What are neurorights, and why do we need them?

Neurorights are designed to protect the human brain and mind © iStock_ignatiev

Neurorights are designed to protect the human brain and mind © iStock_ignatiev

EPFL College of Humanities (CDH) researcher Marcello Ienca has recently written an expert report outlining recommendations for developing a framework for human rights of the mind, also known as ‘neurorights’, in the context of rapidly advancing biomedical technology.

Ienca, a researcher in biomedical ethics, was commissioned by the Council of Europe (CoE) to write a report on neurotechnology and human rights in biomedicine, which will serve as a basis for future policy decisions by the CoE. He also co-organized a related roundtable event, entitled "Neurotechnologies and Human Rights Framework: Do We Need New Rights?" on November 9th.

We posed five key questions to Ienca about this emerging category of human rights, and why it is so important, based on his report: “Common Human Rights Challenges Raised by Different Applications of Neurotechnologies in the Biomedical Fields”.

  1. What are neurorights?

Neurorights can be defined as “the ethical, legal, social, or natural principles of freedom or entitlement related to a person’s cerebral and mental domain; that is, the fundamental normative rules for the protection and preservation of the human brain and mind”.

  1. What are some examples of neurotechnologies that have the potential to impact our neurorights?

'Neurotechnology' is an umbrella term used to describe a large variety of technological systems that either monitor (read out) or modulate (write in) brain activity.

'Read-out' neurotechnologies include neuroimaging technologies, which measure brain activity from outside the skull, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG); as well as intracranial electrophysiological monitoring technologies, which measure brain activity from inside the skull, such as intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG).

'Write-in' technologies include neurostimulation technologies, which involve stimulating targeted brain regions either invasively or non-invasively. Some brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), namely neuroinformatic systems that establish a direct connection pathway between brains and machines, provide both read-out and write-in functions.

  1. What are some examples of human rights concerns that these technologies pose?

One concern is the right to mental privacy, which aims to protect individuals against intrusion by third parties in their brain data, as well as against the unauthorized collection of those data.

Another is the right to cognitive liberty, which protects the right of individuals to make free and competent decisions regarding their use of neurotechnology (both freedom from coercion and freedom to enhance one’s own brain function).

The right to mental integrity, which is already recognized by international law (e.g., Article 3 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights), may also protect people against harmful manipulations of their brain activity.

Finally, a right to psychological continuity – which aims to preserve people’s personal identity and the continuity of their mental life from alteration by third parties without consent – could also be impacted by neurotechnologies.

  1. What are some current gaps in international law with respect to neurorights?

Despite the rapid advancement of neurotechnologies, there is currently no mandatory governance framework focused on the human brain and the information derived from it.

It may not be possible to apply data protection laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to the brain and mind if the data obtained from neurotechnology systems are anonymized, even though at the same time, these kinds of data are comparatively easy to re-identify after anonymization.

Instruments like the GDPR may also fail to protect neurotechnological data because they allow for some exemptions to subjects' rights if the data is being used for research or statistical purposes.

Protecting subjects by limiting the use of brain data to a specific purpose is also difficult to achieve, due to the fact that with today’s neurotechnologies, purpose-specific brain data cannot be differentiated from other recorded signals.

  1. How do neurorights differ from other kinds of human rights?

Neurorights are not different than human rights; neurorights are human rights. Indeed, we could say that they are the fundamental core of human rights, as they are designed to protect the human brain and mind: the essence of what makes us human.

About Marcello Ienca

Marcello Ienca is a specialist in bioethics and technology ethics, and also an expert advisor to the Bioethics Committee of the Council of Europe and the OECD Steering Committee on Neurotechnology, where he coordinates the Swiss implementation strategy. At the CDH, Ienca is principal investigator of the ERA-NET-funded multi-national project "Hybrid Minds", and leads a small research unit investigating the interaction between bioethics and AI. He also contributes to the teaching of ethics at EPFL and to the strengthening of possible synergies between CDH and other schools and universities.

Read about Ienca's recent paper on the ethics of doing research using hacked data (30.09.2021)

Common Human Rights Challenges Raised by Different Applications of Neurotechnologies in the Biomedical Fields. Report commissioned by the Committee on Bioethics (DH-BIO) of the Council of Europe. Author: Marcello Ienca.

Author: Celia Luterbacher

Source: College of humanities | CDH

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