By Sarah McQuate
Brain-computer interfaces have the potential to give patients better and more natural control over their prosthetic devices. Through this method, a chip in a patient’s brain picks up a thought — neural activity triggered by focusing on specific visual imagery — to move a joint and then transmits that signal to the prosthetic.
This technology is not widely available yet, but as it progresses through research trials, ethical questions are emerging about users’ sense of control over their own actions. For example: Who is responsible if a prosthetic limb malfunctions and strikes someone in a crowd — the patient or the device?
To address these types of questions, University of Washington researchers in the Center for Neurotechnology, including ECE’s professor Howard Chizeck, are studying how brain-computer interfaces affect whether patients feel they are in charge of their own actions. For this research, the team will receive $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health over the next four years.
“Neuroscience offers a deeper understanding of the brain and gives us the prospect of new ways to treat diseases or affect how the brain functions,” said Sara Goering, a UW associate professor of philosophy and the team lead for the project. “Given how closely we associate the function of our brains with who we are as individuals, it is valuable to explore the implications of this research. Then people can better understand their options before enrolling in a study, and researchers can design devices that better suit users’ needs and values.”
The team aims to examine multiple types of brain-computer interfaces that currently are being tested in clinical studies, not just those that control prosthetics. In using deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease or depression, a patient might wonder: Is my action the result of something I did, or something the stimulator did? And with devices that help patients sense touch, a patient might ask: Is this interface correctly telling me how hard I am squeezing someone’s hand?
By looking at how these devices affect the degree to which patients sense they are in control of their own actions and emotions, the researchers hope to develop tools that can help future patients feel better equipped to remain in control.
“We will start this process by ’embedding’ ethicists within neural engineering labs that are studying different brain-computer interfaces,” said Dr. Eran Klein, an affiliate assistant professor of philosophy at the UW and an assistant professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University who is the co-leader on this project. “These ethicists will work side by side with the researchers in the lab, as well as interview both researchers and research participants about their perspectives on brain-computer interfaces.”
The grant will fund one or two new researchers who will work in different labs over the course of the project. Some of these labs are part of the Center for Neurotechnology, which is based at the UW, while others are at Massachusetts General Hospital, University of Freiburg in Germany, University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, Brown University and Caltech.
After compiling perspectives across all labs, the team will develop a series of questions to give to future patients who are considering enrolling in a study to receive a brain-computer interface. They can use these questions to better prepare for informed consent discussions with researchers, Goering said.
“We’re hoping that the close attention we pay to users’ experiences operating brain-computer interfaces will help us understand how to help prospective users be informed about the tradeoffs they might be making,” she said. “In addition, we also want to help researchers in the field think carefully about next-generation device design, so that this technology will maintain or enhance a user’s sense of control.”