Why do we assume gadgets are benign?

By Troy L’Hirondelle

Last week I heard a story on the radio about a new implant developed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Mn. that can measure levels of different brain chemicals.
This new device has been paired up with a previously-developed device, also implanted in the brain, that creates an electrical impulse that stimulates the brain to produce a given chemical (do you see where this is going yet).
So with both devices implanted and linked together, the one device can monitor levels of different brain chemicals and then, if need be, send a message to the stimulus device to get the brain to produce more of a certain chemical.
The researchers involved in this project see this as a possible way to treat illness such as Parkinson’s and conditions like depression.
So if this hasn’t quite blown your mind yet, let’s consider some other technologies we have at our disposal that we could further pair these devices with. Another news story I remember hearing about a few months ago discussed the application of wireless network technology to use our old friend, the Internet, to send diagnostic medical information from patients directly to their doctor.
In this case, the patient wore a heart monitor device and the information recorded by the device would be sent to the patient’s doctor so he or she could review the data without inconveniencing the patient with an appointment.
So now we could have a device that monitors a person’s brain chemistry, which then transmits that data to that person’s doctor so they can more closely monitor the patient’s treatment. While we’re at it, we could add a feature that allowed the doctor to send a message back to the device so that the doctor could “tweak” brain chemical levels without having to actually see the patient.
Now we have something pretty cool. Not only will we not be depressed, but we don’t have to wait around doctor’s offices anymore, which can be pretty depressing in itself.
I don’t mean to sound to cynical about this. It really is an amazing technology when you think about it, and I’m sure countless hours of research and creativity were poured into it, but come on. For one thing, I could not find one major news item that discussed any of the million questions that immediately pop into a person’s head when they hear something like this.
For starters, who decides what a “normal” level for a given brain chemical should be? What are the health implications if a device malfunctions and we are given an overdose of some brain chemical? Who gets to view the data collected by the monitoring device?
Would the data be stored indefinitely is some database (we might as well throw another technology in)?
Really, I am not trying to be cynical, but it does seem there’s at least some room for some interesting discussion on this.
There is a huge debate going on about stem cell research and other “biological” technologies, but it seems that if we are talking about a gadget, we assume it is pretty benign—even if it is a gadget that plugs into our brain and influences the way we feel and think.
Troy L’Hirondelle is a programmer and systems administrator at Times Web Design.

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