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Probe the Lobe: The Innovation of Brain Chips in the Field of Neuroscience
Probe the Lobe:
The Innovation of Brain Chips in the Field of Neuroscience
Edwin Smith, an antique dealer, discovered the first instance of neuroscience, the study and diagnosis of diseases of the brain, in the 1800s when he bought an ancient papyrus from the 17th century B.C. that consisted of hieroglyphics of around 50 cases about patients who endured traumatic spinal cord injuries. Thousands of years after this ancient papyrus was written, many doctors began using trephination, the act of drilling a hole into the skull to relieve pressure in the brain. Trephination was not very effective and soon fell out of use. Hundreds of years later in the 1930s, electroshock therapy, a practice in which psychologists use electricity to treat mentally ill patients, became popular. Soon, this practice was banned after it proved to be torturous and ineffective. Neuroscientists became determined to find success in the field; they created magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) to allow doctors to see inside a patient’s brain and track brain activity. Now scientists are working on chips to implant in the brain to aid neurological disorders. Because scientists are reaching hopeful results with brain chips and because neurochips improve the quality of life of patients by increasing independence, neurochips are an up-and-coming technology that are just as good if not better than existing medicinal treatments.
Many scientists are already testing neurochips on animals and are reaching optimistic results. For instance in 2010, scientists in Calgary, Canada, made and tested a neurochip to see if a certain medicine will work on a person. The scientists successfully meshed neurons of a snail with a neurochip and will continue into human testing in hopes of inventing a product that can decipher which drug will work best, paving the way for similar chips with more innovative purposes (“Calgary”). The Calgary scientists are hopeful about the effects of the discovery and what they may mean for the future: "Being able to monitor the dialogue between cell and silicon chip is a crucial step toward one day manipulating it, raising the possibility of neurochip implants that can operate artificial limbs, help restore sight or language after a stroke, or repair neurons that malfunction in a wide range of brain disorders" (“Calgary”). These chips pave the pathway for more scientists to create chips that can repair neurons in patients with brain malfunctions. In addition, IBM's Neurogrid closes the processing speed gap between supercomputers and neurons by separating tasks rather than forcing every input to go through each chip. IBM’s 2005 supercomputer took 4800 times longer to process the same information than human neurons, so IBM’s Neurogrid is much more efficient than the typical slow supercomputer. In creating this chip, Kwabena Boahen, an engineer at Stanford University, hopes to help others understand how sick people’s brains process information: “[Neurogrid]... could help scientists follow how brains afflicted with epilepsy or schizophrenia process information and to then develop treatments” (Rosenblum). While Boahen has created a chip to increase processing speeds, his main focus is to improve scientists’ understanding of how neurons work. Various other scientists are also creating similar products to Calgary’s chip and IBM’s Neurogrid. Sam Deadwyler, a professor of Physiology at Wake Forest University, implanted the memories of thirty rats into one rat’s brain using external electrodes in 2013, creating inherited skill sets the rat learned in an instant (Adee). Ranulfo Romo, a professor at University of Mexico, has proven that when a monkey's memory is implanted into another monkey, the monkey perceives the memory as his own, meaning the chips have detailed sensory systems that may be able to aid doctors in understanding epilepsy patients and soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries (Adee). Newcastle University researchers have even created artificial pathways between the brain and muscles to restore natural motor functions in patients with spinal cord injuries (“News”). By testing the chips on animals, scientists are reaching hopeful results.
