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Science  25 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6157, pp. 438-439
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6157.438

25 October 2013

Edited by Kathy Wren


Will Brain Stimulation Technology Lead to "Neuroenhancement"?

Cross-campus communication.

Rajesh Rao (left) at the University of Washington sends a brain signal to Andrea Stocco, causing Stocco's finger to move.


Restoration of normal function has driven development of devices such as cochlear implants for deafness, deep-brain stimulators for Parkinson's disease, and bionic eyes for the blind, but there has long been a fascination with using similar technologies to "neuroenhance" healthy individuals, helping them control emotions, improve memory and cognition, and even communicate wordlessly with others.

Speakers at a 19 September session on neuroenhancement co-hosted by AAAS and the Dana Foundation urged separating hype from hope, and stressed the value of currently available neurostimulation devices to improve the lives of those with disabling conditions. Over the longer term, they said, any efforts to move beyond therapy to "enhancement" must weigh legal, ethical and social concerns as well as the medical risks and benefits.

"If we are capable of enhancing, should we and how?" asked Daofen Chen, program director in systems and cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Is it desirable?" There already have been efforts to enhance learning with prescription stimulants dubbed "smart" pills, but Chen said there is no evidence that such pills truly improve cognitive abilities through a known biological mechanism.

Both in science and science fiction, the specter of neural enhancement and control has long been debated. Joseph Pancrazio, head of the department of bioengineering at George Mason University, noted the work of Jose Delgado of Yale University in the 1960s. He used an implant to stimulate a region of a bull's brain called the caudate nucleus. Delgado stepped into a bull ring and, when the bull charged, pressed a remote control button which caused the animal to stop in its tracks.

Delgado claimed the stimulus caused the bull to lose its aggressive instinct, and spoke of a future when such methods would allow "a less cruel, happier, and better man." Michael Crichton, a student of one of Delgado's collaborators, offered an alternative view. In his novel The Terminal Man, a man with an electrical implant to control his epilepsy becomes a vicious killer.

While the fascination with neuroenhancement endures, Pancrazio noted that the risks of brain-machine interfaces are not insignificant, even for some of the devices currently available. For deep brain stimulation, there is a 5% risk of infection, he said, and a 2% risk of stroke due to bleeding in the brain.

Nonetheless, neurostimulation devices "are a clinical reality for a large number of individuals who are living with disability," Pancrazio said, and their benefits "truly are life-restoring for many individuals." They also are a big business (a $2.6 billion market in 2012, according to one study) and new devices continue to emerge.

Pancrazio cited an estimate that there are now more than 700,000 stimulation devices in use worldwide for various neurological conditions, including spinal cord stimulators for chronic pain, sacral nerve stimulators for urinary incontinence, deep-brain stimulators for essential tremor, dystonia and Parkinson's disease, and cochlear implants for hearing loss.

In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Argus II bionic eye for "humanitarian use" in treatment of retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative eye disease that often results in profound vision loss. The device, available in Europe since 2011, converts video images captured by a miniature camera, housed in the patient's glasses, into electrical pulses that are transmitted wirelessly to an electrode array on the surface of the retina. These pulses stimulate the remaining retinal cells, producing light patterns in the patient's field of view.

Ramez Naam, a computer scientist and author of More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, noted researchers also have made strides getting data out of the brain via interfaces that allow, for example, a paralyzed patient to move a prosthetic hand just by "thinking" how it should move.

"In my opinion the most powerful impact these technologies could have someday, probably decades and decades in the future, is by enhancing the ability of humans to communicate," said Naam, who titled his talk "Networked Minds." He described an experiment at Wake Forest University in which two capuchin monkeys in separate rooms were linked by an interface implanted in the auditory cortices of their brains. When a sound was played for one animal, the other was able to recognize it.

In another recent experiment, a researcher at the University of Washington, wired up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, sent a brain signal via the Internet to a colleague across campus, causing the colleague's right index finger to move on a keyboard. He wore a cap with a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coil that sent the signal to the brain region that controls movement of the right hand.

While there are very real issues about the cost and control of technologies capable of human enhancement, Naam said, "I am an optimist. The long-term trajectory of information technology, which is how I view this in a way, is positive."


Experts Warn Against Bans on 3D Printing

Objects made to order.

printing is an important platform for innovation, and any regulatory responses should be based on sound science, panelists said.


Last spring, news that a functioning plastic handgun had been created using a 3D printer, and that the file for making the gun was available online, led several city and state legislators to introduce bills banning 3D-printed guns.

