The Ethics of Neurotechnological Research and the ElectRx Program

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) got a boost when President Obama announced a $78.9 million research initiative to develop the neurotechnologies necessary to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other diseases. The announcement laid out 19 new executive actions that are being taken by the Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA). Although most of these actions were continuations of current programs, the announcement of the Electrical Prescriptions program, ElectRx, is unique.

The ElectRx (pronounced electrics) program is tasked with developing an implantable device that can monitor and control organs and biosystems in the human body. This computer chip will augment an injured soldier’s nervous system. It is designed to lessen the effect of PTSD and other neurological problems.

“Instead of relying only on medication, we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker,” ElectRx Program Manager Doug Weber said. “It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”

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Click to enlarge

Although implant technology has been available for years, this research is designed to create a non-invasive chip that is small enough to insert with a syringe. The money for the program will come from the government’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative.

If successful, ElectRx could be used not only for monitoring psychological stress but also in the healing process. Still the stuff of science fiction, this initiative brings us one step closer to treating or eliminating PTSD.

Pardon the pun, but I am of two minds about this initiative. Part of me wants to see any and all solutions to PTSD explored, but the thought of inserting a neural chip into a soldier’s head that can control biosystems and organs is way outside of my comfort zone. I know that the intended aim for this technology is to lessen the effects of PTSD and allow the afflicted to be able to function, but it could be used to influence the thought patterns and reactions of normal soldiers.

If nothing else, it could trigger Pavlovian responses in the brain when an action that the military does or doesn’t want you to do occurs. This raises moral issues that need to be researched and addressed prior to the technology being used. If the program is successful and can alleviate the problems with PTSD once a person has gotten it, can it be adapted to prevent PTSD from occurring? If that is possible, it would make perfect sense for the government to want to insert it prior to actions that could trigger PTSD.

But, if the technology can do more than prevent or heal PTSD, who gets the final say on what can or cannot be done to a soldier’s mind? A rigorous and honest debate on the merits of this technology needs to begin.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the opinion of the writer and do not reflect the policies of this website or organization.

Matt Towns
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Matt Towns

Matt is a former military journalist who spent 10 years in the US Navy. He served in various posts during his career, including a couple of deployments on the USS Valley Forge (CG-50). After leaving the Navy, he worked in management for a number of years before opening his own businesses. He ran those businesses until 2012 when he chose to leave the retail industry and return to writing. Matt currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to the US Patriot blog and other websites about political affairs, military activities and sailing.
Matt Towns
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