Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline, “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” In a new article, Associate Professor of Sociology Anthony Hatch writes about troubling ethical questions raised by the emergence of a new type of digital drug, which contains a sensor that communicates back information about the patient to doctors and pharmaceutical companies. Hatch is also associate professor of science in society, associate professor of African American studies.
Digital mental health drug raises troubling questions
Moments after Neo eats the red pill in “The Matrix,” he touches a liquefied mirror that takes over his skin, penetrating the innards of his body with computer code. When I first learned about the controversial new digital drug Abilify MyCite, I thought of this famous scene and wondered what kinds of people were being remade through this new biotechnology.
Otsuka Pharmaceuticals and Proteus Digital Health won Food and Drug Administration approval to sell Abilify MyCite in late 2017. This drug contains a digital sensor embedded within the powerful antipsychotic drug Abilify, the brand name for aripiprazole, which is used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. The goal of the digital sensor is for doctors to monitor their patients’ intake of Abilify MyCite remotely and ensure that the patient is adhering to the correct drug dose and timing.
Pills with embedded sensors mark a new era in digital health and, I believe, herald the arrival of a new kind of digital cyborg identity, which sociologist Deborah Lupton defines as “the body that is enhanced, augmented or in other ways configured by its use of digital media technologies.” Drugs are cybernetic technologies in that we absorb pharmaceuticals through metabolic processes that biochemically recode our brains and bodies.
The figure of the cyborg helps us recognize the potential of digital health technologies for enhancing human health, while at the same time critique how the practices of digital health can work to coerce, marginalize or transform individual people and entire social groups. In my view, having pills that connect us to our doctor and pharmaceutical companies via an app is dehumanizing and reduces patients’ psychic lives to a digital readout.