The use of neural prostheses in clinical settings to aid in the repair of the nervous system is increasingly being practiced. These neural prostheses interact directly with the nervous system, facilitating the restoration of neural function damaged by injuries and disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
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The loss of neuronal motor signal frequently causes partial or complete degeneration of motor activity, which the existing treatment measures are often unable to address. Developments in neuroscience and nanotechnology and Microsystems, however, yield a lot of potential for the creation of therapeutic modalities that integrate technical instruments into neuronal structures, thus promising effective treatment for conditions that affect the nervous system (Clausen, 2008).
Proponents of the use of technology to improve human traits regard that technology could help in actively creating people to mend humans and change the world. Therefore, with continuous research, it is also anticipated that in the near future neural prostheses could be employed in improving the cognitive, memory, sensory, and learning abilities of even healthy individuals (DANA, 2002).
While the use of neural prostheses can help enhance the quality of life for patients afflicted by neuronal illnesses and injuries, these implants also raise an array of ethical issues in relation to controlling the human brain directly with machines. The major ethical issues raised by the use of these devices include the safety of the interventions, and possible alterations of the identity and personality of the subjects.
Use of neural prostheses could also lead to emergence of neural digital divides based on socioeconomic classes (Clausen, 2008). Further, enhanced memories could imply unfair competition in life, disadvantaging those who do not receive enhancers.
The issues raised, thus, revolve around the potential benefits of these prosthetic implants to both individuals and the society, in relation to the perceived risks, and the implications of improving human capabilities through the use of electronic implants. These ethical issues are founded on various underpinnings such as fears and hopes, market forces, philosophical and moral grounds (DANA, 2002).
Process of Memory Storage in the Brain
Memory consists of complex neural events involving various parts and mechanisms of the brain. Basically, the memory system entails the cortex and the associated hippocampi, the amygdale, temporal lobe, and neurons. Memory stores are made up of multi-modal nerve cell connections distributed in the entire nervous system, requiring the neurons to make new networks and synthesize new protein molecules.
Various stimuli emanating from thoughts, senses and actions affect particular sets of neurons and neurotransmitters (Berger, 2005). When a neuron in the brain is stimulated, a low voltage electrical impulse is transmitted to the axon. This electrical stimulation triggers the release of neurotransmitters, subsequently moving across the synaptic gap between the neurons and attaches into their corresponding receptors.
The activated neurons also transmit the received signals to other relevant neurons. If the same signals are received persistently, synaptic modifications occur with great success, leading to physical alterations on the synaptic connections and formation of folds and ridges (Clausen, 2009). Human memories are divided into three classes, which include short-term memory, long-term memory and sensory memory.
These classes of memory stores serve to filter the huge amount of information humans encounter each day. Long term memory is stored in various areas of the cortex in order to equip one with the capacity to recover any lost information in case one’s memory gets lost. Generation of this memory involves intricate reconstruction and encoding from the various storage elements throughout the brain (Clausen, 2009).
Sensory memory is involved in the storage of information collected by the sense organs such as the ears and eyes. Sensory memory is short-lasting due to the relatively little attention that is accorded sensory information. Short term memory usually stores information as long as the feedback is available.
Short term memory is achieved through neuronal communication involving the frontal and parietal lobes. When the cerebral cortex is stimulated by sensory stimuli and held in the sensory memory longer than 8 seconds without any interruption, the stimuli becomes encoded in short term memory and gets stored (Berger, 2005).
Neural prostheses are implantable computer microchips that can be employed in the repair of any damaged area of the brain, and to some degree confer the brain with recovery capabilities. A neural prosthesis helps in the repair of damaged brain parts through replacement of the neural circuitry, by transmission of electrical signals that activates or suppresses the neural tissue, or by responding to the electrical impulses from the brain and utilizing them in the manipulation of computer and miniature devices.
A neural prosthesis, thus, helps in recovery of lost functions through artificial reconstruction of neuron to neuron networks to facilitate communication with the health circuitry, thereby enhancing the healing process (Laryionava & Gross, 2011). Neural prostheses can interact with the nervous system, potentially contributing to recovery of impaired functionalities such as sight, movement, and hearing.
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Compared to other procedures employed in the improvement of neural functions, neural prostheses are usually performed through invasive surgical interventions. This is a cause for the numerous ethical issues associated with prosthesis (Rosahl, 2007).
Where neural implants would be implanted
Implants are usually placed in neural connections that have been severely damaged. Neural prostheses would help in recovery of motor, sensory or cognitive-communication impaired by damage or illnesses. Cochlear implants are the most important neural prostheses currently in use. They are used to treat deafness, whereby when they become stimulated by sound, they cause activation of the auditory nerve and restore the sense of hearing (Rosahl, 2007).
Another possible neural prosthetic is the retinal implant, which would help in enhancing the visual system by generating an image through electrical stimulation. Other areas where neural prostheses would be placed include the spinal cord to help in pain relief, and brain tissues to help in restoring or enhancing cognitive abilities by utilizing the brain’s plasticity.
