Mind Control and Big Neuro

March 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Cover of BrainwashingThe Brain Supremacy book coverThe recent clutch of Big Neuroscience stories in the media (see my previous post) has raised an old concern in some of the media’s less — shall we say? — scientifically reputable outlets, like Esquire magazine. Could fearsome-sounding neuroscience technologies like nanoscience, optogenetics, deep brain stimulation and so on ever be used for mind control? The idea is frightening — and intriguing.

Some neuroscientists (not all) are instantly dismissive. Sample reaction on Twitter:

Mind control? Neuroscientists WISH this was in the realm of possibilities. More sensationalist BAM b.s. via @noahwg esquire.com/the-side/featu…

— Emilie Reas (@etreas) February 22, 2013

‘Mind control? I wish!’ is an understandable response, but is mocking humour the best response to anxiety? That’s a serious question, and the answer depends on the humourist’s goal. Is it to preserve status and protect neuroscience’s reputation, or is it to ease the concerns of people who take the prospect of imminent brainwashing seriously? The media do sensationalise, but they don’t do so at random; they generally know what works. People fear being manipulated.

Of course some researchers will react dismissively. Who wants their shiny new science tainted by association with the sordid cruelties of early brainwashing research? But before you dismiss the idea, bear in mind that the leading scientists behind the Brain Activity Mapping Project, which US President Obama hopes to back with $3 billion funding, raise the issue of mind control themselves as one of the difficult ethical problems which may arise in the course of their research (their article in Neuron is here).

The Frankenstein stereotype of scientists as seeking to dominate nature remains influential, and in brain research, of course, ‘nature’ means ‘us’. If you don’t know the gritty details which make neuroscience research so painstaking and difficult, it’s easy to imagine the worst.

And the pressure on scientists to hype up the ‘impact’ of their work, stretching steps to advances, advances to breakthroughs, and breakthroughs to exciting challenges, is not helpful either. If one neuroscientist’s press release says he’s used fMRI to decode what somebody’s thinking, is it quite fair for another’s blog to sneer at those poor fools who fear that the government may soon be reading their minds?

To be clear: the issue of mind control may arise. No way can we do it yet, and no researcher knows whether it will be possible or not in the future. The brain’s really hard, but science is littered with people who said ‘never’ and were proved wrong, so the opinions for and against are matters of personality and faith, not secret knowledge. Cynics will sneer, optimists hope, pessimists dread, psychopaths plot, and geeks plough on regardless — and entertaining though this all may be, it’s not science.

Meanwhile, there’s more danger of mind control from watching TV ads too long than from your local neuroscience lab. Even if precision brain control does become a real possibility, my own expression of faith is that you probably have more to fear from your (nonlocal) megacorporations, government and the military than your friendly neighbourhood brain researchers.

Having written books about both brainwashing and the future of neuroscience technologies, I herewith add my tuppenceworth on why we find the topic so enthralling, in the form of a short video about the ancient dream, and modern science, of mind control.

I hope you’ll find it useful.

The brain supremacy’s on its way with big neuroscience

February 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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The Brain Supremacy book coverLike the Big Genetics of the Human Genome Project before it, Big Neuroscience has gone mainstream. In his recent State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama mentioned brain research, and it’s thought that his next budget will seek $3 billion funding for the Brain Activity Map Project, an ambitious attempt to use nanotechnology and genetics to investigate brain function. The way in which the excitement of many connected neurons gives rise to coordinated patterns of brain activity is not well understood, and the project hopes to start small and work up, one step at a time, to the human condition.

$3 billion! That should ease the physics envy somewhat.

The brain supremacy is on its way. Brain research has been moving up the science hierarchy for a while. The European Union has announced a large dollop of funding for another Big Neuro project, this time to build a computer model of a brain. While the President was setting his neurohare loose, ably assisted by the New York Times, the BBC confusingly chose to highlight another big brain mapping project, the Human Connectome Project. Big Neuro, big news.

Just to clarify, the Human Connectome Project has been going for a while, and its aim is to study the physical connections between brain areas (their structural connectivity). The new Brain Activity Map Project aims to study how brain areas interact (functional connectivity). Since you can in principle have a link between two neurons that is not used, or one that is created or that dies off, structural and functional connectivity aren’t the same.

Also, re terminology: the ‘connectome’ is the set of all the links between neurons in an organism, and was first used to refer to physical links. So you can have a connectome (i.e. a structural connectome, the wiring), and you can have a functional connectome, a list of which bits communicate.

Oh, and the Brain Activity Mapping Project ought to be abbreviated to BAMP, by analogy with the Human Genome Project (HGP) and the Human Connectome Project (HCP). But everyone’s calling it BAM, thereby proving that even scientists are susceptible to the irrational urge to prioritise sound over sense. Or maybe it’s all those happy memories of comic-book superheroes …

Human brains have around 86 billion neurons, roughly the same numbers of glia, and more neurotransmitters, hormones and receptors than you could shake a stick at. Human brains, therefore, are not where the new project will start. Instead, it will spend an immense amount of taxpayer cash on animal research. The brains to be mapped will be those of worms, flies, small mammals, possibly primates. Like I said, one step at a time.

Nonetheless, if you spot a neuroscientist with an unaccustomed swagger, chances are those 3 billion dollars will be why.

For more comment from the online community, try the following:

Nucleus Ambiguous

Knight Science Journalism

Mo Costandi on ‘connectome-ism’

Mind Hacks

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