Wellbeing and Mental Health

3 reasons brain science is terrific and terrifying

An artist performs under water during a dress rehearsal for 'Amaluna', a show by Cirque du Soleil, at the Royal Albert Hall in London

"Unlocking those mysteries will be transformative for society." Image: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Nita Farahany
Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law and Philosophy; Director, Duke Science and Society, Duke University
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Pick up a newspaper any day of the week and you’ll likely see articles breathlessly describing our progress towards unlocking the mysteries of the human brain. If the 1990s were the decade of the human genome, marked by the Human Genome Project (the world’s largest collaborative biological project), this is the era of the human brain.

With projects such as BRAIN and the Human Brain Project now well underway, and billions of dollars of private funding advancing neurological research and discovery, the future of brain science is within sight.

When he launched the BRAIN initiative in the United States, President Barack Obama said: “As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter between our ears.” Unlocking those mysteries will be transformative for society. Which is terrific, and terrifying. Consider the possibilities:

1. Monitoring

What if an epileptic knew they were on the brink of a seizure, but could be warned in time to prevent its occurrence? Or if, through simple and unobtrusive brain monitoring, a diabetic could be warned that their blood sugar was dropping to a critically low level in time to avoid insulin shock? Consumer-based electroencephalograph (EEG) devices already enable real-time monitoring of the human brain and may soon empower patients to track these health conditions and others – simply, affordably and at home.

But real-time brain monitoring doesn’t just benefit healthcare. You are likely already familiar with the push to add safety features in vehicles and the incentives being offered by insurance companies for installing features such as built-in breathalyzers or drowsiness detectors. Drowsiness while driving is one of the leading causes of car accidents, with over 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths attributable to drowsy driving in the US alone in 2013. One company, Neurosky, has developed a headset that reads EEG activity from the brain, and can detect a person’s drowsiness while driving. And Jaguar is in the midst of putting these types of sensors into the headrest of the driver’s seat to ensure individuals are fit to drive.

But how do we feel about data from our brains being transmitted to insurance companies, employers, physicians and others? Are there mechanisms in place that safeguard us against the misuse of our personal information?

2. Enhancement

The ability to improve our mental capacities offers great promise and great predicaments. A lot of us already do it: we drink coffee, exercise, eat and sleep well. But what if we could become faster, better and smarter by taking new medications with unknown long-term side effects or by applying electrical stimulation to regions of our brains that might affect the function of other regions of our brains? That’s one of the promises on the horizon offered by brain science.

Nootropics include drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals and foods that may improve aspects of mental functioning. This could include improving memory, motivation, attention or the speed of processing of information. Many of these substances are regulated, and many are not. Most of them are untested in healthy populations and few of them come with any long-term data about their potential ill effects. And yet, they offer a seductive promise of enabling us to sleep less, perform better, remember longer, and gain a potential competitive edge in an increasingly competitive society.

We enhance our brains every day – from the coffee we drink first thing in the morning, the extra tuition we take to get into college, the music classes we enroll in, the basic diet and exercise regimes we follow, and the classes we attend. All of these things change our brains. And that’s a good thing.

A recent online poll found that one in five of the 1,400 respondents had used Ritalin, Provigil or beta-blockers for non-medical purposes. Polls of incoming college students show that at least one in three has used smart drugs. This is already a choice that large numbers of people are making. “Smart drugs” and devices may be just one of the many ways that people exercise free choice in life.

To the extent that smart drugs work – to improve focus, motivation, attention, concentration or memory – should we celebrate them? What if taking a smart drug gives us the capacity to study harder and longer, to the point that we cure cancer? Or develop tools for staying in touch, for solving social ills or for improving our overall happiness?

But by improving our brains via these means, are we somehow “cheating” ourselves of more “natural” accomplishments? Are there some settings, such as college campuses or high schools, where the competitive edge offered by these interventions comes at the expense of other students, such as those with a lack of access or resources? Will the result be to widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”? Are there groups of people who are more vulnerable than others, who may be coerced into changing their brains in these ways?

What about the side effects, short-term and long-term, of changing our brains through these interventions? Are they more or less significant than the many risks we expose ourselves to every day? Who should evaluate these risks and how should we communicate them to ordinary consumers?

3. Understanding pain

Over the last decade researchers have made great progress in our understanding of pain. We now see it as a condition in and of itself, one that fundamentally alters the nervous system and is not merely a symptom of other conditions. Neuroimaging allows us to see what was once invisible, revealing the mysteries of how the brain processes pain, and how it affects everything from emotional well-being to the functioning of our organs.

To understand pain is to treat it more effectively. But knowledge isn’t always used for the greater good. Could we start seeing more precise methods of torture and causing mass terror? Could charting the mechanisms of mental illness also lead to new ways of causing mental illness?

Advances in brain science are enabling us to cross the farthermost frontiers of what it means to be human. In the right hands, and with the best of intentions, the potential is truly terrific. But in the wrong hands, and with the wrong intentions, the risk of misuse is truly terrifying.

Author: Nita Farahany is a professor of law and philosophy, Duke University, USA

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