A Brave New World

At Thero we believe in the fantastic brain and behavioral research to find cures for debilitating mental disorders. The first part of our mission is to reduce stigma toward mental disorders. Another part of our mission is to promote the value of mental diversity. I’ve often had people ask me, “What’s the difference?” Every so often we come across a breakthrough in science that highlights this difference. Here is one such breakthrough.

Dr. Andres Lozano is a neuroscientist. He and his team use innovative surgical approaches that allow them to adjust circuits in the brain by using electricity.  He and his team can increase or decrease symptoms by turning the electricity up or down on an electrode attached to specific areas in the brain.  During his Ted Talk in 2013 he outlined some of their past successes such as reducing tremors of Parkinson’s disease, turning down sadness of depressed people, and increasing mental functioning of people with Alzheimer’s.  These are incredible results that open up many ethical and legal concerns.

Dr. Lozano warns that we need to be careful of how we apply these new treatments and describes a near future where “cosmetic brain surgery” is possible. Instead of curing illness, such surgeries could be used to “enhance” our cognitive abilities or personalities. He states:

I think society is NOT ready for that now… There’s issues of distributive justice in terms of who will get this (treatment), who will pay for it? Should we be messing with your intrinsic makeup – your intrinsic personality, for one thing.  Secondly, who should be making the decisions as to whether you should have this (treatment) or not?
Dr. Andres Lozano – NPR Interview, Aug 2013

How will it affect our society when people can delete a memory, a thought, a feeling?  How will it affect us as individuals?  I ask, “how WILL it affect us” because this research and the treatments it generates will definitely continue.

Early in 2013 the Obama administration launched the BRAIN Initiative to “revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and epilepsy.”  One of the goals of this initiative is to assess the “ethical, legal, and societal implications” raised by our increased control over the human brain.  The societal impact of these types of neurological approaches may be more difficult to assess than we anticipate.

Valuing Mental Diversity While Curing Disorders

The line between a personality trait and symptom isn’t always clear.  In my experience it is a matter of intensity of the symptom. There is an optimal level of anxiety for each individual just as there is an optimal level of distorting reality for each individual. Everyone is slightly delusional. We all distort reality to some degree, but a personality trait becomes a symptom when it begins to interfere with performance.  Anxiety and delusions can become so severe that we have difficulty focusing on work or being in tune with our significant other. This is where valuing our own mental diversity becomes difficulty because it starts to have a negative impact on our life. An individual’s personality is the unique way that he or she responds to the world around them. Once we are able to tailor our pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to the environment what ones will win out?  What personalities will survive the era of cosmetic brain surgery?

Our personality is unique to each of us, but we may soon have the power to change that. This is why it’s important to think about what is valuable about each symptom. Much like current cosmetic surgery,  we may soon be asked “how big do you want your happiness?”  We may even be able to start using electroceuticals at home to literally change our minds.  What aspects of your personality would you zap away? How low would you turn down your depression, your obsessions, your delusions?  These are questions that we will will soon each need to answer for ourselves.