NANO Bionic implants raise ethical questions

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Bionic implants raise ethical questions

Friday, 29 February 2008 Anna Salleh

bionic hands

What happens when people with bionic implants interact with their family, friends and wider society? Philosophers urge the public to think about the social and ethical implications of bionic engineering (Source: iStockphoto)

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Australian researchers trying to regrow damaged spinal cords with tiny bionic implants are seeing for the first time what’s happening at the nanoscale.

Meanwhile, philosophers working alongside the researchers say it’s time to find out more about how the public feels about such bionic research, which in some cases is being used to enhance human memory, physical abilities and perception.


Researchers told the International Conference On Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Melbourne this week that they are working towards repairing damaged tissue by extending bionic ear technology.

The bionics program at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science is developing flexible conducting polymers that can be implanted in the body and interact directly with living cells.

The polymers can deliver electrical, mechanical or chemical messages to cells, such as nerve and muscle cells, and receive signals back.

Dr Michael Higgins and colleagues are packing the polymers with cell growth factors and using them to encourage nerve cells to grow in the lab.

When an electrical stimulus is applied to the polymers they pulsate and slowly release the chemicals.

Both the mechanical movement itself and the chemicals it releases can help cells to grow but it’s not yet clear how exactly this works.

To explore this, Higgins has been using an atomic force microscope to take a nanoscale look at what’s happening.

This means he can look in unprecedented detail at the real-time interaction between the polymer and the proteins and receptors on the surface of nerve cell to understand how best to make them communicate with each other.

Higgins says the polymers could be used as a generic interface for a range of bionic applications.

What does the public think?

Philosophers Dr Rene Kyle and Professor Susan Dodds work in the same research centre at the University of Wollongong and also presented at the nanotechnology conference.

Their role is to look at the social and ethical implications of bionic research.

They say it is important for scientific researchers in bionics to start talking to the public to find out what they think of this technology and how it might be applied.

“Obviously there are benefits of the technology,” says Kyle. “But if people feel excluded they are less likely to take the technology up.”

Kyle says past experience with the cochlear implant showed how important it was to talk to groups who are most likely to be affected by the technology, including people with disabilities and their carers.

“The deaf community as a whole was really angry that it wasn’t involved as the research and development progressed,” she says.

Dodds says it’s an issue of respect.

“There’s a recognition that this technology does shape the world in which people live.”


Kyle and Dodds say bionics could exacerbate existing discrimination against people with disabilities, especially when only some will be able to afford it, and could affect their relationships in the world.

“It’s not just a technical issue but it’s one that has social dimensions,” says Dodds.

Looking into the future, she ponders the issues that bionics aimed at enhancing memory might bring.

“What will it mean beyond being able to do well in tests?” she asks.

“Imagine a world in which you, but not your partner, could remember every conversation you’ve ever had,” says Dodds. “It could have a bizarre effect on our social relations.”


Worth the money?

Bionics aimed at repairing or enhancing human bodies also raises the ethical issue of spending scant public health resources on select disabilities.

Higgins and colleagues say they welcome Dodds and Kyle’s thought-provoking comments.

“It’s good to have a deeper understanding about what you’re doing rather than just a technical aspect of it,” says Higgins.

Tags: ethics, neuroscience, robots-and-artificial-intelligence, brain-and-nervous-system

8 Responses to NANO Bionic implants raise ethical questions

  1. There is an urgent need for thorough public debate and consultation before these devices are let loose on society.

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