Dear Commons Community,
David Ewing Duncan, science writer for the New York Times has a provocative op-ed today, that looks at the advances in technologies designed to enhance the human body including the brain. What used to be science fiction is now moving closer to reality albeit much of what Duncan discusses is still experimental to say the least.
Here is a partial checklist of cutting-edge medical-technology therapies now under way or in an experimental phase that might lead to future enhancements.
“More than 200,000 deaf people have had their hearing partially restored by a brain implant that receives sound waves and uses a minicomputer to process and deliver them directly into the brain via the cochlear (audio) nerve. New and experimental technologies could lead to devices that allow people with or possibly without hearing loss to hear better, possibly much better.
The Israel-based company Nano Retina and others are developing early-stage devices and implants that restore partial sight to the blind. Nano Retina uses a tiny sensor backed by electrodes embedded in the back of the eye, on top of the retina. They replace connections damaged by macular degeneration and other diseases. So far images are fuzzy and gray-scale and a long way from restoring functional eyesight. Scientists, however, are currently working on ways to mimic and improve eyesight in people and in robots that could lead to far more sophisticated technologies.
Engineers at companies like Ekso Bionics of Richmond, Calif., are building first-generation exoskeletons that aim to allow patients with paralyzed legs to walk, though the devices are still in the baby-step phase. This summer the sprinter Oscar Pistorius of South Africa proved he could compete at the Olympics using artificial half-leg blades called Cheetahs that some worried might give him an advantage over runners with legs made of flesh and blood. Neuroscientists are developing more advanced prosthetics that may one day be operated from the brain via fiber optic lines embedded under the skin.
For years, scientists have been manipulating genes in animals to make improvements in neural performance, strength and agility, among other augmentations. Directly altering human DNA using “gene therapy” in humans remains dangerous and fraught with ethical challenges. But it may be possible to develop drugs that alter enzymes and other proteins associated with genes for, say, speed and endurance or dopamine levels in the brain connected to improved neural performance.
Synthetic biologists contend that re-engineering cells and DNA may one day allow us to eliminate diseases; a few believe we will be able to build tailor-made people. Others are convinced that stem cells might one day be used to grow fresh brain, heart or liver cells to augment or improve cells in these and other organs.
Not all enhancements are high-tech or invasive. Neuroscientists are seeing boosts from neuro-feedback and video games designed to teach and develop cognition and from meditation and improvements in diet, exercise and sleep. “We may see a convergence of several of these technologies,” said the neurologist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California at San Francisco. He is developing brain-boosting games with developers and engineers who once worked for Lucas Arts, founded by the “Star Wars” director George Lucas.”
His conclusion considers the ethics of these developments:
“Ethical challenges for the coming Age of Enhancement include, besides basic safety questions, the issue of who would get the enhancements, how much they would cost, and who would gain an advantage over others by using them. In a society that is already seeing a widening gap between the very rich and the rest of us, the question of a democracy of equals could face a critical test if the well-off also could afford a physical, genetic or bionic advantage. It also may challenge what it means to be human.
Still, the enhancements are coming, and they will be hard to resist. The real issue is what we do with them once they become irresistible.”