Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Ethical Implications of the Neurotechnology Touchpoints

This piece belongs to a series of student posts written during the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Paris study abroad program taught by Dr. Karen Rommelfanger in June 2018.

By Janet Guo

The TouchPoint Solution™ (commonly referred to as TouchPoints™) is a noninvasive neurotechnology device that one can wear on any part of the body. The device can be accessorized (detachable wristband in each pack available), so it can be worn like a watch or placed inside a pocket or sock. The founders of TouchPoints™, Dr. Amy Serin and entrepreneur Vicki Mayo, consider it to be a neuroscientific device because of the bilateral alternating stimulation tactile (BLAST) action it allows the user’s brain to undergo. This is a device that can affect people in good health or those who suffer from a neurologic disease and is therefore classifiable as a neuroscientific device by the broad scientific definition proposed by Illes & Lombera (2009). The website even claims that the brain can “create new neural pathways that are net positive” and has a “lasting effect on your brain”. In many of the TouchPoints™ advertisements (many of which can be found on the official TouchPoints™ YouTube channel, TouchPoints™ devices are claimed to relieve stress by 70% in under 30 seconds. 

TouchPoints™ was originally launched in late 2015 with the mission of bringing relief to people who have high levels of stress and anxiety. This technology has been through several developments and newer, cheaper versions have been released since its initial launch.  Its presence in news media has been increasing-- Huffington Post (Wolfson, 2017), Mashable (Mashable staff, 2017), and The Washington Times (Szadkowski, 2017) are only a few of the popular news and opinion websites that have published pieces about TouchPoints™. An investigation of the science and ethics behind this device is warranted as the number of sales is increasing greatly due to the expansion of the company to the international level. This expansion was highlighted by founder Dr. Amy Serin at the 2017 SharpBrains Virtual Summit: Brain Health & Enhancement in the Digital Age (SharpBrains, 2018).

TouchPoints™ appears to be a helpful service to those who deal with extreme levels of stress, which is estimated to be around one-third of Americans, according to a 2007 nationwide survey (American Psychological Association, 2007). In addition, TouchPoints™ includes testimonials from users with Parkinson's disease, Autism, and ADHD along with insomnia and general stress, suggesting that its use has helped alleviate some of their symptoms (although there are no clinical claims made by The TouchPoint Solution™). 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Neuropsychologist Dr. Serin and Vicki Mayo claim that TouchPoints™ works by BLAST technology that alters the body’s fight-or-flight (F3) response to stress or anxiety, allowing you to think clearly. Many of the academic studies cited in the TouchPoints™ site found that bilateral stimulation of the prefrontal cortex and inferior temporal lobe of the brain does in fact enhance comfortable feelings and is a recognized and accepted form of psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder, although the exact mechanism is still unclear (Amano & Toichi, 2016; Nieuwenhuis et al., 2012; Servan-Schreiber et al., 2006). Additionally, Nieuwenhuis et al. (2012) found that bilateral stimulation may have some effect on memory, which is not mentioned on the TouchPoints™ site. None of the peer-reviewed literature cited on the TouchPoints™ site extended the study population to those with Parkinson’s disease, Autism, or ADHD. While there are many case studies including testimonial from past TouchPoints™ users and in-house studies (which have undergone no clear peer-review process), these results must be taken with a sense of doubt since there is clear motivation and obvious bias in the studies Dr. Serin conducts to help market her own product. 

Besides critically evaluating the credibility of the science behind TouchPoints™, it is important to highlight some of the major ethical concerns this technology brings to the surface. Firstly, if this product really has the power to alleviate stress by up to 90%, then those who are able to afford it (starting at $160 for the Basic Value Bundle and reaching up to $1,999 for the TouchPoints™ original institutional pack), would have an advantage over those of a lower socioeconomic class. Unequal access has the potential to widen the current achievement gap we see between children from families of upper and lower socioeconomic class in terms of academic success (Smeding et al., 2013). Many of the TouchPoints™ advertisements promote the product by saying you can wear it within your socks or on your wrists underneath a long-sleeve shirt, which would make the device invisible to the naked eye. If TouchPoints™ is able to considerably lower your stress and anxiety levels, would this be fair to those who are asked to perform under the same high-stress conditions without this technology? Does the use of this device need to be publicized in the workplace or school setting? For example, for students who are taking a challenging exam, the one who has TouchPoints™ devices stored in his socks or on his wrists will feel less stress and perhaps may be able to perform better. This calls into question whether those in authority (such as teachers or employers) should hold the responsibility of allowing these devices in testing rooms. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Secondly, as this device becomes cheaper and wide-spread with time, a reliance on this technology may become embedded within society and could even change how we view fundamental features of the human condition. The human body currently has a typical stress response, which involves the release of many stress hormones (Koelsch et al., 2016); however, as time goes on and if this device is used in response to any sort of stress or anxiety, the body may adapt in such a way that it becomes reliant on TouchPoints™. From a neuroethical standpoint, TouchPoints™ has the potential to change a fundamental feature of the human condition mediated through a brain mechanism, although none of the studies on the TouchPoints™ website have addressed this directly. If future research shows the exact mechanism TouchPoints™ induces within the brain, and it differs greatly from the typical stress and anxiety response within the brain, then TouchPoints™ has the potential to alter some of the fundamental conditions of what it means to be human. In line with this, other neuroethical questions also arise: Would reliance on this technology change who you are and how you view yourself? Would diminishing your experience of stress keep you from positively adapting to that stress? Could it change the person you are becoming? 