However, 3D printers–which create customized objects on demand, based on digital instructions–are already widespread. Along with other "advanced additive manufacturing" technologies, these printers are used everywhere from large companies, to university labs, to home garages. Banning one type of 3D-printed object would be futile and could push 3D printing "underground," at the expense of important scientific and medical advances, a panel of experts agreed at a AAAS event.

Many 3D printers work somewhat like inkjet printers do, depositing layers of material that can be plastic, metal or even living cells. Since the first demonstration of this technology in the 1980s, numerous 3D printers have come on the market, and more should be showing up within the next year as the original patents expire. A relatively sophisticated, extrusion-based printer is about $2,500-$3,000, and cruder models are available for as little as $300-$400, according to Michael Hopmeier, President of Unconventional Concepts, Inc.

Those who don't own a printer can design and order items from a company like Shapeways, which fabricates and ships objects based on customers' specifications. The company is now producing about 50,000 objects each month, said Robert Schouwenburg, one of the company's cofounders.

"3D printing is not just a device, it's an entire ecosystem of contributing technologies that give new capabilities," said author and technology analyst Melba Kurman.

While the speakers at the 23 September event, which was organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, agreed that banning 3D printed objects is unrealistic, they acknowledged that the technology gives rise to safety and security issues that merit serious thought.

3D printers have been used, for example, to create keys that can open master locks. In theory, they could also be used to build advanced weapons or to counterfeit machinery parts intended to break and cause catastrophic failure. Some security solutions may come in the form of the technology itself. For example, Microsoft has demonstrated a method of embedding microbubbles within 3D-printed objects, in patterns that encode information. Such tags might potentially be used to trace the objects back to their source.

Although none of the proposals to ban 3D-printed guns ultimately became law, the speakers were concerned that similar, "fear-based" policy responses would stifle the culture of openness necessary for this technology to thrive. Any regulatory decisions should be based on sound science and technology, they agreed.

Rob Carlson, a Principal at the strategy and consulting firm Biodesic, has seen firsthand that some "garage biology," which is responsible for increasing amounts of innovation in the life sciences, is already happening in secrecy so as to avoid harassment by law enforcement, even though the research being conducted is entirely legal. "That's not the kind of world we want to create for biology or 3D printing," he said. "We don't want people to be afraid of talking about what they're doing."

AAAS Council Reminder

The next meeting of the AAAS Council will take place during the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago and will begin at 9:00 a.m. on 16 February 2014 in the Plaza Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

Individuals or organizations wishing to present proposals or resolutions for possible consideration by the council should submit them in written form to AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner by 28 November 2013. This will allow time for them to be considered by the Committee on Council Affairs at its winter meeting.

Items should be consistent with AAAS's objectives and be appropriate for consideration by the council. Resolutions should be in the traditional format, beginning with "Whereas" statements and ending with "Therefore be it resolved."

Late proposals or resolutions delivered to the AAAS Chief Executive Officer in advance of the February 2014 open hearing of the Committee on Council Affairs will be considered, provided that they deal with urgent matters and are accompanied by a written explanation of why they were not submitted by the November deadline. The Committee on Council Affairs will hold its open hearing at 2:30 p.m. on 15 February 2014 in the Hyatt Regency Plaza Ballroom.


Additional Candidates for AAAS Annual Election

The following candidates have been added to the general election ballot for the 2013 election of AAAS officers. The 2013 AAAS election of general and section officers is scheduled to begin in November. For a list of section candidates, please see AAAS News & Notes in the 27 September issue of Science.

General Election

President-Elect: Lance R. Collins, Cornell Univ.; Geraldine (Geri) Richmond, Univ. of Oregon

Board of Directors: Carlos J. Bustamante, Univ. of California, Berkeley; Sean R. Eddy, HHMI Janelia Farm Research Campus; Laura H. Greene, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Joseph L. Travis, Florida State Univ.

Committee on Nominations: A. Paul Alivisatos, Univ. of California, Berkeley/ Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; John E. Burris, Burroughs Wellcome Fund; Sylvia T. Ceyer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Christopher Bower Field, Carnegie Institution for Science/Stanford Univ.; Susan M. Fitzpatrick, James S. McDonnell Foundation; Alice P. Gast, Lehigh Univ.; Susan Gottesman, National Cancer Institute/NIH; Thomas Dean Pollard, Yale Univ.

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