Applied Neuroscience Needs a Governance Task Force
IIn the United States only, more than 100 million people have at least one neurological disease. These conditions, which range from Alzheimer’s disease to depression and Parkinson’s disease, cost the health care system nearly $800 billion a year. The toll is much higher if you add in the almost unquantifiable financial and emotional costs of diminished quality of life and care.
While the brain has always been difficult to study directly, applied neuroscience is poised to make transformative breakthroughs that could bring huge upsides — as well as downsides.
Technologies such as brain-computer interfaces offer unprecedented power to influence or control brain processes through non-invasive devices attached to the outside of the head or invasive devices such as electrodes or implants inserted into the brain . These devices can stimulate the brain to affect movement, sensation, or behavior, and can potentially repair previously permanent brain and nervous system damage. But they can also monitor an individual’s private thoughts or emotions.
Brain-computer interfaces aren’t new – the first such device has been implanted in a human brain two decades ago. Electrodes implanted in the brain have been used to treat more than 100,000 people with Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. But the technology is poised to take a big leap forward in capabilities and applications thanks to public applied neuroscience efforts such as the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN Initiative and private efforts such as that of Elon Musk Neuralink.
While applied neuroscience holds tremendous promise for treating people with various neurological conditions, it also raises longer-term concerns about potential intrusions on privacy, autonomy, and freedom. It could be possible, at some point in the future, that corporations and governments will use these technologies to monitor, influence or even control the thoughts, emotions and behavior of individuals.
It is therefore urgent and necessary to put in place appropriate safeguards now to prevent unethical or dangerous applications of technology at the national and international levels. Neurotechnology cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of social media, whose far-reaching benefits are undermined by the failure to address potential harm and abuse from the outset. At the same time, governance must be based on realistic projections of a technology’s capabilities – breakthrough new technologies are often the subject of unrealistic hype and unfounded fears of dystopian futures. The implementation of realistic guardrails must also be accompanied by a high-level strategy to advance the technology as quickly as possible to achieve its potential benefits and improve the health and well-being of many. people.
To develop such a comprehensive oversight approach, we call for the creation of a high-level White House task force to develop a roadmap for effective governance of applied neuroscience technologies. It would be similar to the Electronic Commerce Working Group created in the late 1990s under the Clinton-Gore administration to address the emergence of the Internet and e-commerce, which one of us (DB) chaired.
A White House Neurotechnology Task Force should be headquartered in the White House with a small staff with a defined and limited mandate. It should run for 12 months with an optional three-month extension. Like the e-commerce task force, it should be chaired by the current vice president and include representatives from key federal agencies, including the departments of commerce, defence, health and human services, Justice, Labor, State, and Veterans Affairs, as well as representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, Federal Trade Commission, and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
The defined tasks of the working group should consist of:
- Produce a set of principles or guidelines to promote positive civilian uses of neurotechnology as well as a set of rules to prevent negative outcomes. These principles or guidelines should include processes to address factors such as confidentiality, autonomy, amelioration, fairness and equity that have traditionally been beyond the purview of regulators.
- Commission a study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine on the benefits and risks of neurotechnology for civil and national security applications.
- Ask the National Security Council to create a set of options on how best to create a viable international governance framework for the optimal positive use of neurotechnology. Options should include an international convention or treaty, new transitional tools of flexible governance, and the use of regulations such as export controls and tariff and trade measures to ensure the ethical use of powerful new neurotechnologies.
- Prepare a report on how to actively engage or regulate the private sector to ensure the ethical uses and outcomes of neurotechnology.
President Biden must act now to advance – and, if necessary, slow down – brain research to accelerate the gains and lessen the pains of these technologies. As wise observers from Roy Amara to Bill Gates have noted, people tend to overestimate the short-term impacts of emerging technologies and underestimate their long-term impacts. Applied neuroscience fits this paradigm.
The governance decisions made for neurotechnology today will significantly determine the quality and well-being of society for decades to come.
David Beier is managing director of Bay City Capital, former senior executive at Amgen and Genentech, and former chief domestic policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore. Lucille Nalbach Tournas is a graduate student and lecturer in global governance, law, and neurotechnology regulation at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. Gary Marchant is a professor of law and director of a law, science and technology program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.