Mapping the human brain: we need to make sure ethical and legal questions don't get left behind

In early April 2013, the Obama administration announced an ambitious plan to "map the human brain." Most media reports focused on the incredibly exciting, possible medical advancements that could result from the funding. But buried or ignored in many of the stories was a hugely important detail: exactly half of the funding will come from the Department of Defense’s far out research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The Guardian report on the initiative was typical:

The Brain Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) will launch with $100m of federal funding, and there are hopes that it could create thousands of jobs in spinoff scientific and technological enterprises.

The funding – a tiny fraction of the $2.7bn that the Human Genome Project cost US taxpayers between 1990 and 2005 – will come from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation.

The President announced the program with great fanfare, describing amazing and futuristic-sounding medical advancements that could result from the brain mapping investment:

Imagine if no family had to feel helpless watching a loved one disappear behind the mask of Parkinson's, or struggle in the grip of epilepsy. Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home. Imagine if someone with a prosthetic limb can now play the piano or throw a baseball as well as anybody else, because the wiring from the brain to that prosthetic is direct and triggered by what's already happening in the patient's mind.

What if computers could respond to our thoughts or our language barriers could come tumbling down. Or if millions of Americans were suddenly finding new jobs in these fields – jobs we haven't even dreamt up yet – because we chose to invest in this project. That's the future we're imagining. That's what we're hoping for. That's why the Brain Initiative is so absolutely important.

Unlocking the secrets in our most complicated organ would undoubtedly change the course of human history. Many of the goals of the project are admirable and, if scientists succeed, could help us fight brain degeneration and neurological disease. 

The Guardian continues:

The goal is firstly to try to shed light on the development of distressing and increasingly widespread neurological diseases such as Alzehimer's and Parkinson's, as well as conditions that develop in childhood such as autism, and acute afflictions that leave people severely disabled like stroke – and hopefully find new ways of treating them.

Beyond that, the project will help scientists understand how the brain works when it is functioning as it should. "The Brain Initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought," said the White House announcement.

"These technologies will open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior."

The NPR report on the project, meanwhile, didn’t even reference the Department of Defense.

But USA Today did, writing: "In its first year, $50 million of funding would come from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which pays for prosthetic research aimed at helping paralyzed soldiers."

That sounds completely unobjectionable and lovely, but will the DARPA funded research focus exclusively on "helping paralyzed soldiers"? 

Army Times digs a bit deeper into the military research piece of the brain mapping program, and acknowledges that the DARPA research is likely to raise a host of ethical questions that go far beyond anything related to prosthetics.

DARPA hopes to build tools that can view, measure and control the brain from the cellular and neuronal to the macroscopic levels, [DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar] said.


DARPA and the Presidential Commission for the study of Bioethical Issues also will investigate the ethical, legal and societal concerns raised when scientists begin tinkering in peoples' brains, according to administration officials.

Indeed, any greater understanding of the human brain for healing purposes can also be put to more sinister use. We need to grapple with these possible futures as soon as possible, before the technologies exist and market and government forces act above or outside the public process to expedite their production.

The possibilities are frightening.

Brain computer interface technology, for example, "can be used to manipulate" people, or even kill. A Defense Intelligence Agency scientist described the military’s interest in mind-reading technologies, which depend on a fuller understanding of the human brain: "For the intelligence community, what we're interested in are going to be devices that you can use remotely...We can create a fantastic map of deception in fMRI, but what we use for national security has to be something that we can train anyone to use fairly easily, that's fairly portable, and not outrageously expensive."

And not all of this is so far off. Brown University researchers have already "succeeded in creating the first wireless, implantable, rechargeable, long-term brain-computer interface."

The military is fully aware of the potentially explosive nature of much of this research. On April 16, 2013, DARPA director Arati Prabhakar spoke before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities. She acknowledged the ethical issues raised by the research.

DARPA plans to build on its past and ongoing research to help advance a new understanding of brain function to treat injury, create new brain-machine interfaces, and inspire new algorithms and hardware.

We ensure our work adheres to laws and regulations. In new and uncharted territory, we reach out to a variety of experts and stakeholders with different points of view. In many instances, technology solutions can be part of the answer to new concerns. But we recognize that at their heart, these are societal questions that require a broader community be engaged as we explore the technological frontier.

The research "adheres to laws," the DARPA director assures us. That sounds nice, but it isn't hard to do. That's because we don’t have laws that cover things like mind reading or brain-computer interface systems. We don’t even have a law to protect the government from reading our emails without warrants.

The brain mapping research is indeed "new and uncharted territory," as Prabhakar says. 

The question is how we as a society decide to use what we learn out of the research. These are questions — we will not have instant answers — but we must engage in discussion not just among scientists and technologists but within a broader community.

I couldn’t agree more, and I hope she and her agency commit to transparency and public accountability throughout its research into the brain and any subsequent development of related technologies. But DARPA isn’t the most open of government agencies, by a long shot, and so holding Prabhakar to this commitment will most likely require sustained public pressure. 

In order to ensure that whatever incredible technological and scientific leaps and bounds achieved by the agency’s mad scientists don’t thrust us head on into a nightmarish future, we need to know more about what the research looks like, and have a stake in making plans about how it's used. If we don’t know what’s possible, we can’t have a conversation about how we want to deploy the research.

There’s nothing more sacred than the sanctity of our own thoughts, the privacy of our own imaginations. Let’s make sure we keep it that way, no matter what the brain mapping project unearths.

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