It’s Not My Fault, My Brain Implant Made Me Do It

problems with brain inplants

Laura Y. Cabr­era, Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity and Jen­nifer Carter-​Johnson, Michi­gan State University

Mr. B loves Johnny Cash, except when he doesn’t. Mr. X has watched his doc­tors morph into Ital­ian chefs right before his eyes.

The link between the two? Both Mr. B and Mr. X received deep brain stim­u­la­tion (DBS), a pro­ce­dure involv­ing an implant that sends elec­tric impulses to spe­cific tar­gets in the brain to alter neural activ­ity. While brain implants aim to treat neural dys­func­tion, cases like these demon­strate that they may influ­ence an individual’s per­cep­tion of the world and behav­ior in unde­sired ways.

Mr. B received DBS as treat­ment for his severe obses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der. He’d never been a music lover until, under DBS, he devel­oped a dis­tinct and entirely new music pref­er­ence for Johnny Cash. When the device was turned off, the pref­er­ence disappeared.

Mr. X, an epilepsy patient, received DBS as part of an inves­ti­ga­tion to locate the ori­gin of his seizures. Dur­ing DBS, he hal­lu­ci­nated that doc­tors became chefs with aprons before the stim­u­la­tion ended and the scene faded. In both of these real-​world cases, DBS clearly trig­gered the changed per­cep­tion. And that intro­duces a host of thorny ques­tions. As neu­rotech­nolo­gies like this become more com­mon, the behav­iors of peo­ple with DBS and other kinds of brain implants might chal­lenge cur­rent soci­etal views on responsibility.

Lawyers, philoso­phers and ethi­cists have labored to define the con­di­tions under which indi­vid­u­als are to be judged legally and morally respon­si­ble for their actions. The brain is gen­er­ally regarded as the cen­ter of con­trol, ratio­nal think­ing and emo­tion – it orches­trates people’s actions and behav­iors. As such, the brain is key to agency, auton­omy and responsibility.Where does respon­si­bil­ity lie if a per­son acts under the influ­ence of their brain implant? As a neu­roethi­cist and a legal expert, we sug­gest that soci­ety should start grap­pling with these ques­tions now, before they must be decided in a court of law.

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