The Member States of the Executive Board of UNESCO have approved the proposal of the Director General to hold a global dialogue to develop an ethical framework for the growing and largely unregulated Neurotechnology sector, which may threaten human rights and fundamental freedoms. A first international conference will be held at UNESCO Headquarters on 13 July 2023.

RELATED: UNESCO member states adopt first ever global agreement on Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

“Neurotechnology could help solve many health issues, but it could also access and manipulate people’s brains, and produce information about our identities, and our emotions. It could threaten our rights to human dignity, freedom of thought and privacy. There is an urgent need to establish a common ethical framework at the international level, as UNESCO has done for artificial intelligence,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

UNESCO’s international conference, taking place on 13 July, will start exploring the immense potential of neurotechnology to solve neurological problems and mental disorders, while identifying the actions needed to address the threats it poses to human rights and fundamental freedoms. The dialogue will involve senior officials, policymakers, civil society organizations, academics and representatives of the private sector from all regions of the world.

Lay the foundations for a global ethical framework


The dialogue will also be informed by a report by UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) on the “Ethical Issues of Neurotechnology”, and a UNESCO study proposing first time evidence on the neurotechnology landscape, innovations, key actors worldwide and major trends.

The ultimate goal of the dialogue is to advance a better understanding of the ethical issues related to the governance of neurotechnology, informing the development of the ethical framework to be approved by 193 member states of UNESCO – similar to the way in which UNESCO established the global ethical frameworks on the human genome (1997), human genetic data (2003) and artificial intelligence (2021).

UNESCO’s global standard on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence has been particularly effective and timely, given the latest developments related to Generative AI, the pervasiveness of AI technologies and the risks they pose to people, democracies, and jobs.  The convergence of neural data and artificial intelligence poses particular challenges, as already recognized in UNESCO’s AI standard.


Neurotech could reduce the burden of disease…

Neurotechnology covers any kind of device or procedure which is designed to “access, monitor, investigate, assess, manipulate, and/or emulate the structure and function of neural systems”. Neurotechnological devices range from “wearables”, to non-invasive brain computer interfaces such as robotic limbs, to brain implants currently being developed with the goal of treating disabilities such as paralysis.

One in eight people worldwide live with a mental or neurological disorder, triggering care-related costs that account for up to a third of total health expenses in developed countries. These burdens are growing in low- and middle-income countries too. Globally these expenses are expected to grow – the number of people aged over 60 is projected to double by 2050 to 2.1 billion (WHO 2022). Neurotechnology has the vast potential to reduce the number of deaths and disabilities caused by neurological disorders, such as Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Stroke.


… but also threaten Human Rights

Without ethical guardrails, these technologies can pose serios risks, as brain information can be accessed and manipulated, threatening fundamental rights and fundamental freedoms, which are central to the notion of human identity, freedom of thought, privacy, and memory. In its report published in 2021, UNESCO’s IBC documents these risks and proposes concrete actions to address them.

Neural data – which capture the individual’s reactions and basic emotions – is in high demand in consumer markets. Unlike the data gathered on us by social media platforms, most neural data is generated unconsciously, therefore we cannot give our consent for its use. If sensitive data is extracted, and then falls into the wrong hands, the individual may suffer harmful consequences.

Brain-Computer-Interfaces (BCIs) implanted at a time during which a child or teenager is still undergoing neurodevelopment may disrupt the ‘normal’ maturation of the brain. It may be able to transform young minds, shaping their future identity with long-lasting, perhaps permanent, effects.

Memory modification techniques (MMT) may enable scientists to alter the content of a memory, reconstructing past events. For now, MMT relies on the use of drugs, but in the future it may be possible to insert chips into the brain. While this could be beneficial in the case of traumatised people, such practices can also distort an individual’s sense of personal identity.

Risk of exacerbating global inequalities and generating new ones

Currently 50% of Neurotech Companies are in the US, and 35% in Europe and the UK. Because neurotechnology could usher in a new generation of ‘super-humans’, this would further widen the education, skills, wealth and opportunities’ gap within and between countries, giving those with the most advanced technology an unfair advantage.

Read more
Further information about UNESCO’s work on neurotechnology


More in Report

You may also like