Thirdly, questions of privacy and safety must be considered. The “Legal Conditions” outline many of the privacy concerns one may have in regard to data gathered by TouchPoints™ such as: Will one’s data be shared with third-parties? What actions will TouchPoints™ take to ensure that personal data, like number of times TouchPoints™ is used per day and personal identification (age, gender, etc.), is protected? Do these protective measures change from country to country? The current conditions are quite vague, and exactly what neurodata is being collected and how that is being analyzed is not explicitly stated. Neurodata is particularly vulnerable because it can contain data that allows for you to be identifiable and alteration or misuse of the data could lead to changes of your fundamental identity. The TouchPoints™ privacy policy states that any materials accessed by third-parties through Touchpoint Properties are available at the user’s own risk. TouchPoints™ also emphasizes that it assumes no responsibility for the “timeliness, deletion, mis-delivery or failure to store any content…, user communications or personalization settings”. This creates room for much concern about what information can be deleted when requested and when it will be deleted. TouchPoints™ can be purchased within many different countries (SharpBrains, 2018), and some services are exclusive to certain countries. TouchPoints™ emphasizes that “those who access or use the Touchpoint Properties from other countries do so at their own volition and are responsible for compliance with the local law”. This forces much of the responsibility on the user in order to ensure compliance with the local law. These aspects of the privacy policy are very general and mention nothing about the real-time access of a user’s data, which should be the minimum privacy standard (Purcell & Rommelfanger, 2017). 

These ethics concerns raise the following questions: Is TouchPoints™ truly a “neuro” technology? How credible and reliable is the research they use to support their claims? How necessary or useful is this device for those without any sort of medical condition? Is it fair for some people to have access and others not to? How might this affect daily human life in the future? TouchPoints™ forces us to consider the broader implications of how much neurotechnology has the potential to impact our daily lives and how easy it is for commercialization of medicalized products to muddy the science behind the product.

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Janet Guo is a junior on the pre-medical track at Emory University majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology (NBB) with a minor in Chinese Studies. Her first professional exposure to neuroethics in an academic setting was in her NBB471 (Neuroethics) course during her study abroad experience in Paris, France and has remained extremely interested in the topic ever since.




References:

Amano, T., & Toichi, M. (2016). The Role of Alternating Bilateral Stimulation in Establishing Positive Cognition in EMDR Therapy: A Multi-Channel Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Study. Plos One,11(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0162735

American Psychological Association. (2007). Stress a Major Health Problem in The U.S., Warns APA. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2007/10/stress.aspx 

Illes, J., & Lombera, S. (2009). Identifiable Neuro Ethics Challenges to the Banking of Neuro Data. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, 10(1), 71-94. Retrieved July 2, 2018 

Koelsch, S., Boehlig, A., Hohenadel, M., Nitsche, I., Bauer, K., & Sack, U. (2016). The impact of acute stress on hormones and cytokines and how their recovery is affected by music-evoked positive mood. Scientific Reports,6(1). doi:10.1038/srep23008 

Mashable staff. (2017, November 27). Project Entrepreneur expands accelerator program to help more women entrepreneurs build scalable companies. Retrieved from https://mashable.com/2017/11/27/project-entrepreneur-3/?europe=true#JkIxMAFH0iqT 

Nieuwenhuis, S., Elzinga, B. M., Ras, P. H., Berends, F., Duijs, P., Samara, Z., & Slagter, H. A. (2013). Bilateral saccadic eye movements and tactile stimulation, but not auditory stimulation, enhance memory retrieval. Brain and Cognition,81(1), 52-56. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2012.10.003 

Purcell, R. H., & Rommelfanger, K. S. (2016). Biometric Tracking From Professional Athletes to Consumers. The American Journal of Bioethics, 17(1), 72-74. doi:10.1080/15265161.2016.1251652 

Servan-Schreiber, D., Schooler, J., Dew, M. A., Carter, C., & Bartone, P. (2006). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Pilot Blinded, Randomized Study of Stimulation Type. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics,75(5), 290-297. doi:10.1159/000093950 

Smeding, A., Darnon, C., Souchal, C., Toczek-Capelle, M., & Butera, F. (2013). Reducing the Socio-Economic Status Achievement Gap at University by Promoting Mastery-Oriented Assessment. PLoS ONE, 8(8). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071678 

Szadkowski, J. (2017, November 22). Holiday Gift Guide 2017 - Best in home and health gadgets. Retrieved from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/nov/22/holiday-gift-guide-2017-best-home-health-gadgets/ 

Wolfson, R. (2017, September 23). A Wearable Stress Relief Device Helps You Relax, While Giving Back To Those In Need. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/a-wearable-stress-relief-device-helps-you-relax-while_us_59c47092e4b0b7022a64696d



Want to cite this post?

Guo, J. (2018). Ethical Implications of the Neurotechnology Touchpoints. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/09/ethical-implications-of-neurotechnology.html

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