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Grey matter, red tape

How obstacles to workable brain-computer interfaces may be overcome

NEUROTECHNOLOGY has long been a favourite of science-fiction writers. In “Neuromancer”, a wildly inventive book by William Gibson written in 1984, people can use neural implants to jack into the sensory experiences of others. The idea of a neural lace, a mesh that grows into the brain, was conceived by Iain M. Banks in his “Culture” series of novels. “The Terminal Man” by Michael Crichton, published in 1972, imagines the effects of a brain implant on someone who is convinced that machines are taking over from humans. (Spoiler: not good.)

Where the sci-fi genre led, philosophers are now starting to follow. In Howard Chizeck’s lab at the University of Washington, researchers are working on an implanted device to administer deep-brain stimulation (DBS) in order to treat a common movement disorder called essential tremor. Conventionally, DBS stimulation is always on, wasting energy and depriving the patient of a sense of control. The lab’s ethicist, Tim Brown, a doctoral student of philosophy, says that some DBS patients suffer a sense of alienation and complain of feeling like a robot.

To change that, the team at the University of Washington is using neuronal activity associated with intentional movements as a trigger for turning the device on. But the…