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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

BCI-DBS Mood Modulator: An Ethics Case Study

BCI-DBS Mood Modulator: An Ethics Case Study

Adapted from a case by Brian Green

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have advanced dramatically in recent years and have now become recognized treatments for a variety of conditions, including blindness and problems in motor control. BCIs can permit both inbound and outbound signaling—receiving visual inputs and sending motor commands, for example.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) also requires electrodes or chips typically implanted deep into the center of the brain. DBS is a demonstrated treatment for some affective disorders; studies have also shown that DBS might be a potential treatment for treatment-resistant depression.

By combining DBS and BCI, patients could conceivably gain conscious control over their own moods. A BCI implant would detect the patient’s desire to change mood, and the DBS would then activate the part of the brain necessary to adjust that mood to another state. Technologists propose to create such an implant.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who are the stakeholders involved? Who should be consulted about such a project’s goals and development?
  2. What additional facts might be required? What practical steps might you need to take in order to access the information/perspectives needed to manage the ethical landscape of this project?
  3. How might this project be evaluated through the ethical 'lenses' of rights, justice, utilitarianism, the common good, virtue ethics, and care ethics?
  4. In this project, what moral values are potentially conflicting with each other? Is there any way to reconcile them? Even if conflict is unavoidable, are there ways to respect all relevant interests/values? How?
  5. As a project team, how might you go about sorting through these ethical issues and addressing them?  
  6. At what level, and by what methods, should decisions be made within the company about how to manage the ethical issues raised by such a project?