,A file photo of a man with an electroencephalography (EEG) cap which measures brain activity. Yuste is part of a group of scientists and lawmakers, stretching from Switzerland to Chile, who are working to rein in the potential abuses of neuroscience by companies from tech giants to wearable startups. — Reuters
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BERLIN: A turning point for Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at New York’s Columbia University, came when his lab discovered it could activate a few neurons in a mouse’s visual cortex and make it hallucinate.
The mouse had been trained to lick at a water spout every time it saw two vertical bars, and researchers were able to prompt it to drink even with no bars in sight, said Yuste, whose team published a study on the experiment in 2019.
“We could make the animal see something it didn't see, as if it were a puppet,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. “If we can do this today with an animal, we can do it tomorrow with a human for sure.”
Yuste is part of a group of scientists and lawmakers, stretching from Switzerland to Chile, who are working to rein in the potential abuses of neuroscience by companies from tech giants to wearable startups.
Following his team's discovery, he launched the NeuroRights Initiative, which advocates five "neuro-rights" to protect how a person's brain data is accessed and used, including a right to mental privacy and to free will.
"Right now, it's the wild west," Yuste said.
In Chile, senate member Guido Girardi is pushing to translate those principles into law, with a bill that would give legal protection to a suit of neuro-rights, and a complementary reform to the country's constitution.
This month, the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research began debating Girardi's proposal, which got unanimous support from parliament in December 2020.
His office hopes the bill will be adopted later in the year.
"If this technology is industrialized without the proper regulations and rules, it will threaten fundamental human autonomy," he said in a phone interview.
Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has issued its own neurotechnology guidelines, noted Marcello Ienca, a researcher at ETH Zurich's Health Ethics and Policy Lab, who works on the OECD project.
"Usually people only start talking about ethics and regulations after a big scandal, but with neurotech I hope we can take on these questions before that scandal," he said.
Advances in brain science like those made by Yuste's team have made it possible to penetrate the brain using censors and implants and access some degree of neural activity.
The US Food and Drug Administration has approved deep brain stimulation procedures – implanting electrodes in the brain – to treat a range of disorders from Parkinson's disease to epilepsy.