The use of neural prostheses in the brain tissue would help in addressing a number of conditions that interfere with one’s cognitive functioning. These include “paralysis, aphasias, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury and hippocampal detriments” (Rosahl 2007, p. 133).
How Neural Prosthesis Would Work to Enhance Memory
Neural prostheses could be potentially employed in improving an individual’s memory to levels exceeding one’s natural endowment. Many therapeutic agents used for treating conditions of the nervous system have been shown to possess the capability to enhance normal functioning.
For instance, narcolepsy drugs are already in use in the military to maintain wakefulness, while therapeutic agents for depression are used by individuals not diagnosed with psychiatric disorders as mood enhancers. Neural prostheses can, thus, be used to improve memory in a way that is different from repair of dysfunctions (Laryionava & Gross, 2011).
Ethical Aspects of Neural Prostheses
Personality and self image issues
It is argued that placing prosthetic implants in the human brain is unethical, given that the brain forms the physiological basis of the fundamental aspect of what being human means. Changing of a person’s brain through the use of technology could lead to unpredictable alterations in people and human personality. Technological manipulation of the brain could bring about mental alterations, thus changing personality and self-image.
Reshaping the human brain could change the cognitive abilities that define man, for example, consciousness and self-perceptions. The possibility of directly implanting devices that have capabilities of enhancing memory is perceived to infringe on the sanctity of life, reducing humans to machine status that can be manipulated by just manipulating the implanted software (Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009).
It has already been acknowledged that interventions in the neuronal tissue are significantly associated with a high risk of personality alteration. Resultantly, worries abound that after one’s brain has been implanted with neural prostheses, and the person no longer remains the same (Laryionava & Gross, 2011). Studies have indicated that although patients are usually satisfied with neural prostheses interventions, family members report personality changes such as confusion, depression and euphoria (Rosahl, 2007).
As the use of neural prostheses increases in the clinical settings, there is a need for clarifications to be made on which manipulations of the brain and its functions would change the human being, and which of these manipulations are of medical significance. Given the delicate nature of the neuronal tissues, some of the manipulation procedures may have severe effects, such as terminating one’s life or loss of self-consciousness. These possible consequences may trigger serious ethical issues about the necessity of neural prostheses (Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009).
The use of neural prostheses as memory enhancers would also alter an individual’s personality, including their cognitive abilities. Enhanced memory, new mentality and improved reasoning could generate new ideologies, and perspectives in an individual’s relationships, creating new avenues of pleasure and irritation.
This means that the prostheses would change an individual from their previous identity. Continuity in a person’s identity is regarded as being significant in the achievement of moral obligations, thus neural implants demean the moral foundations on which human moral values are established in the society (Pinel, 2011).
The use of neural prosthetics to enhance memory could also create ethical issues that are related to cultures. It is conceptualized that memory enhancers could lead to emergence of a subculture that is different from the mainstream cultures. In addition, these enhancements may modify people’s perceptions of normality, potentially depicting those who have not received the enhancements as sub-normal.
This would create a situation where many people become influenced to submit to memory enhancements (Pinel, 2011). This could also have negative implications on the social context for people who do not receive the memory enhancers in the future.
Like other novel technologies, the use of neural prosthetics in enhancing memory could have implications on the social institutions, with a possibility that it could widen social gaps. Patenting of this technology and its marketing could likely limit the level of access, thus raising ethical concerns in relation to its affordability. This may also mean that only those with economic potential would afford these prosthetics, thus stratifying people along with socioeconomic classes and giving rise to neural digital divides (Clausen, 2009).
Neural prostheses are gaining acceptance in clinical settings for repair of the nervous system. Neuronal injuries are bound to be enhanced by use of neural implants, thus improving quality of human life. While these neural implants sound promising in enhancing human life, serious ethical issues have been raised regarding possible misuse of the technology.
Neural prostheses can be used for non-clinical purposes, such as improving memory in healthy people. Such uses are bound to create a digital divide, with certain individuals having more benefits than others due to access and use of neural prostheses. The gadgets could also alter what it means to be a human being by interfering with personality and self-image.
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Clausen, J. (2008). Moving minds: Ethical aspects of neural motor prostheses. Biotechnology Journal, 3(12), 1493-1501.
Clausen, J. (2009). Man, machine and in between. Nature, 457, 1080-1081.
DANA (2002). Neuroethocs: Mapping the field. The DANA Foundation. Web.
Laryionava, K. & Gross, D. (2011). Public understanding of neural prosthetics in German: Ethical, social and cultural challenges. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics International Issue, 20(3), 434-439.
Pinel, J. P. (2011). Biopsychology, 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Rosahl, S. K. (2007). Neuroprosthetics and neuroenhancements: Can we draw a line? Virtual Mentor, 9(2), 132-139.