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Defending the Brain

Across the university, our minds are top of mind

September 05, 2023 | By Scott Huler 

Originally published on Duke Magazine

If Leonard White shows you around the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, there’s a good chance he will hand you an actual brain. It weighs about three pounds, but unlike the squishy one in your skull, brains preserved for study feel rubbery. And visitors love to hold them. 

“They respond with wonder, with excitement, with maybe a bit of nervousness, but with amazing curiosity,” says White. “And it’s a very rewarding experience for my guests, as well as for myself.”  

As associate director of DIBS and an associate professor of neurology, White is one of about 200 researchers, scientists, physicians and educators at Duke who are working to defend our brains against an onslaught of physical, psychological and technological forces. Ailments such as stroke, Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and disorders such as anxiety, depression and addiction are constantly on the attack. Newer, more philosophical threats are being raised by the significant advances taking place in electronic technology and artificial intelligence.  

The concerns are too broad for one department to contain, says White. “It’s more than neuroscience, it’s more than psychology, it’s more than biology, theory or computational science. It has to involve all of that.” 

So DIBS, founded in 2008, acts as the hub for the network of Duke resources that share an interest in the brain: its physiology, its function, its relation to the rest of the body and the world. 

“We certainly imagined that there would be contributions from across the university in domains that brain scientists working in their labs seldom encountered,” White says. “Including folks over at the law school.” 

Those folks include Nita Farahany A.M.’04, J.D.’04, Ph.D.’06, Robinson O. Everett distinguished professor of law and philosophy, founding director of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and a member of that DIBS faculty network. Her book “The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right To Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology” came out in March and raised a fundamental and terrifying issue about our brains – whether what’s in there is private.  

“Scientists, companies, governments can actually decode attention, basic emotions, and information” from your brain, she says, which she finds deeply worrying. Farahany studies the ethical, legal, and social aspects of emerging technologies such as genomics and artificial intelligence. So she has watched closely as technology for interpreting internal brain processes from the outside has progressed. She calls the brain “the last fortress,” and she wants to make sure it has the battlements and drawbridges it needs.  

Brain research goes on all over Duke, but Farahany is leading the way in defending our brains from those looking inside. After climate change, our “most existential current threat” she says, “is the lack of ability to think freely in the age of neurotechnology and AI.” 

After climate change, our “most existential current threat is the lack of ability to think freely in the age of neurotechnology and AI.”

– Nita Farahany

Farahany connects to this issue personally. She has suffered from migraines all her life, so she recognizes the enormous value in the improved capacity to look into the brain from the outside. “I would be a very different human being if I didn’t have the ability to intentionally both peer into my own brain and find every therapeutic method that could try to make it feel better.” And her family background is Iranian, so she’s seen members of her own family suffer “censorship and self-censorship in reaction to the surveillance state” and fears misuse of invasive technology here. 

Cover of the book Battle for your Brain
Picture of Farahany

Scientists have long been able to track the brain’s electrical activity through electroencephalograms (EEG) and blood flow through enormous magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) machines, giving basic understanding of brain functions. Functional MRI (fMRI) gives a glimpse into the real-time status of brain activity, showing where blood flow increases during different tasks. If you’re thinking of something happy, certain regions of your brain respond – of something stressful, other regions. An fMRI can literally watch you think, and thus, perhaps, show someone else what you’re thinking. But Farahany gives examples of much smaller, more portable devices that measure various aspects of brain function, making heretofore completely personal information plausibly public. Neurofeedback headsets, for example, that enable you to manage your state of mind – but people use these devices, she warns, “without thinking about where that data is going.”  

In some cases, these devices can do tremendous good. Chinese high-speed rail drivers wear caps that measure drowsiness and keep them from falling asleep at the wheel. On the other hand, she describes a defendant in the United Arab Emirates who was forced to undergo an EEG, in which law enforcement scientists saw a “recognition” pattern when he was shown pictures of the crime.  

