A team of researchers from Toronto Western Hospital has recently implanted some electrodes in the brains of some Alzheimer’s patients for a treatment called “Deep Brain Stimulation” (1). The electric shocks, when applied to parts of the brain responsible for memory, might be able to jump start the failing bits and help Alzheimer’s patients recover some of their lost function.
If it works, this would be a wonderful boon for Alzheimer’s sufferers, who number some 500,000 in Canada alone, and is a very debilitating and degenerative disease that causes a lot of emotional pain for patients and their families. However, the mechanism for the improvement is not understood, and indeed may not even exist – the researchers are currently lobbying for a larger clinical trial to really ascertain its effectiveness.
I think these brain implants, along with many other medical innovations such as artificial organs, limbs, exoskeletons, is showing a cultural acceptance of the blending of biology and machinery – something transhumanists are very excited about. Could we, in a not too distant future, see real life cyborgs walking out in the street? Athletes are beginning to complain about artificial limbs giving an unfair advantage (2), and there are now artificial eyes that can help blind people see (3). Sooner or later (I tend to think sooner), artificial body parts will start to become more effective than biological parts, and at this point, not only the handicapped will be the ones clamoring to get the new, fangled prosthetics. I know I would certainly love to have an eye that had binocular vision and displayed google restaurant reviews as I walk down the street.
At which point, however, might there be a cultural backlash againstartificial augmentation? I’ve talked to many people who believe that genetic alteration of babies for better intelligence or health is a sin against nature. Isn’t replacing most of your body with machines be the same thing? Or perhaps since it’s not changing the very “essence” of yourself, it’s more palatable? What do you think?