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Weird brain science

Drop the Prozac. Never mind Ritalin. Lose the Lithium. Pharmacology could already be passé if neuroengineering has anything to say…

By Kevin Sauve , in Grey matter: A blog about the brain and behaviour , on March 5, 2009 Tags: , , ,

Drop the Prozac. Never mind Ritalin. Lose the Lithium. Pharmacology could already be passé if neuroengineering has anything to say about cognitive enhancement.

In an excellent two part series, Wired magazine explores breaking research at the interface of bioengineering and brain science. It is at this interface that neuroengineers are finding new ways to manipulate neurons and in doing so have high hopes of mastering the mind.

“If we take seriously the idea that our minds are implemented in the circuits of our brains, then it becomes a top priority to understand how to engineer brains for the better,” said Edward Boyden, a neuroengineer at MIT in an interview with Quinn Norten from Wired.

As neuroscientists continue to unravel the mysteries of the mind the challenge for neuroengineers is to find new ways to tweak neurons while leaving our brains intact. The hope is to mend neurological maladies whether they are severely debilitating or merely subjectively annoying.

Boyden may have found a way to tap into neural networks using research that borderlines science fiction.

By infecting the right motor cortex of a mouse with viruses carrying genes that encode light sensitive proteins Boyden and his colleagues can use photons to control the mouse’s behaviour. The article on Wired’s website includes a video of a mouse with a fibre optic cable protruding from its skull and at the push of a button the mammal spins helplessly in a left-leaning circle.

Boyden uses a less invasive approach known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to manipulate the behaviour of human research subjects. A magnetic coil that rapidly alternates in polarity is held above the head and induces electric currents in the cerebral cortex. Wave it over the left motor cortex and muscles on the right side of the body contract. Hold it over the frontal cortex and some scientists have noticed changes in emotion and motivation.

Boyden hopes to manufacture a smaller, wearable version of the TMS device that could allow people to use it outside of the laboratory, perhaps at home or in the office. He has also developed an open source project that provides instructions on crafting your own homemade version.

Why would anyone want to use a portable mind magnetic? Research with TMS has shown promising results in managing mood and derailing depression. Boyden also believes that one day it may be used as a means to boost creative thinking.

I cannot help but imagine strange future scenarios of mental manipulation: prisoners injected with “light switch” viruses to control behaviour and magnetic helmets in the office to cure the Monday blues. As we piece together every element of the self and find novel ways to engineer new networks, how much of who we are will we be willing to manipulate?

The brain itself is an excellent engineer. Taking advantage of its natural dynamism we reorganize our neural networks as we grow and mature and also when we exercise, learn, and socialize. Everyday we rewrite the script of our minds and do so simply by living our lives.

However, the idea of lifting the lid and tinkering with technology to change the mechanics of our minds sits uncomfortably with many people. If our free will is vulnerable to magnetic stimulation and genetically engineered viruses are we really anything more than organic circuitry?

That idea doesn’t cause me great grief, for even if “I” am nothing more than electrochemical synaptic circuitry the significance of the phenomenon of the self remains. By knowing that water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom changes nothing of the quality of water when I am thirsty.

What does cause me concern is the need for speed, the desire to know mixed with the desire to apply and our natural tendency to want a quick fix. No amount of caution and forethought can be too great in adjusting the seat of the soul, especially if only to make ourselves just a little bit more comfortable.