Neuromodulation, Agency and Autonomy
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Neuromodulation consists in altering brain activity to restore mental and physical functions in individuals with neuropsychiatric disorders and brain and spinal cord injuries. This can be achieved by delivering electrical stimulation that excites or inhibits neural tissue, by using electrical signals in the brain to move computer cursors or robotic arms, or by displaying brain activity to subjects who regulate that activity by their own responses to it. As enabling prostheses, deep-brain stimulation and brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) are forms of extended embodiment that become integrated into the individual’s conception of himself as an autonomous agent. In BCIs and neurofeedback, the success or failure of the techniques depends on the interaction between the learner and the trainer. The restoration of agency and autonomy through neuromodulation thus involves neurophysiological, psychological and social factors.
KeywordsAgency Autonomy Brain–computer interfaces Deep-brain stimulation Neurofeedback Neuromodulation
I am grateful to the other participants in the symposium, “Changing the Brain, Changing Society: Clinical and Ethical Implications of Neuromodulation Techniques” at the Brocher Foundation, Hermance, Switzerland in June 2012 for their comments on a presentation on which this paper is based. I also thank an anonymous reviewer for Brain Topography for comments on an earlier version of this paper, which was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in the paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the John Templeton Foundation.
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