The media coverage made it sound like something out of a science fiction movie. When Rajesh Rao, a computer scientist at the University of Washington, demonstrated the first simple brain-to-brain interface with colleague Andrea Stocco in late August, headlines across the globe proclaimed, “Mind meld now a ‘reality’,” and “Researcher remotely controls colleague’s body with brain.” The reality behind Rao and Stocco’s new technology, however, was a far cry from the kind of Star Trek “mind control” that some reporting implied. Their work, along with new advances in brain/machine interface (BMI) neurotechnology, raises an important question: How can both the scientific community and regular readers think critically, yet hopefully, about news from innovative brain research programs?
Brain-to-brain communication, minus peer review
Earlier this year, Duke University’s Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneering researcher in BMIs, demonstrated brain-to-brain communication between two rats. Building off that work, as well as his own research program in BMIs, Rao called in the media to watch his and Stocco’s simple non-invasive human-to-human brain interface at work. At one end of campus, Rao, wearing an electroencephalography (EEG) cap, played a simple video game with his mind. That cap read the electrical activity in Rao’s brain, sending it via Internet across campus to a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coil perched over Stocco’s brain. By thinking about hitting a “fire” button, the activity from Rao’s brain activated the TMS coil, resulting in the involuntary movement of Stocco’s index finger. It was an exciting finding—with a definite cool factor—and was picked up by the media immediately.
Many scientists were critical of Rao and Stocco’s decision to go public before publishing the study in a peer-reviewed journal. Rao, however, says that, as many other labs were working on similar studies, they felt the need to announce the results to avoid being “scooped.”
As competition for scientific funding becomes more heated, we may see more innovative research programs following suit, says Patricia Churchland, a neuroethicist at the University of San Diego and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. “My own preference would be to see such work first announced in peer-reviewed venues,” she says. “But when funds are hard to get, it becomes more important to be first.”
Rao acknowledges the importance of peer review to the scientific process and says he and Stocco are preparing their results to submit to a journal. But he also argues that an early announcement was important to fostering a discussion about the many issues surrounding brain-to-brain communication. “We do feel that we have achieved one of the goals of announcing our results early, namely, to get a conversation started on the ethical and moral issues arising from brain-to-brain interfaces before the technology gets too far ahead.”
Framing the conversation
Churchland thinks that Rao and Stocco’s announcement was done responsibly and sensibly. “In my view, they indicated that no one was transmitting thoughts, you couldn’t make someone do something they didn’t want to do, and that this work was all in the early stages,” she states. Karim Jebari, a philosopher who focuses on the ethics of novel neurotechnologies at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, agrees but argues that it’s also important that sensational findings be accompanied by a strong dose of reality.
“We should have a public discussion of such results in the newspapers and media that avoids scientific cliché. We don’t need to talk about Terminator or Robocop—it’s too much of a departure from what’s actually possible,” he says. “Instead, universities, newspapers, and policy-makers should be having a reasonable, critical debate about the realities of these new technologies, both how they may be used today and how they might be used tomorrow.”
When discussing the neuroethics of BMIs, the issues of safety, reliability, and autonomy often come up. For the most part, those same issues are at play with a brain-to-brain interface—but what is unique to this new technology are the ethical questions of what it means to communicate information directly without using speech or movement. Rao says that brain-to-brain interfaces may one day help people share verbal or abstract information, allow communication between people who speak different languages, or network brains so they can work cooperatively to solve problems. He is frank when he says those are distant possibilities but says the work still has a lot to offer today. “In the interim, research in brain-to-brain interfaces will likely generate new ways of decoding information from the brain and new ways of delivering information to the brain, both of which have immediate applications in designing new sensory and motor prosthetic devices for the paralyzed and disabled,” he says.
Andreas Demetriades, a neurosurgeon at King’s College Hospital in London, says that any discussion of brain-to-machine or brain-to-brain interfaces needs to be grounded in ethics and, most importantly, the practicalities of actual use. “Patients want hope. But when we give them hope, when new studies like this promise hope, it’s our duty to be realistic,” he says. “It is easy to get blinded by the ‘wow’ factor. So many of these new findings are quite exciting but the public needs to hear realistic information which is put into real context—including what these developments can really do to how long it takes for these developments to get to a point where they can actually be applied in a clinical setting. We don’t do enough of that now.”
Churchland says that responsible reporting by scientists and journalists is key. “You need to be careful about what is said,” she says. “It is exciting to push forward on new ideas but we need to be clear that we don’t know how far it will actually go when we start to talk about the implications.”
Rao agrees. “The most important point is to remain skeptical about news headlines relating to neurotechnology since they often tend to exaggerate what has been achieved,” he says. “It’s important for lay readers to know that we still have much to learn about the human brain and we are quite far from achieving the sort of ‘mind control’ or ‘mind meld’ popularized by science fiction stories and movies.”