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Developments in brain implants for humans revive reminders of neurorights


This week, Elon Musk announced that his company, Neuralink, implanted a chip into a human brain for the first time ever. The chip is supposed to give people the ability to control devices using brain waves, which sounds kind of scary. And there's a lot of concern that this technology, if it works, would create access to the thoughts in people's heads. Chile enshrined neurorights into its constitution two years ago. It's part of a similar effort across Latin America. And now at least two U.S. states are considering legislation to that effect to protect those private thoughts.

Rafael Yuste has been a part of those efforts. He's a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Columbia University. He also co-founded the NeuroRights Foundation. Good morning. Thanks for being on the program.

RAFAEL YUSTE: Hi. Good morning, everyone.

FADEL: So let's start with the basics. What are neurorights?

YUSTE: OK. So neurorights are new human rights to protect brain activity and brain data, brain information. And the reason this has to be protected is because for the first time in history, we have the technology - neurotechnology - that allows us to map the activity of the brain and the neurons in the brain to decipher it and also to alter it. So this is the first time that we can get, with that technology, which are brain chips or optical technology or magnetic, into the brains of people.

FADEL: OK. So - but in layman's terms, does this mean people could read your thoughts, change the way you think? I mean, what could this do?

YUSTE: Down the line, that would be possible. In fact, this is possible already with patients. There's - neurotechnology has been pioneered in the lab and in the clinic to help patients that have, for instance, paralysis. And you can implant a chip in the brain and use that chip as a brain-computer interface to connect the person's brain to a computer or to robotic arms and, that way, interpret the thoughts. And this has also been done to decode speech - you know, language - in people that are paralyzed and cannot speak. And through neurotechnology, they can communicate with the outside.

FADEL: So it sounds like there are really positive opportunities with this type of technology, but also, if used in the wrong way, it sounds like it could be quite invasive.

YUSTE: Yeah. I mean, just like every other technology that humans have invented, starting with fire, you can always use it for good or for bad, no? And neurotechnology is the same. So it's neutral. And obviously, people like us were developing it for scientific and medical reasons. You know, I'm originally an M.D. And we have to - we have the urgency to help all these patients. Who among your audience doesn't have family members or friends that suffer from some devastating brain disease? But these same methods that are - allow us to go into the brain of a paralyzed person and have her talk to us can be used to decode the thoughts of someone who's not paralyzed or decode images or get into the sensitive data.

FADEL: Just really quickly, I know your foundation has helped to shape legislation in ways to protect neuroprivacy. I mean, are there any federal protections for neuroprivacy, and what types of protections do there need to be?

YUSTE: Yeah. So if the neurotechnology is used in the clinic, then we're good. It's protected by HIPAA. It's protected by - it's allowed by the FDA, no? So they fall within the realm of medical technology, and brain data is treated as sensitive.

FADEL: Rafael Yuste is a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University and a co-founder of the NeuroRights Foundation. Thank you for your time.

YUSTE: Thank you.

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