The six million dollar question

Like Steve Austin in the 1970s sci-fi show, it is now possible to implant microchips into the body to control everything from weapons to wheelchairs. But is it the start of a sinister new era in science?

Forty years ago, the first bionic human featured in the hit US TV science-fiction series The Six Million Dollar Man. Today, he has become science fact. New technologies that "intervene" in the brain, building superhuman capabilities and enabling users to operate weapons or wheelchairs with the power of thought alone, are on the market or under development.

Click HERE to view graphic

Electrodes implanted deep in patient's brains have been shown to stabilise the shaky movements of Parkinson's disease and "creativity caps" that deliver magnetic pulses to the head are in use to boost memory and mathematical ability.

Scientists have demonstrated how a person in New York with a device implanted in their nervous system can control a robotic arm in the UK, moving it around and sensing the position of objects just by thinking about it.

But the rapid advance of the research is raising concerns that meddling with the brain could change people's personalities, create bionic supermen for military applications or be used to control minds with disturbing implications for society.

Today the Nuffield Council for Bioethics launches a consultation on the ethics of the new technolgies, the global market for which it says is worth $8bn and "growing fast."

"Intervening in the brain has always raised hopes and fears. Hopes of curing terrible diseases and fears about trying to enhance human capability beyond what is normally possible," said Thomas Baldwin, chair of the study and professor of philosophy at the University of York. "This challenges us to think what makes us human and why we think and behave in the way we do."

The most advanced technology is deep brain stimulation – the implanting of electrodes in the brain – which has shown dramatic results in improving movement control in Parkinson's disease. But some patients have developed severe side effects including personality changes, increased sexual urges and criminal behaviour. One study found half of those treated reported a deterioration in their marriage or relationships. "If that is replicated in further studies that will be alarming," said Professor Baldwin.

An electric coil worn in a cap or attached to the head with a band which delivers magnetic pulses to the brain has been shown to relieve the symptoms of severe depression in patients and boost mental performance in young adults. Known as the "creativity cap" and employing a technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation, it is available from online retailers. It suppresses some brain activity enabling the individual to focus on a particular task.

Alena Buyx, of the Nuffield Council, said: "A trial in the UK showed it improved performance in maths and there have been calls for it to be introduced for children in education. We know of children prescribed ritalin [a drug for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] to boost their school performance. Should we try to create individuals with superhuman abilities?"

In Scotland, doctors have launched the first trial in the world of neural stem cells injected into the brain to replace damaged brain cells as a treatment for strokes. But there are fears the therapy could lead to brain tumours or changes in mood, behaviour and ability.

"Do these technologies alter our notions of personal responsibility? If someone is caught shoplifting, can they claim their brain implant made them do it?" said Dr Buyx.

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, who has used himself as a guinea pig for implants in his nervous system with which he has controlled remote devices, said: "Military applications are being tested but are not yet in use. They involve remote control of vehicles and weaponry with the soldier in a safe location and the weapon in the battlefield. It blurs the distinction between man and machine. Who is making the decisions, who is responsible?"

The development of the technologies for use in warfare might be troubling for some. But the potential to help sufferers from diseases, including Alzheimer's and other brain disorders, is huge. "This is a big problem area and there is the possibility of helping an enormous number of people in different ways," Professor Warwick said.

Case study: 'Spike' in the brain helped to beat paralysis

Matthew Nagle was paralysed from the neck down after a knife attack severed his spinal cord.

The 21-year-old from Massachusetts in the US was left unable to move or breathe on his own. But in 2004, three years after the attack, he had an electrode array implanted in the surface of his brain – with each electrode "spike" penetrating 1.5 millimetres below the surface.

The implant enabled him to pick up objects, open emails, change television channels and play computer games. The electrodes were linked to the outside of his skull, where they were connected to a computer which was programmed to recognise his thought patterns and translate them into movements he was trying to achieve.

He operated a cursor on the computer screen and succeeded in moving it to switch buttons on and off. He was also able to control a prosthetic arm. The results were published in the scientific journal Nature.

The implant was removed after a year, in accordance with the protocol for the trial. Matthew Nagle died in 2007.

A second patient, aged 55, who had been paralysed since 1999, also had the implant but was less successful at operating devices remotely.

At least a dozen companies in the US are working on brain-computer interfaces, many for the US military.

Although there are hopes the technology could help people whose brains are damaged by illness or injury, there are also fears implants might be used to control challenging behaviour in patients with Alzheimer's disease or mental problems, by inhibiting antisocial tendencies and programming in "acceptable" responses.

Suggested Topics
News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits