What is Neurotechnology?

Chris Hearne

Neurotechnology is technology that allows enhancement, alteration, or scanning of the brain and related neurological tissues and systems. While often the stuff of science fiction, the neurotechnology industry is actually thriving with various branches. Some of these neurotechnologies are accepted parts of modern medicine, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and pharmaceuticals, while others are still in early theoretical stages.

An MRI machine is an example of neurotechnology.
An MRI machine is an example of neurotechnology.

A good example of modern neurotechnology is that of pharmaceutical drugs that alter brain chemistry. Brain chemistry refers to the complex set of biochemical interactions that are produced by and affect the nervous system. Many of the most popular pharmaceuticals available affect specific aspects of brain chemistry for the purpose of changing human behavior. While not often thought of as an example of neurotechnology, widely used drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and medications used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are considered examples because they specifically alter the way the brain functions.

Neurotechnology has allowed researchers to view brain activity in great detail.
Neurotechnology has allowed researchers to view brain activity in great detail.

Another common and well-known example is brain-imaging technology — MRI and computerized tomography (CT) scanning machines were both designed in the 1970s. These machines allow medical professionals and researchers to view brain activity in detail that was unprecedented in earlier times. This insight can allow for the diagnosis and treatment of injury and disease, as well as a better understanding for how the brain works.

Examples of modern neurotechnology include pharmaceutical drugs that can alter brain chemistry.
Examples of modern neurotechnology include pharmaceutical drugs that can alter brain chemistry.

A more speculative example of this type of technology is cyberkinetics. Cyberkinetic neurotechnology is chiefly concerned with mixing human nervous tissue with artificial implants, such as through a brain-computer interface or other device. Usually, cyberkinetic technology is developed for the purpose of repairing tissue damage or — more controversially — enhancing normal functions. Implants can be used to treat non-congenital blindness and allow prosthetic limbs to come under somatic nervous system control.

The medications used to treat childhood attention deficit disorder (ADD) are considered to be examples of neurotechnology.
The medications used to treat childhood attention deficit disorder (ADD) are considered to be examples of neurotechnology.

Although many innovative neurotechnologies exist on the market and many more are in development, some have raised ethical questions. Psychosurgeries, such as prefrontal lobotomies that were one of the earliest forms of neuroscience, are no longer practiced on the grounds that they damage the essential functions of the human psyche. Many people oppose the use or overuse of drugs that alter brain chemistry — especially in children — partly on the grounds that these artificially change a person’s basic personality. Still, others question the notion of reducing human behavior to its biochemical parts.

Prozac -- the brandname for fluoxetine hydrochloride -- is a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.
Prozac -- the brandname for fluoxetine hydrochloride -- is a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Other ethical concerns include the concept of cyberkinetics and other organic-machine mixes. Some people argue that even though technologies like prosthetic limbs can be helpful, a boundary between human beings and machines must be drawn somewhere as the technology progresses and becomes increasingly sophisticated. The military applications of neurotechnology have also raised ethical problems. Experiments on unknowing victims using mind-altering substances — such as the Central Intelligence Agency-led acid tests of the 1950s and 1960s — have already aroused serious outrage in the past.

Advanced brain imaging is an example of neurotechnology.
Advanced brain imaging is an example of neurotechnology.

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