Neuralink: Technological Panacea Or Time To Panic?
Artificial Intelligence to aid patients suffering from stroke or brain injury
Last week, we featured an article on Elon Musk and his new company, Neuralink. Mr. Musk is one of the most innovative and truly visionary CEOs out there today—you only have to look at Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal to appreciate his range of interests and intellectual acuity. Now, he hopes to develop breakthrough technologies using artificial intelligence (AI) to help patients who have lost their abilities to communicate due to debilitating illnesses such as stroke and/or brain injury, among others.
A stroke is when a part of the brain experiences an interruption of blood flow depriving the brain of oxygen. According to the CDC, every year approximately 795,000 Americans will experience a stroke—130,000 of them will die. In addition, stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability impacting our health care system by more than $33 billion each year which includes costs related to health care services, medicines for treatment, and missed days of work.
By using a computer interface which connects to the brain (although exact details as to how this technology will work are sketchy), Neuralink hopes that patients will be able to recapture their lost abilities which include their language skills. Mr. Musk is proposing “consensual telepathy” which as far as we know, will allow a patient to express ideas to another via connected interface. Harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence is at the core of his technology. AI Is an increasingly more exciting modality.
While we hope Mr. Musk succeeds, there are still questions, society must answer. Who decides whether “consensual telepathy” is really consensual? Can someone else hack a patient’s brain the way cyber intruders hack websites, companies and organizations? And, who will protect a patient’s privacy? Patients and their vulnerabilities are very real concerns. Therefore, medical practitioners and bioethicists must be part of solution and process—not afterthoughts as is often the case.
Justin Killian, the Foundation’s legal advisor believes that the concept of “consensual telepathy” raises fascinating issues, especially from a regulatory and legal perspective. According to Mr. Killian, “It is yet another radical technology that appears to be advancing so quickly that regulatory bodies (and later jurists) will be hard pressed to fully anticipate and comprehensively address potential risks prior to product deployment. Some broad issues would be privacy rights (both in terms of how to limit access to thoughts to authorized recipients, and also how to discern when a thought is “ready” for consumption rather than just a fleeting concept that has not been subject to the patient’s editing and judgment) and property rights: are the fruits of someone’s consensual telepathy (the idea for an invention, the outline of a novel, the hook for a new song) protectable by any extant legal mechanism, and would such protection be appropriate?”
Mr. Killian strongly advises that these issues (and others that have likely yet to be conceived) must be addressed in a timely fashion. “The American system of jurisprudence, in which new regulations are implemented and then gradually refined by years (and sometimes decades) of jurisprudence, is ill-suited to the hyper-acceleration of technological innovation that is now beginning to crest.”
As Mr. Killian further suggests, whether or not inventors like Mr. Musk recruit ethicists and engage legislators preemptively will determine whether or not these amazing new advances can be implemented without unintentionally harming the very people they earnestly aim to serve.
To learn more about strokes, download the CDC fact sheet for more information.
 –Mozzafarian D, Benjamin EJ, Go AS, Arnett DK, Blaha MJ, Cushman M, et al., on behalf of the American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2016 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2016;133(4):e38–360.
Marianne J. Legato, MD, Ph. D. (hon. c.), FACP is an internationally renowned academic, physician, author, lecturer, and pioneer in the field of gender-specific medicine. She is a Professor Emerita of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and an Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Dr. Legato is also the Director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine, which she founded in 2006 as a continuation of her work with The Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University. She received an honorary PhD from the University of Panama in 2015 for her work on the differences between men and women.
At its core, gender-specific medicine is the science of how normal human biology differs between men and women and how the diagnosis and treatment of disease differs as a function of gender. Dr. Legato’s discoveries and those of her colleagues have led to a personalization of medicine that assists doctors worldwide in understanding the difference in normal function of men and women and in their sex-specific experiences of the same diseases.
She began her work in gender-specific medicine by authoring the first book on women and heart disease, The Female Heart: The Truth About Women and Coronary Artery Disease, which won the Blakeslee Award of the American Heart Association in 1992. Because of this research, the cardiovascular community began to include women in clinical trials affirming the fact that the risk factors, symptoms, and treatment of the same disease can be significantly different between the sexes. Convinced that the sex-specific differences in coronary artery disease were not unique, Dr. Legato began a wide-ranging survey of all medical specialties and in 2004, published the first textbook on gender-specific medicine, The Principles of Gender-Specific Medicine. The second edition appeared in 2010 and the third edition, dedicated to explaining how gender impacts biomedical investigation in the genomic era, won the PROSE Award in Clinical Medicine from the Association of American Publishers in 2018. A fourth edition is forthcoming.
She also founded the first scientific journals publishing new studies in the field, The Journal of Gender-Specific Medicine, and a newer version, Gender Medicine, both listed in the Index Medicus of the National Library of Medicine. She has founded a third peer-reviewed, open access journal, Gender and the Genome, which focuses on the impact of biological sex on technology and its effects on human life.
Dr. Legato is the author of multiple works, including: What Women Need to Know (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Eve’s Rib (Harmony Books, 2002), Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget (Rodale, 2005), Why Men Die First (Palgrave, 2008), The International Society for Gender Medicine: History and Highlights (Academic Press, 2017), and most recently, The Plasticity of Sex (Academic Press, 2020). Her books have been translated into 28 languages to date.
As an internationally respected authority on gender medicine, Dr. Legato has chaired symposia and made keynote addresses to world congresses in gender-specific medicine in Berlin, Israel, Italy, Japan, Panama, South Korea, Stockholm, and Vienna. In collaboration with the Menarini Foundation, she is co-chairing a symposium on epigenetics, Sex, Gender and Epigenetics: From Molecule to Bedside, to be held in Spring 2021 in Italy. She maintains one of the only gender-specific private practice in New York City, and she has earned recognition as one of the “Top Doctors in New York.”