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Advances in Neuroscience Raise Medical Hopes, Social Questions

She suffered a stroke at the age of 42, and for nearly a decade after, she was unable to move or communicate beyond shaking her head. Such patients usually experience little improvement, but today, thanks to a neural implant that links her brain to a computer, she has used her mind to control a keyboard and move a robotic arm.


Better than bionic. DARPA, the VA, and others are exploring whether brain-power can drive a new generation of prosthetics like the DEKA robotic arm.
[Credit: Photo Courtesy of Deka Research & Development]

Leigh R. Hochberg, a neuroengineer and doctor who specializes in brain-computer interface systems, told her story at a AAAS Capitol Hill briefing to illustrate how advances in neuroscience may transform once-futuristic ideas into better lives for soldiers, accident victims, and others. “We’re hoping to develop technologies that will restore the ability to communicate and restore the ability to move,” Hochberg said.

The briefing focused on the military applications of neuroscience, and the presentations reflected the sense that today’s advances could have far broader future impact. But with the benefits of enhanced brain function will come critical social and ethical issues.

“These issues are emerging now and will only get more prominent over time,” said moderator Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science.

About 100 congressional staff and others attended the 90-minute briefing, held 26 July in cooperation with the House Armed Services Committee and with financial support from The Dana Foundation. The AAAS Office of Government Relations has scheduled a second neuroscience briefing—on possible links between cell phones and brain tumors—for 7 September. The final briefing in the series, on traumatic brain injury, will be held in October.

In areas such as “shell shock” and brainwashing, neuroscience has long been a military interest. Today, the military is exploring new realms of neuroscience to make soldiers safer and more effective. Jonathan D. Moreno, an historian and ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, detailed the Pentagon’s 2011 neuroscience investments: U.S. Army, $55 million; Navy, $34 million; Air Force, $24 million; and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), more than $240 million.
Martha J. Farah, director of Penn’s Center for Neuroscience & Society, said a key military interest is cognitive enhancement. Research is assessing newer drugs to keep soldiers alert or neutralize the effects of wartime fatigue, stress, and trauma.

Another area of interest, Farah said, is non-invasive brain stimulation in which a weak current is directed into a targeted area of the brain. Such techniques have been found to affect attention, learning, memory, decision-making, and mood, and some believe the effects could extend to visual perception, reaction time, and even social behavior.
Given the legion of war casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, research into prosthetics is acutely important. Hochberg, who has appointments at Brown and Harvard universities and the Providence VA Medical Center, is focused on technology that may allow people with tetraplegia to move robotic limbs.
When a spinal injury leaves someone paralyzed, he explained, the brain still generates a signal to move the arm, but the signal never arrives. At scientific meetings, he has described early research in which tiny arrays are implanted in the brain’s motor cortex; the array picks up that signal, conveys it through a thin wire into a computer, and then to external devices.

Almost inevitably, however, neuroscience research raises social and ethical questions. Newer drugs developed for sleep disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are increasingly used now by travelers, students and others battling fatigue, Farah reported. Meanwhile, said Moreno, military research has developed a “robo-rat” that can be controlled through electrodes in its brain—and other creatures could be used as living robots too, he said.

For now, though, the potential benefits provide powerful motivation for further research. Hochberg said the stroke victim with whom he’s worked sent a video message last year to a Society for Neuroscience conference. Using an on-screen keyboard, her intentions guided the cursor, letter by letter, to type a simple message:

“There is hope.”