The quest to enhance mood has existed almost since the beginning of time, with mood altering substances that can be imbibed, smoked, popped, inhaled, melted under the tongue or injected–all of which have negative side effects. There now exists, however, the ability to experience euphoria, by altering a few neurons in the brain, with the push of a button. And, reportedly this can be done with, at the most, minimal side effects.
This is not a science fiction movie–it is the result of the collaboration between researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine, University of Illinois, and University of Colorado Boulder who developed a brain implant, as tiny as a stand of hair, that can alter a subject’s brain chemistry via wireless remote control. “We were able to engage the motor circuitry and reward circuitry [of a lab mouse],” Michael Bruchas, Associate Professor of Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine, explained in an interview with VICE Magazine. “Going forward, we’re definitely interested in applications related to depression and anxiety, and learning more about how the brain is encoding information.” According to VICE:
“The researchers’ creation uses a combination of light stimulation and direct application of pharmaceuticals into the brain. Bruchas succeeded with this method in a 2013 study, but only when the test subject was strapped into a machine. Now that a wireless method has been developed, the subject can be observed in all kinds of activities while its brain chemistry is being altered.
With this new method, ‘we can target specific cells, turning them off and on, and so we’re able to really see how this is all wired up.’”
Bruchas’ research represents a significant breakthrough in the study of the brain and the advancement of neurology. And, Bruchas is also buoyed by the expectation that some time in the future, this direct access to brain networks could be used to treat epilepsy, mental illness, chronic pain and brain cancer. But, as is the case with pretty much every advancement in science and technology, this implant could potentially be used for more sinister purposes:
“Yet as with most forms of medical research involving the brain’s pleasure center, the potential for abuse from patients—and exploitation of that abuse from big business—is incredibly high. ‘Anyone with even the most casual sci-fi imagination can conjure up some pretty nefarious uses for a brain implant that controls your body and emotions. Films like Universal Soldier, The Matrix, and The Manchurian Candidate have given us a healthy fear of authoritarian biotechnology. And pulp fiction like Larry Niven’s Known Space stories—where addicts known as ‘wireheads’ starve to death when they’re able to control their own neural pleasure centers—illustrate the danger of having too much access to our feel-good chemistry.'”
Last year, the Wall Street Journal featured an article which envisioned a future in which brain implants would make it possible for humans to absorb entire libraries of knowledge with the mere touch of a button. It is, however, warned that:
“…if, many years down the road, we were able to artificially regulate our emotions, the prefrontal cortex could potentially stop being an influence on our thought process, and therefore stop growing, or begin shrinking. After all, if there’s no consequence for our actions (‘feeling bad’ about doing wrong), our behavior could change drastically. We’d be dependent on the device to regulate our emotions, and become dangerous children if it ever malfunctioned.”
Bruchas is well aware of the ethical concerns: “Technology in the wrong hands always has potentially negative consequences,” he said.
But, what many consider even creepier is the US government’s brain research program. In April 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative . Today, that initiative is supported by several federal agencies as well as a myriad of technology firms, academic institutions, scientists and other key contributors to the field of neuroscience. DARPA supports the BRAIN Initiative through a number of programs. A couple of them are mentioned below:
- “The ElectRx program aims to help the human body heal itself through neuromodulation of organ functions using ultraminiaturized devices, approximately the size of individual nerve fibers, which could be delivered through minimally invasive injection.
- The HAPTIX program aims to create fully implantable, modular and reconfigurable neural-interface microsystems that communicate wirelessly with external modules, such as a prosthesis interface link, to deliver naturalistic sensations to amputees.”
It is the Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program that has, perhaps, the most disturbing implications. This program “aims to develop and test a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device for human clinical use. The device would facilitate the formation of new memories and retrieval of existing ones in individuals who have lost these capacities as a result of traumatic brain injury or neurological disease.”
DARPA has also been highly involved in the efforts to map the human brain, which has many neuroscientists feeling uneasy, referring to it as ill-advised and possibly detrimental to future scientific endeavors. It is difficult to argue against advancements in science that can treat devastating diseases, but it is also hard to ignore the potential for horrific unintended consequences.