As interest in brain implants to treat various conditions rises, it stands to reason that potential recipients might experience anxieties around the idea of a device being surgically implanted inside their brains. For those who have already undergone such a procedure, however, a different worry surfaces: that their device will be forcibly removed. While this may situation may seem like the plot of a dystopian horror novel, such a possibility became all too real for one woman.
The Power of Neurological Implants
Rita Leggett, a 49-year-old resident of Australia and a lifelong sufferer of epilepsy, experienced a ray of hope when she enrolled to participate in an experimental trial for a BCI (brain-computer interface) in 2010. Developed by the neurotech corporation NeuroVista, the cluster of electrodes worked to monitor Leggett’s brainwaves. The BCI would then relay the information to a handheld device. The handheld, in turn, would monitor this data for patterns in Leggett’s brainwave activity and alert her if a potential seizure was imminent.
Following an alert, Leggett would then take preventative medication and sit or lay down to avert a seizure-induced fall. Thanks to the implant, Leggett remained completely seizure-free for two years. During this period, she was able to drive a car, got married, and became much more involved in her work and social life. Leggett herself, known as Patient R for the duration of the trial, stated on multiple occasions that it was the happiest and most confident she had ever been.
The life-changing blessing came to an end in 2013. Due largely in part to a lack of investors, NeuroVista fell into bankruptcy. Leggett, along with the fourteen other trial participants, received the news that her implant would be removed. Leggett and her husband were devastated upon learning that she was about to lose the BCI. The couple attempted to negotiate with the company, even offering to buy the device outright. The company, however, remained adamant, and Leggett was the last trial participant to go through with the removal.
That her offer to purchase the BCI was rejected is not all that surprising. Even if Leggett had been allowed to purchase or keep her implant, there would have been no way to repair it should something go wrong. Barring this, the monitoring system only had enough power for a total of three years. Prudent choice or not, Leggett was effectively dismissed once the removal was complete without any referral for counseling or therapy afterward.
The Present: Life Without the Implant
Now 62, Rita Leggett still mourns the loss of her implant and the freedom it gifted her. By the time her implant was explanted, Leggett had come to think of the machine as a part of her identity as a person. Leggett has often described her experience during those two years as a feeling of unity with the implant. In its absence, she has stated that “they took away that part of me that I could rely on.”
Indeed, the relationship between Leggett and her implant has been described as a form of symbiosis: while Leggett herself benefitted from her implant, the implant was also learning how to improve it’s performance by studying her brain activity. Dr. Frederic Gilbert, an ethicist from the University of Tasmania, described Leggett as a “de novo” person while her implant was still present. Gilbert described this concept to me in an interview as follows:
“In essence, a ‘de novo’ person encompasses individuals who have been transformed or modified through technological symbiotic interventions to enhance their physical or cognitive abilities. Therefore, if both the machine and the human gain supplementary capacity, it can be considered as a ‘de novo’ person.”
With the implant’s removal, this symbiosis came to an abrupt halt for Leggett. She was forced to mourn the outgoing, confident person she had become for over two years. This then raises the question: was the removal of Leggett’s implant, by extension, a removal of part of her identity? Going even further, could NeuroVista’s actions be considered a human rights violation?
A Frightful Future: The Increasing Commonality of Implant Removals
In a similar turn of events, Second Sight Medical Products, a company responsible for manufacturing bionic eye implants, came under fire last year when investigations revealed that they had stopped supporting recipients of their Argus I and Argus II retinal implants. A lack of funds and complications from the COVID-19 pandemic factored largely into this decision.
While there has been no demand for the return of these implants, over three hundred people are in danger of losing the – admittedly limited – vision these machines provide. Even more concerning, those who experience malfunctions or other damages now have no support from the company that provided the implants. While some have decided to have the implant removed, others are hesitant to undergo the necessary surgery. The remains of Second Sight, now merged with Nano Precision Medical, have turned their interest towards vision-improving brain implants, leaving their former customers high and dry.
If this trend continues, cases like Rita Leggett’s may become all too common.