“I’m really careful with the language I use to not try to overstretch about what it is that can be decoded from the brain,” she says. “If I had launched the book a year ago, I think it would have launched into some skepticism.” But in May, the University of Texas published a study that found that powerful artificial intelligence could in some circumstances decode the brainwaves of subjects listening to a news story and recreate the story from their brainwaves. Skepticism diminishes, and Farahany advises action. 

“If we just follow the passive approach to all this technology,” she says, “we know where it goes, and that’s not good, right?” So for Farahany that means the time to move is now. “As I lay this out, most people can fill in the blanks and be like, ‘We’re screwed, right?’ Happily, I don’t end there. But this is our last bastion of freedom; there’s no other form of privacy that’s left after that.” So, obviously, the next step: “We put into place some rights and remedies now.” As she says in her book, we need “to make it a clear legal priority to protect our mental experiences as much as our other physical ones.” 

Alison Adcock, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, director of the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and interim director of DIBS, agrees. “People have a pretty impressive talent for coming up with rules that suit them and their pockets,” she says. “I think the kinds of guardrails that [Farahany is] interested in are important to be thinking about.” She also stresses that the kind of brain information Farahany is concerned about can be gathered currently only with the cooperation of the subject. The University of Texas study, for example, required participants to spend hours in MRI machines to train the AI to interpret their brain responses.  

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a faculty network member of DIBS, Chauncey Stillman distinguished professor of practical ethics, and a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, agrees. “If cognitive liberty is interpreted in such a way that employers are not allowed to force their employees to wear these devices, then yes, it can make a difference.” Consumers may avoid a company that forces its employees to compromise their liberty, or investors may not invest. “So yes, an international law could make a difference. I don’t think it’ll stop it, but it will certainly slow the spread.” But he, like Adcock and Farahany, fears that the rapid improvement in AI and the erosion of privacy everywhere represent developments equally concerning. 

In fact, with colleagues and students he’s involved in the earliest stages of trying to design a device that would advocate for you before you interact with a website or device. You would identify your beliefs and preferences and the device, whatever it turned out to be, would predict – and protect – your rights. “Before you give away your rights, you can be informed that this violates your values,” he says, though such a device is a long way off. 

Farahany raises powerful issues about privacy and, as she says, cognitive liberty. All over Duke scientists are working on brain research that, in one way or another, defends our brains. Adcock’s lab works with volunteer participants to see whether they can use neurofeedback – from within an MRI machine – to improve their performance on motivational tasks, hopefully developing an understanding that will enable people to improve performance on tasks throughout their lives. Jamila Minga, assistant professor of head and neck surgery & communication sciences and member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, works with survivors of right-hemisphere stroke, trying to understand the unique communication issues they face.  

Gregory Cogan, assistant professor in the departments of neurology and neurosurgery and a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, is collaborating with the lab of Jonathan Viventi, assistant professor in the department of biomedical engineering. The two are working to create flexible electronic devices that could improve the capacity of those with neurodegenerative disorders such as ALS or multiple sclerosis to communicate. And William Wetsel, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, works with mice to find pharmacological molecules that will help treat anxiety, depression and addiction.  

DIBS does more than support and connect researchers; it contains a strong element of pure education. It provides internships and educational opportunities to high school and college students, and on Coursera, White teaches a course on medical neuroscience that is one of the website’s most popular offerings. White calls that “possibly the achievement of which I am most proud,” enabling him to connect with people all over the world “united in their passion for brain science.”   

DIBS is planning exhibits around the recognizable glass box entrance to its basement space in the Levine Science Research Center, and Adcock hopes for an on-campus MRI machine, so students, researchers and study subjects will not need to enter the medical environment of the hospital. This would not only add research capacity but increase opportunities for nonclinical MRI uses.  

Adcock imagines students “thinking about their relationships with their brains,” she says, who can then “reflect on this experience and talk to philosophy professors about it.”