Wearable Neurotechnologies: Coming Soon to the Workplace?

"Neuroergonomics...holds vast potential for real-time applications within authentic work environments," write Paul W. Brandt-Rauf, ScD, MD, DrPH, and Hasan Ayaz, PhD, of Drexel University, Philadelphia. They survey the landscape for neurotechnology applications in the workplace, including the role of occupational health professionals in ensuring their appropriate use.

Recent years have seen the development of mobile wireless technologies for noninvasive monitoring of brain activity, including electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). In addition, techniques such as transcranial electrical stimulation with direct current (tES/tDCS) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are being evaluated for the ability to enhance brain function and augmenting human performance during complex tasks, including work-related activities.

The prospect raises questions as to whether these technologies can be used to increase work productivity, and who should make such decisions. Drawing from the growing field of neuro-ethics, the authors present arguments for and against using neurotechnologies in the workplace. On the one hand, individuals have the autonomous right to pursue self-improvement; on the other, neurotechnologies have the potential for misuse, like any new powerful technology.

The editorial discusses possible regulatory controls on neurotechnologies at work. For example, should the information collected by brain-interfacing devices be considered protected medical or health data? Should there be legislation to protect workers from discrimination against refusal to participate in neuroergonomic enhancement? 

Relevant stakeholders and experts—including occupational health professionals—should convene "to consider what applications would be considered acceptable and which should be avoided," Drs. Brandt-Rauf and Ayaz write. They conclude: "[O]ccupational health organizations need to examine their ethical standards to ensure that practicing professionals will be prepared to advise employers on the application of neuroergonomics in their workplaces in a way that is best for the health and safety of their workers."