Neuroscience Could Bring Us Eternal Bliss, But Is That a Good Thing?

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As a taste of what-could-be, they presented an algorithm at the conference that detects when people have a lapse in attention. The participants were asked to concentrate on a task—for example, identifying emotions on computer-generated faces—while having their brain activity monitored. The algorithm eventually learns to pick out neural activity patterns associated with distraction.

When the team stimulated the volunteers’ brains in a region normally responsible for decision-making, their performance in the task markedly improved. The “scatterbrain” neural activity patterns also disappeared.

The team is now working on automating the process so that the algorithm directly triggers stimulation during lapses in attention.

Inside Out

If realized, these DARPA projects would completely transform our treatment of mental illnesses. But scientists are already worried that we may be stumbling into an ethical minefield.

To fully implement these closed-loop systems, the algorithm has to know at all times a person’s true feelings. Although it doesn’t explicitly report mood fluctuations, the data is accessible to researchers and physicians. And if such a treatment is ever commercialized, could patients trust companies to keep their inner feelings safe and private?

Some scientists are also worried what an electric happy pill would mean for a person’s sense of self.

“With any treatment of any brain disease we risk trying to make everyone the same, and treat any variation from the norm as sickness,” remarked Dr. Karen Rommelfanger at Emory University with regards to DBS.

“We want to have magical thinking. But are we going to eradicate depression? No, and we shouldn’t. Being human means the full spectrum of experience,” she says.

It’s never too early to begin these conversations. But to Chang, the near-term benefits—knowing when someone relapses before the full gamut of symptoms strike—already make the projects worthwhile.

“For the first time we’re going to have a window on the brain,” he says.

Image Credit: frankie’s / Shutterstock.com

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