Columbia’s Yuste Delivers Keynote to Open Neurorights Conference in Chile

March 24, 2021

Rafael Yuste, Columbia Professor of Biology and one of the initiators of the White House's BRAIN Initiative, delivered the keynote address to kick off a three-day international conference regarding neurorights.

The virtual conference, held mid-March and entitled “Neurorights in Chile: The Philosophical Debate,” was co-sponsored by the Chilean Senate, Universidad Alberto Hurtado and Columbia University, with other opening remarks by Chilean Senator Guido Girardi and Eduardo Silva, Dean of Universidad Alberto Hurtado.

The event brought together leading experts in neurobiology and neuroethics in order to discuss the need to establish neurorights. According to Yuste, this is essential so as to protect citizens from potential abuses that may arise from new technology that can read brain activity and change that activity.

In fact, a neurorights bill is being considered in Chile’s Congress, making the country a pioneer worldwide. Yuste has been working with Senator Girardi, president of the Challenges of the Future Senate Committee and principal backer of the bill, on this issue. Taking this further, Yuste proposes using neurorights as a basis for a new International Declaration of Human Rights.

Following the event kick off, Yuste participated in the conference’s first seminar, “Neurorights: Present and Future.” During that event, he reviewed why the study of the brain is so important. “The brain isn’t just another organ in the body, it’s what generates all of our mental and cognitive abilities. Perception, memory, thoughts, behavior, imagination, emotions are generated in a way that we don’t understand, by the firing of large networks of neurons in the skull,” he said.

The neuroscientist noted that understanding the functioning of the brain will have “fundamental importance for humanity” for three reasons:

  • Scientific: It will enable us to understand the human mind for the first time, to see what a human being is and understand why we behave the way we do.
  • Medical: Mental or neurological diseases – including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression, Parkinson’s, mental retardation, stroke, paralysis - currently lack effective therapies “in spite of the titanic efforts of psychiatrists and neurologists,” Yuste noted. “Brain diseases are the dark corner of medicine. As doctors, we don’t understand how the system works, so it’s very hard to fix the system when it’s broken.”
  • Technological and economic: The nervous system in all animals can compute very sophisticated calculations with very little energy, using an alternative way of computing than that which has been implemented in digital computers. “The more we understand how the brain works, the more our computing technology will be revolutionized. It’s expected that understanding the brain will lead to a new type of technology,” he said.

It is in this last point that the private sector has taken a keen interest. Yuste pointed to the fact that last year the US government invested an estimated US$ 550 million in funding neurotechnological research, while the private sector invested an estimated US$ 3 billion. “There is a global race for neurotechnology,” Yuste said.