Academics from the Oxford Martin School are helping to answer ethical and philosophical questions around new technology that could help restore some capacity for speech in people with severely debilitating conditions.
Dr Hannah Maslen is a co-PI on the five-year European Commission-funded BrainCom project, which is working to help advance the basic understanding of speech networks in the cerebral cortex, and to develop rehabilitation solutions using innovative brain-computer interfaces.
The project will make use of the unique properties of novel nanomaterials such as graphene to propose a radically new technology of flexible cortical implants, enabling stimulation and decoding of brain activity over large areas in unprecedented detail. The technology could have wide-ranging applications in the treatment of aphasia, a condition in which patients lose the ability to comprehend and formulate language after brain damage or in the course of neurodegenerative disorders. The work will also advance the study of other high cognitive functions of the brain, such as learning and memory, and other clinical applications such as epilepsy monitoring.
James Martin Fellow Dr Maslen, who co-authored the Oxford Martin School policy paper ‘Mind Machines: The Regulation of Cognitive Enhancement Devices’ is leading the project’s work on Ethics, Implants and Society. This will cover a range of philosophical and ethical questions associated with the BrainCom research and the technology’s potential applications. The group will work with engineers, neuroscientists, clinicians, regulators and patients to examine a number of topics such as the degree of control and responsibility users will have over the externalisation of their thoughts and the relationship users have with their devices. They will also look at the potential experience of the physical components as part of the body, issues relating to obtaining informed consent from patients who can only communicate via a neuroprosthesis, and the question of how data collected and stored on devices should be managed.
Discussing the significance of the BrainCom project, Dr Maslen said: “Humans are social beings, and the ability to speak is one of the cornerstones of social interaction. If neuroprosthetic technology is able to restore even basic elements of speech capacity, this could transform patients’ experiences of living with a number of severely debilitating conditions, as well as giving care teams a way of discussing patients’ treatment needs and preferences with them.”
BrainCom has been funded through the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies programme, as part of their Horizon 2020 initiative, to address “promising directions for research on future technologies in order to build up a European critical mass of knowledge and excellence around them.”