Are Brain Implants to Control Moods Ethical?

If neuropharmaceuticals are ethical, so are machine-brain interface technologies.



Will it be possible someday to tweak your mood with a machine? And if such mood organs ever do appear, will it be ethical to use them?

This month's Society for Neuroscience conference featured two teams of researchers who want to use brain-machine interfaces to treat mood disorders. One group, based at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, recorded the brain activity of six people who'd had electrodes implanted in their heads as a treatment for epilepsy. The scientists then correlated the subjects' brain activity with their reported moods. "By comparing the two types of information, the researchers could create an algorithm to 'decode' that person's changing moods from their brain activity," reports Nature. Once the neural pattern for an upbeat mood has been identified, the researchers want to see whether implanted electrodes could stimulate a subject's brain cells in a way that reproduces that sunny mood.

The Columbia University neuroscientist Christine Denny has already achieved just that result in mice. Denny is able to record the neural pattern of a mouse that feels safe and is in an apparently good mood. When she puts the mouse into a situation where it feels fearful, Denny replays the neural pattern and the mouse engages in behaviors that suggest that it is remembering its earlier feeling of being safe and happy.

The other mood-machine team at the meeting is mapping the brain activity associated with different behaviors, such as concentration and empathy. Based on these neural maps, the researchers, based at Massachusetts General Hospital, have developed algorithms designed to guide the application of electrical pulses in subjects' brains. The goal is to improve their performance on test tasks, such as identifying emotions on faces. "The researchers found that delivering electrical pulses to areas of the brain involved in decision-making and emotion significantly improved the performance of test participants," reports Nature.

Both teams ultimately want to learn how to stimulate the brain without having to implant electrodes. The machine-brain interfaces being developed Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk's Neuralink startup may be an appropriate model.

Both teams' work is being funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. One salutary goal of such research would be to use machine-brain interfaces to lift the mental burden of veterans and active soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. On the other hand, it is not too far a stretch to imagine the military using the technology to dampen the neural patterns for empathy and fear.

Nature also cites the concerns of Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist Wayne Goodman, who worries about "overcorrecting emotions to create extreme happiness that overwhelms all other feelings." This fear is reminescent of "wireheading," a phenomenon in Larry Niven's Known Space science-fiction stories where people use electronic brain implans to stimulate the pleasure centers of their brains.

Niven was inspired by the work of psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner, who in the 1950s discovered the mammalian pleasure center by implanting electrodes into the brains of rats. The rats could activate the electrodes by pushing a lever. "Some rats would self-stimulate as often as 2000 times per hour for 24 hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation," notes HuffPost.

It is entirely appropriate to be on alert for governments misusing machine-brain interface technologies to manipulate people. But when it comes to people voluntarily altering their own minds, the authorities should butt out. If it is ethical to use neuropharmaceuticals to treat depression or anxiety, surely it is also acceptable to use a machine-brain interface to accomplish the same therapeutic goals more effectively.

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  1. Will it be possible someday to tweak your mood with a machine? And if such mood organs ever do appear, will it be ethical to use them?

    And will they be mandatory?

    1. That’s the big question.

      Though if this does become more of an issue we should all look towards the eminent scholars on this subject, The Kids In the Hall, and their Opus on the subject, Brain Candy.

      1. Oh, dear, it’s being funded by DARPA. Well that’s an ethical problem right there.

        1. As a libertarian, it upsets me both that DARPA tends to have violent reasoning for their investments, and also that it means the research is probably very inefficiently done.

          1. How ironic.

            I suspect that the ultimate goal of this type of research, at least as far as DARPA is concerned, is two-fold:

            A. Brain control of remote heavy weapons platforms
            B. Mind-Reading of POW

            I know it sounds crazy, but this would not be the first time DARPA has invested in batshit theories on long-shot hopes.

            1. C. Manchurian candidate politicians.
              D. Remote controlled assassins/patsies.

            2. I don’t know where this could be applied ultimately. The first application that occurred to me is in treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress.

              Of course the best treatment is in prevention. Let’s put less people in horrible situations.

          2. I doubt DARPA is significantly more or less efficient than other government funded research. It would be interesting to see comparisons between government funded vs private funded research in different areas, to find the relative efficiency. Then compare those relative efficiencies between departments.

      2. Vastly underrated movie.

        It should be blue.

    2. …the researchers want to see whether implanted electrodes could stimulate a subject’s brain cells in a way that reproduces that sunny mood.

      So, really, what they’re doing is electrically stimulating already existing neurochemical reactions as a substitute for chemical agents that already do more or less the exact same thing? I’m not so sure I’d prefer brain surgery over taking a pill, but I’d definitely agree that there isn’t much of an ethical conundrum here since it’s just an alternative way of doing what we already do only with a larger range of potential therapies.

      If I’m misunderstanding and they’re trying to create some sort of electrical pattern mimicry…well I don’t know why you would bother when we have a better idea of how neuroreceptors work than we do about the brains electrical patterns. Maybe that’s the point, in that they’re trying to figure out how that works? That would be a slightly different ethical calculus, I’d think.

    3. You know where this is all gonna end up? With the skyscraper climber from Permutation City.

  2. But when it comes to people voluntarily altering their own minds, the authorities should butt out.

    And the chance that the authorities will butt out = 0. See: War on Drugs.

    1. I’m waiting for electrical stimulation of the brain to create effects like those of drugs to be outlawed, even while those chemicals are naturally occurring in the brain. I mean, that’s what we’ve already done but that seems like a next step.

  3. They are ethical if they can be shut off or removed whenever the person wants to do so. I can always choose not to take a pill.

    1. True enough, and it would likely help solve the problem where people who suffer from certain issues like schizophrenia stop taking their medication because they’re ‘cured’. It’s easier to just ‘decide’ to stop taking a pill, it’s a lot harder to convince your doctor that your brain electrodes that keep your from losing your shit need to be popped out of your skull because ‘you’re cured now’.

      Sadly, that is something of an ethical problem in that if you could cure someone’s mental problems with an implanted device, but the crazy person doesn’t want the device, should you do it anyway? It’s not that hard to resolve though, since those people generally don’t have their own power of attorney and such.

    2. I mean come on, we all make fun of John for being a chubby chaser, but if you could turn a dial to be attracted to fat chicks, wouldn’t you?

      1. Just think of all the new excuses for being sexually predatious. Hey, my wife turned the dial and never turned it back…

  4. “Louis Wu was under the wire when two men came to invade his privacy”

  5. PKD got there first; Penfield mood organ:

    Dial mood #503, Agreement of wife in all matters.

    Dial mood #499, The desire to watch TV no matter what’s on it.

  6. A musk venture funded by the government. How novel.

  7. “Machine-brain interface technology” was NOT my nickname name in college.

    1. That’s because it was mine.

      1. One of them anyway.

  8. I can see military applications for this.

  9. That’s terminal, man

  10. You know who else had electrodes sticking out of his brain?

    1. Are they in a place where I can see them?

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