An article in Scientific American titled “Scientists Set Sights on an Implantable Prosthetic for the Blind” tells about a Boston neuroscientist who is “developing a device that may someday help the blind by sending images directly to the brain.”
That’s an extraordinary advance, and seems certain to be just the first step toward near-miraculous prosthetic implants that someday soon not only will allow the blind to see, but could restore healthy function to all manner of disabled people.
For example, implantable deep brain stimulation (DBS) approaches already are being used successfully to treat chronic debilitating depression, as well as Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.
According to this article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
It [DBS] is being studied as a treatment of last resort for disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome, obesity, anorexia, stroke recovery, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, cluster headaches, chronic pain and addiction.
Deep brain stimulation uses electric current to change the intricate communication system of the brain, but while the mechanics of the surgery have been almost perfected, researchers still debate exactly what it is they are doing that makes people better.
But people do get better.
In trials involving patients with severe depression and debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, who never left their homes or were trapped in lives constrained by repeated rituals, DBS offered help where other treatments had failed.
Of course, the next level of such devices might be those that would correct not only disabilities, but also things that might be called ‘defects’. The problem there, however, is who gets to decide what is a defect and what is not.
In the second episode of the “Power of Small” public TV series that I wrote about last week, the idea was raised of using DBS not just for treating depression and other illnesses, but as a voluntary stimulant for “normal” people who just want to feel happier from time to time. Why not allow responsible adults to purchase their own implants for triggering the release of endorphins?
Perhaps regulations will be introduced to try to prevent such “abuse”—but then imagine the black market potential that would create.
Alternatively, reformers might propose that we use implants to treat offenders with known criminal tendencies or antisocial disorders.
But why stop there? Why not give everyone an implant that would limit destructive aggression? Or another that would prevent harmful lying?
The March 13 issue of Discover magazine includes a story titled “Has Science Found a Way to End All Wars?” It doesn’t directly deal with the near-future scientific probability that humans could be bioengineered to make them less warlike, nor with the huge ethical issues that will arise when that becomes possible, although the research the article describes might lead one to think in that direction.
Maybe now is the time for more large-scale discussion of such questions to begin. With medical technology progressing so rapidly, and—looming over the horizon—with nanomedicine, which could make all other implant therapies look like child’s play, we really need to get people thinking about the new world that shortly awaits us.