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Bioethics council consults on brain technologies

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a consultation on emerging neurotechnologies, including brain-computer interfaces, neural stem-cell therapy and deep brain stimulation.

The consultation runs until 23 April and is looking to gather views from researchers, patients, medical professionals, policymakers and the wider public. The council plans to publish a report in 2013.

The ethics council says that although many of the technologies can potentially be developed for use in medical treatments, there is also interest from sectors such as the military and computer gaming industry.

In the hands of the military, it says, such technologies could be used to develop weapons controlled by brain signals.

Brain-computer interfaces could also be used to help paralysed people operate a wheelchair or people with extreme speaking difficulties communicating via a computer voice.

The consultation document asks about people’s experience, expectations and concerns for brain-computer interfaces.

The project also aims to collect views on neurostimulation, in which electric or magnetic pulses are made to affect brain activity in specific brain regions. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is already used to treat depression, while deep brain stimulation—which requires an operation to insert an electrode into the brain— is used to treat Parkinson’s disease and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The last area to be probed is neural stem-cell therapy, which the council says is “less well understood than other types of brain surgery”. Risks include the formation of tumours or unwanted changes in the brain.

“Many of these technologies are in the early stages of research, and patients who have high expectations of recovery or rehabilitation may sometimes be left disappointed and frustrated if the treatment doesn’t live up to expectations,” said Thomas Baldwin, chairman of the study and a philosopher at the University of York.

“The development of these technologies for use in warfare may be more troubling for some.

“For example if brain-computer interfaces 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?”