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Graduate Students Collaborate to Examine and Practice Neuroethics

March 3, 2017


Graduate students Timothy Brown and Margaret Thompson, from left.

By: Tommy Merth

The direct combination of ethics and engineering research is not especially common in most laboratories. To address this unique challenge, two UW graduate students have teamed up to assess the ethical problems that arise from state-of-the-art neural engineering applications. Margaret Thompson is a Ph.D. student from the department of electrical engineering, while Timothy Brown is a Ph.D. student from the department of philosophy. They were featured in Emory University’s “The Neuroethics Blog” for their successful unification of ethics and engineering research.

“This collaboration has helped me personally in a couple of ways,” Thompson said. “I’ve been able to better motivate our pursuit for neural technology. Having ethical considerations in the mix means more than just saying ‘this is a technical improvement,’ it means considering richer aspects of improvement that might be different from my preconceptions as an able-bodied engineer. I’m also gaining skills for working on multidisciplinary teams — and this isn’t just the type of multidisciplinary teams where engineers talk to scientists; it’s bridging larger gaps that a lot of engineers or scientists haven’t had the opportunity to work across before.”

At the UW Biorobotics Laboratory, Thompson develops new methods in deep brain stimulation (DBS) to alleviate symptoms in patients with neurological disorders. One of Margaret’s co-authored papers, entitled “Classifier-Based Closed-Loop Deep Brain Stimulation for Essential Tremor,” was recently accepted at the International IEEE EMBS Neural Engineering Conference in Shanghai, China. Margaret also studies how the effectiveness of these brain-computer interfaces changes over extended periods of time.

Brown investigates the ethics of neural technology and engineering. Specifically, he explores the issues of autonomy and agency that arise for people with Parkinson’s Disease and Essential Tremor who use DBS. For example, implanted devices raise questions about the notion of identity and liability. In his most recent publication, “Controlling Our Brains – a Case Study on the Implications of Brain-Computer Interface-Triggered Deep Brain Stimulation for Essential Tremor,” Brown analyzes patient testimonials, highlighting potential health risks and ethical problems that stem from the use of DBS systems.

“A lot of researchers are interested in what we’re doing and want to know recommendations for starting similar collaborations with their own teams,” Thompson said. “I think a lot of people recognize our type of work and collaboration as valuable even if they haven’t participated in it themselves.”