Neurotechnology and Ethics

Why in News?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is organising an international conference in Paris, France to address the ethical implications of neurotech devices that collect brain-wave data.
  • This conference aims to establish a global ethical framework to ensure individual freedom of thought, privacy, and protection of human rights.  
  • With the growing potential of neurotechnology to address neurological problems, concerns have been raised regarding its impact on personal identity and privacy.

What is Neurotechnology?

  • Neurotechnology is defined as the assembly of methods and instruments that enable a direct connection of technical components with the nervous system. These technical components are electrodes, computers, or intelligent prostheses.
  • They are meant to either record signals from the brain and “translate” them into technical control commands, or to manipulate brain activity by applying electrical or optical stimuli.
    • From bioelectronic medicine that improves the quality of life to brain imaging that revolutionizes our conception of human consciousness, this technology has helped us to address many challenges.
  • Neurotechnology encompasses all technologies developed to understand the brain, visualise its processes and even control, repair or improve its functions.

What are the Ethical Concerns Related to Neurotechnology?

  • Privacy Issues: The use of neurotechnology can potentially reveal highly personal and sensitive information about an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and mental states.
    • Combined with artificial intelligence, its resulting potential can easily become a threat to notions of human dignity, freedom of thought, autonomy, (mental) privacy and well-being.
  • Cognitive Enhancement and Inequality: Neurotechnologies aimed at enhancing cognitive abilities raise concerns about fairness and equality.
    • If these technologies become available only to a privileged few or exacerbate existing social inequalities, it could lead to an unfair advantage for certain individuals or groups, creating a “cognitive divide” in society.
  • Psychological and Emotional Impact: The ability to manipulate or access brain activity raises ethical concerns regarding the psychological and emotional impact on individuals.
    • For example, deep brain stimulation or neurofeedback techniques may have unintended consequences or side effects on an individual’s mental well-being, personal identity, or autonomy.

What is Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)?

  • It is a neurosurgical procedure that involves the implantation of a medical device called a neurostimulator, which delivers electrical impulses to specific regions of the brain.
    • DBS works by altering the electrical signals in targeted brain regions, effectively “resetting” or normalising the neural activity
  • DBS is primarily used to treat neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, dystonia, and some cases of epilepsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
    • Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder that affects the central nervous system.

How can the Ethical Concerns Surrounding Neurotechnology be Resolved?

  • Informed Consent: Ensuring that patients have a comprehensive understanding of the risks, benefits, and potential outcomes of neurological interventions is crucial.
    • Healthcare providers should engage in transparent and thorough discussions with patients, providing them with the information necessary to make informed decisions about their treatment options.
  • Ethical Review Boards: Establishing independent and multidisciplinary ethical review boards can help evaluate the ethical implications of neurology research and interventions.
    • These boards should consist of healthcare professionals, ethicists, legal experts, and patient advocateswho can assess the potential benefits, risks, and ethical implications of proposed interventions.
  • Maintaining Privacy and Confidentiality: Safeguarding patient privacy and confidentiality is of utmost importance in neurology.
    • With the advancement of technologies like brain-computer interfaces and deep brain stimulation, it is crucial to implement robust privacy protocols and ensure that patients’ sensitive information is protected.
  • Equity and Access: Ethical concerns can arise when access to neurological treatments and interventions is limited by factors such as cost, geographic location, or social disparities.
    • Efforts should be made to promote equity and ensure that these interventions are accessible to all individualswho can benefit from them, regardless of socioeconomic status.

What is UNESCO?

  • About:
    • UNESCO is a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN). It seeks to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture.
      • Its Headquarter is in Paris, France.
    • Members:
      • The Organization has 193 Members and 12 Associate Members.
        • UNESCO has announced that the United States intends to rejoin the organisation and settle over USD 600 million in outstanding dues
      • Membership of the United Nations carries with it the right to membership of UNESCO.
        • States that are not members of the United Nations may be admitted to UNESCO, upon recommendation of the Executive Board, by a two-thirds majority vote of the General Conference.
      • Objectives:
        • Attaining quality education for all and lifelong learning
        • Mobilising science knowledge and policy for sustainable development
        • Addressing emerging social and ethical challenges
        • Fostering cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and a culture of peace
        • Building inclusive knowledge societies through information and communication
        • Focuses on global priority areas – “Africa” and “Gender Equality”.
Source: DTE

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