Additionally, brain chips, when approved, will enhance the quality of life for patients by increasing independence and retraining patients who have lost functions due to neurological disorders. Specifically, the chips will help those with brain damage by restoring forgotten functions. The chips could aid brain-damaged people to relearn important functions such as brushing teeth or driving a car (Adee). A cap of external electrodes that allows humans to share memories can ultimately rehabilitate brain-damaged patients who have lost pivotal functions: “The technology-- known as brain-machine interfaces-- has restored hearing and sight in the form of cochlear and retinal implants. It has also helped people control prosthetic limbs” (Adee). Patients who cannot move but can still think may benefit from neurochips that control prosthetic arms, which can decrease caretaker responsibilities. Other patients may even simply need a chip to restimulate neurons to regain movement (Dobkin). Similarly, neurochips can improve the quality of life by increasing independence. Patients can use neurochips to change the environment without the help of a nurse. For instance, they can move a bed or wheelchair to avoid bedsores (Dobkin). Bruce Dobkin, a neurology professor at the University of California, states that the neurochips could help many patients that deal with very restrictive treatments every day: “Many of the patients… are fed by stomach tubes, and require mechanical ventilation, frequent turning in bed or wheelchair to prevent skin ulcers, measures to empty the bowels and bladder, and other nursing care” (Dobkin). Because these brain chips could help many to care for themselves, the chips improve the quality of life by giving patients much more independence. Neurochips can also help patients avoid infections, attention disorders, concentration disabilities, and learning difficulties due to immobility (Dobkin). Neurochips will increase the quality of life of a patient by increasing his or her freedom.
Although neurochips have many great benefits, others believe they carry a negative connotation as invasive and a danger to one’s individual self. Some people see the chips as invasive because most patients receiving them may not be in the frame of mind to give consent. Consent to insert an implant requires the patient to be mentally sound, but these chips are designed specifically for people who are not of sound mind (Adee). In this way, the issue of consent may become blurred when the patient cannot vocalize his or her desires and the family of the patient cannot agree (Dobkin). Also, some people believe that neurochips endanger individuality, specifically in chips that replace one’s memory. Some scientists believe an individual’s memory is what sets him apart. In this way, giving someone a memory that is not his own erases individuality, especially when he cannot perceive if the memory is even his own. This loss of individuality may even create a disconnect from making decisions by oneself (Adee). Some scientists, such as Michael Dertouzos, a Computer Science director at MIT, believe that neurochips are an intrusion: “[U]nnecessarily tapping into the brain is a violation of our bodies, of nature, and for many, of God’s design” (Maguire and McGee). In the fictional futuristic article “Play It Again, Psam,” a hacker of a brain chip can completely control the mind and body of patients and create an army of humans to follow his “new human race” by creating a singular mind to control all the people he has hacked (Stewart). While this situation may seem possible at first, most medical brain chips are serving different functions such as allowing patients to use prosthetics, use their limbs again, or checking the effect of certain medications. Even the memory-aiding brain chips are not actually changing anyone’s memories; the chips are reconnecting the brain to the body’s nerves to allow old muscle functions to return. Also, procedures for gaining consent are already in place, and individuality is not held in one’s memories. Close relatives can make decisions for patients who are not of sound mind or even in comas (Adee). The United States Food and Drug Administration has even approved a brain implant to combat tremors in Parkinson’s patients, proving that the implants are safe (Maguire and McGee). Humans have used devices to aid against disability since the invention of peg legs; now, much of the population uses some sort of device to help them remember dates, walk, heal broken bones, or track blood sugar levels. The idea that brain implants endanger individuality is due to restrictive views of body sanctity and false information given by the sci-fi genre. According to Maguire and McGee, sanctity of the body is usurped when people need a device to cure them: “[P]hysical integrity of the body should be preserved even if it involves a bodily ‘mutilation’” (Maguire and McGee). For example, if someone is experiencing kidney failure, they do not protect their “sanctity of the body.” They put themselves on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Neuronal technology is not being taken seriously because many people have deeply held beliefs tracing back to the sci-fi genre painting biotechnology in a misleading dystopian way such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Even media that appear to show neurotechnology in a positive light depict it with negative connotations such as The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton, where a man gets brain chips to prevent seizures but eventually uses the chips for pleasure. This negative connotation has no evidence to back it up, yet it still holds scientists back (MacKeller). While some believe neurotechnology endangers individuality and consent, individuality is intrinsic, not held in memories, and modes of gaining consent are already being used; therefore, brain chips are a technology that can compete with existing treatments.
As scientists continue to reach promising results from animal testing and increase the independence of terminally ill patients, neurochips may become a possible replacement or alternative for existing treatments. The author of the ancient neuroscience papyrus could never have imagined this innovation. As neuroscience has struggled to regain a positive connotation after the torturous techniques of early neurobiology, new diagnostics and techniques have been invented such as MRIs and EEGs, but all these innovations have led up to the creation of neurochips.
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