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

{jcomments on}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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