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Human brain with an implanted chip.

Can Implanted Computer Chips Cure Depression?

Brain–computer interface (BCI) is promising for paralysis and prosthetics but raises concerns in the treatment of depression

Brain computer interface (BCI) shows promise in treating paralysis or enabling prosthetics to work almost naturally. But BCI for treating depression sounds like hype: Say goodbye to pills, therapy, and all that.

With such gloomy prospects, it was only a matter of time scientists realized there must be better ways to treat depression rather than pills.

After all, drugs only work because they act on certain brain regions to modulate the concentration of certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin or dopamine.

Therefore, in the end, the regulation of mood depends on stimulating brain signals in certain parts of the brain — that is, neurons firing — and this can be done more accurately by just zapping the neurons directly with electricity.

Diego Salinas, “Depression Will Be Cured By 2030 (And We Won’t Use Antidepressants)” at Medium (June 24, 2021)

The assumption, of course, is that the mind is just “what the brain does” and that depression is merely a biological problem.

The Medium article quoted above derives from a “major report produced by Dentsu, a global advertising and digital agency” promoting the idea, citing public approval and significant investment and confidently predicting a future: “Experts predict a never before moment during the mid 2020s to be the first successful human implantation of a brain-computer interface. This could include psychological brain disorders becoming a thing of the past.”

In reality, success in this field has been mixed and limited though one recent experiment showed promise: “In the case study, the doctors identified three brain regions that they could zap to alleviate depression but found that it only worked when the patient was in a particular mental state. Otherwise, the neurostimulation had the opposite effect.”

It’s not reassuring that the technology passed an ethics review board in China and is being researched in Shanghai. See, for example, “In China, forced Uyghur labor produces many fashionable products.” Or that another figure pursuing this trend is the mercurial Elon Musk, who told media in 2020 that his Neuralink brain implant technology “could be used to help cure addiction and depression.” Meanwhile, another source proposes it as a treatment for eating disorders.

Salinas confidently predicts “We are going to say goodbye to the happy, or perhaps not-so-happy pills called antidepressants.”

Not quite so fast. First, the changes BCI produces are not always helpful, as a report in Nature points out:

Neuroethicists began to note the complex nature of the therapy’s side effects. “Some effects that might be described as personality changes are more problematic than others,” says Maslen. A crucial question is whether the person who is undergoing stimulation can reflect on how they have changed. Gilbert, for instance, describes a DBS patient who started to gamble compulsively, blowing his family’s savings and seeming not to care. He could only understand how problematic his behaviour was when the stimulation was turned off.

Liam Drew, “The ethics of brain–computer interfaces” at Nature (July 24, 2019)

Then there are issues like privacy:

One issue that Ienca is addressing is privacy. “Brain information is probably the most intimate and private of all information,” he says. Digitally stored neural data could be stolen by hackers or used inappropriately by companies to whom users grant access. Ienca says that neuroethicists’ concerns have forced developers to attend to the security of their devices, to more diligently protect consumer data, and to cease demanding access to social-media profiles and other sources of personal information as a condition of a device’s use. Nevertheless, as consumer neurotechnology gains steam, ensuring that privacy standards are acceptable remains a challenge.

Liam Drew, “The ethics of brain–computer interfaces” at Nature (July 24, 2019)

A “challenge”? Translation: There is no privacy and other actors (governments?) could gain control of the device. Some governments would probably insist on that.

An even bigger issue may be the patient’s assumption that the device has taken over her self. Drew recounts a case:

The company that implanted the device in her brain to help free her from seizures went bankrupt. The device had to be removed.

“She refused and resisted as long as she could,” says Gilbert, but ultimately it had to go. It’s a fate that has befallen participants of similar trials, including people whose depression had been relieved by DBS [deep brain stimulation]. Patient 6 cried as she told Gilbert about losing the device. She grieved its loss. “I lost myself,” she said.

“It was more than a device,” Gilbert says. “The company owned the existence of this new person.”

Liam Drew, “The ethics of brain–computer interfaces” at Nature (July 24, 2019)

No. The company didn’t own anything, not even the device at that point. Not even a pencil or a paper clip in the office. It was bankrupt.

This is practically science fiction — except it is non-fiction. The whole thing works way better on the screen than in life.

Patient 6 was a vulnerable person in need of better protection than those who had allowed the experiment had provided her. Instead, they allowed her to believe that the company owned her existence. Perhaps that she is merely a biological entity (one wonders). That she has no self apart from the neurons, the drugs, and the device…

Psychologically vulnerable people will not benefit from this. That’s precisely why some worry that brain–computer interface could become a nightmare.


You may also wish to read about clear advances in medicine from brain–computer interfaces:

Paralyzed man writes, using only imagination — and an algorithm. With implanted electrodes, the volunteer, 65, achieved 90 characters per minute. (May 13, 2021)

and

Paralyzed subject gains control much faster via a new technique. The earlier technique for controlling a cursor through brain-computer interface worked but it required constant relearning.


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Can Implanted Computer Chips Cure Depression?