07 March 2009

Wired-article-induced neuroscience rant

Part of the reason I enjoy researching, writing and talking about neuroscience is sheer awe. Gradually realiazing how one's conscious will can be understood as a physical process is threatening to some but I find it enormously fascinating and liberating. Neuroscientific understanding is often counterintuitive, because our cultural understanding of ourselves has been - and still is - uninformed by neuroscientific fact. But that growing body of fact is true, and potentially enormously empowering.

That brings me to another reason I do what I do: I want to help people redesign their brains, should they want to. Quoting a recent article in Wired about transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and neuroengineering:
"However odd or uncomfortable the idea of engineering the human brain might seem, if yours is broken enough, the philosophical arguments cease to hold any water: You just want it fixed."
"What bit of themselves would each of us wish to control? Where would we direct our own TMS, if we could? It's a terrible responsibility to consciously shoulder. What is the mind that's choosing the shape of its own brain?"

So, what are the options?

Pharmaceutical drugs and other psychoactive substances is the obvious one. Keep an eye out for over-the-counter stimulants in the next few years (see this recent article in Nature on cognitive-enhancing drugs).

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is another important technology. Look for TMS equipment that can be used in the privacy of your own home (open-source initiative here, dedicated blogs here and here).

And finally there is deep brain stimulation: currently rare and somewhat dangerous but poised to go mainstream given its extraordinary potential as well as the willingness of people and surgeons alike to operate on healthy individuals (plastic surgery). Look for success in Medtronic's rumoured depression trial and pilot studies applying conditional rewarding brain stimulation to treat obesity and related problems.

Anyway, enough of this, spring is here - time to go buy the year's first football.
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