Is there a Reasonable Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow?: Legal Ethics, Brain Stimulation and Neuroprosthetics

Angela Fralish, MJLST Invited Blogger

As expert bioethicist Dr. Walter Glannon remarks, “Interventions in the brain raise general ethical questions about weighing the potential benefit of altering neural circuits against the potential harm from neurophysiological and psychological sequelae.” Laws governing human subject research for these interventions mandate that “risks to subjects are reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits.” Modern brain technologies in neuroprosthetics make the harm/benefit analysis challenging because there are many unanswered questions surrounding neuroprosthetic implementation.

So what is a neuroprosthetic? Neuroprosthetic devices use electrode muscle and nerve stimulation to produce muscle contraction and restore motor function. Basically, since the brain controls the body, a device is put on the brain telling it to make the body work. Through neuroprosthetics devices, a person may restore movement by bypassing nervous system damage which allows greater independence in daily living. To someone whose dependence is caused by non-working body parts such as blindness, Parkinson’s or spinal cord paralysis, this technology holds great potential for a higher quality of life.

However, the use of a neuroprosthetic may involve negative side effects. Some are more behavioral such as gambling and addiction while others are biological like pain from overstimulation. For instance, Steffen K. Rosahl discusses how “relatives and friends sometimes complain of personality changes in the patient, ranging from transient confusion and bradyphrenia to euphoria or depression.” Further, implanting the device is not an exact science and if done incorrectly, a completely different result may occur such as loss of speech or other unknown changes. Research also indicates that an autonomy-capable neuroprosthetic can influence the brain if its actions go unchecked, making it a threat to the user and his or her surroundings. There are serious risks and concerns associated with the use of neurprosthetic technology.

The juncture of law, science and research is especially prevalent in modern neurological research. The cochlear implant is one such example. While the implant has allowed many children all over the world to hear for the first time, it has also led to shock and convulsions. In Sadler v. Advanced Bionics, Inc., the plaintiffs won a $7.25 million verdict in a negligence action when the manufacturer failed to adequately test or obtain approval for a new material in one of their implant designs. The unanswered legal questions in this case evolved around product recalls for implants, overcoming federal preemption, regulatory laws governing research submissions and product liability. Exactly how does a business recall an implant in someone’s brain!?

Clearly, legal-science partnerships are in high demand in advancing neurological research. Scientists need to understand the law and lawyers need to understand science. This principle is critically important when research institutions weigh the risks and benefits to subjects before that device ever hits the market. As Stephen Breyer, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, stated, “In this age of science, we must build legal foundations that are sound in science as well as in law. Scientists have offered their help. We in the legal community should accept that offer.”

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