The marketing of direct-to-consumer ‘neurotechnologies’ can be highly compelling, with promises to improve cognition or read a person’s emotional state. However, many of these devices are not supported by scientific evidence and are unregulated, which poses a significant health threat to the individuals using them. In a recent article published in Science, two bioethicists from Penn Medicine and the University of British Columbia suggest the creation of a working group that would further investigate, monitor and provide guidance for this rapidly growing industry.
"There's a real thirst for knowledge about the efficacy of these products from the public, which remains unclear because of this lack of oversight and gap in knowledge," says Anna Wexler, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. "We believe a diverse, dedicated group would help back up or refute claims made by companies, determine what's safe, better understand their use among consumers, and address possible ethical concerns."
The group would consist of researchers, ethicists, funders, and industry experts. It would act as a clearinghouse for regulatory agencies, third-party organisations which monitor advertising claims, industry, social and medical scientists, funding agencies, as well as the public at large.
The proposal of the authors of the paper is two-fold: create an an independent working group that would survey the main domains of direct-to-consumer neurotechnologies and provide succinct appraisals of potential harms and probable efficacy. Instead of evaluating each product, the appraisals would outline the evidence base including the potential risks, and identify gaps in current knowledge. This group would be responsible for disseminating this information to the public and partnering with organisations well positioned to communicate with key consumer groups.
"Given that government agencies and private enterprises are actively funding research into new methods of modulating brain function," the authors state, "the present generation of [direct-to-consumer] neurotechnologies may be only the tip of the iceberg--making it all the more imperative to create an independent body to monitor developments in this domain."