If you’re thinking that sounds like the premise of a Black Mirror episode, you’re not alone. Yet at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference earlier this month, two teams demonstrated parts of a new technology that may one day take us there.
Picture this: a series of tiny electrodes sit silently in various parts of the brain, recording the organ’s electrical activity in real time. The data is fed into a personalized algorithm—a “mood map”—that can estimate a person’s general mood based on brain waves alone.
When the system detects patterns that indicate the onset of a depressive episode, it sends out electrical zaps targeting the brain’s mood centers. Under the watchful eye of the algorithm, the system continues its stimulation until the malfunctioning circuits are shocked back into a “happy” state.
Here, the algorithm is in complete charge. Every zap and tweak happens under the hood. The system doesn’t need guidance from a physician, and the person isn’t aware of the zaps—that is, other than a general sense of relief from sadness.
Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), scientists are hoping these futuristic “closed-loop” implants may one day help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or people with severe depression that don’t respond to drug treatments.
“The brain is very different from all other organs because of its networking and adaptability,” says Justin Sanchez, program manager at DARPA. “Real-time, closed-loop neural interfaces allow us to move beyond the traditional static view of the brain and into a realm of precision therapy.”
Although the system is aimed at helping people with mental illness, its potential impact may reach a far wider slice of society.
Without doubt, brain surgery is a high price to pay for “stimulated happiness,” especially for the average person. Yet it’s conceivable that components of the system may eventually be replaced by non-invasive ways to measure and stimulate brain activity.
What happens then? Would you trust others with direct, constant, chronic access to your inner feelings? Would you be tempted to drown out all other emotions with happiness?
Of course, that’s assuming the system actually works.
The core of the system relies on a decades-old technology, deep brain stimulation (DBS).
First approved for treating movement symptoms in Parkinson’s disease, DBS relies on electrodes directly implanted into the brain to deliver electrical pulses. These pulses interact with local neurons and alter their activity.
Like tossing a pebble into a pond of still water, changes to this core group of neurons ripple out across neural circuits. Although neuroscientists haven’t quite figured out the specific mechanisms, DBS seems to provide relief to a slew of neurological disorders. That is, at least in small, scattered trials.
In one early demonstration of the power of DBS, a scientist turned the stimulation system on and off while asking a patient with depression how she felt. Incredibly, the patient only reported feelings of “a cloud lifting” when the system was on—even though she wasn’t aware that the researcher had flipped on the electrical pulses.