open until 23 April and a report on the issue is expected sometime next year. ®

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