Closed-Loop Neuromodulation and Self-Perception in Clinical Treatment of Refractory Epilepsy

American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 14 (1):32-44 (2023)
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Abstract

Background: Newer “closed-loop” neurostimulation devices in development could, in theory, induce changes to patients’ personalities and self-perceptions. Empirically, however, only limited data of patient and family experiences exist. Responsive neurostimulation (RNS) as a treatment for refractory epilepsy is the first approved and commercially available closed-loop brain stimulation system in clinical practice, presenting an opportunity to observe how conceptual neuroethical concerns manifest in clinical treatment. Methods: We conducted ethnographic research at a single academic medical center with an active RNS treatment program and collected data via direct observation of clinic visits and in-depth interviews with 12 patients and their caregivers. We used deductive and inductive analyses to identify the relationship between these devices and patient changes in personality and self-perception. Results: Participants generally did not attribute changes in patients’ personalities or self-perception to implantation of or stimulation using RNS. They did report that RNS affected patients’ experiences and conceptions of illness. In particular, the capacity to store and display electrophysiological data produced a common frame of reference and a shared vocabulary among patients and clinicians .Discussion: Empirical experiences of a clinical population being treated with closed-loop neuromodulation do not corroborate theoretical concerns about RNS devices described by neuroethicists and technology developers. However, closed-loop devices demonstrated an ability to change illness experiences. Even without altering identify and self-perception, they provided new cultural tools and metaphors for conceiving of epilepsy as an illness and of the process of diagnosis and treatment. These findings call attention to the need to situate neuroethical concerns in the broader contexts of patients’ illness experiences and social circumstances.

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