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Cool to some, cruel to others

It?s important to recognize that consumer-friendly news reports about a promising new technology that?s years away can be somewhat torturous for people with conditions that need that technology now. Case in point: I know someone with a progressive and debilitating neurological disease who asked me the other day to contact a researcher she read about in Newsweek, who implanted a silicon chip into the brain of a person paralyzed from the neck down. The chip enabled the participant to direct a c

By | October 28, 2005

It?s important to recognize that consumer-friendly news reports about a promising new technology that?s years away can be somewhat torturous for people with conditions that need that technology now. Case in point: I know someone with a progressive and debilitating neurological disease who asked me the other day to contact a researcher she read about in Newsweek, who implanted a silicon chip into the brain of a person paralyzed from the neck down. The chip enabled the participant to direct a computer to send email, and use a robotic hand. The article quotes the researcher, John Donoghue at Brown University in Rhode Island, who suggested the chip could eventually be used to control paralyzed arms and legs. The writer says that ?there?s a long way to go??the technology fills an entire lab, and implanting the chip requires ?extensive surgery.? Still, the article concludes that, ?for people suffering from spinal-cord injuries, the tiny chip could change lives.? No one could deny that this concept is very cool, and many other consumer-level news articles have suggested the same. (We also covered the story, targeted to our professional audience.) But someone who needs that chip now may read the news quite differently. Even though she has a PhD in psychology and is very consumer-savvy, the reader who approached me about the story missed the part that mentioned the technology was a long way away from becoming a viable option for the average person with neurological impairments. Instead, she asked me to contact the researcher to see how she could get this chip to help her with her day-to-day needs. I had the sad task of explaining that the chip was still highly experimental, and not useful for her daily life. I?m sure she took some comfort in knowing people were addressing her needs, but that was likely overshadowed by her realization that anything practical was years away. People who are doing promising work deserve attention for it, and the world should be able to see where research is headed. I?m not saying don?t cover promising technologies, and writers and scientists who include caveats about the work certainly can?t control what people do and don?t absorb from an article. I don?t think Donoghue did anything wrong in his interviews with Newsweek. But descriptions of future technologies can be heartbreaking for people who need those technologies now. I just want to remind scientists interviewed by consumer publications -- and journalists who write those articles -- to always remember that.

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