TCS Daily

The Decade of the Mind

By Waldemar Ingdahl - July 11, 2003 12:00 AM

The new brain sciences are full of technological promise. Through them we may be able to find and explain the deepest recesses of our thoughts and actions, and our decade could become "the decade of the mind."

In less than ten years, neuroscience has turned from a classical "little science" into very "big science" indeed, engaging large teams of researchers and receiving billions of euros in grants from both governments and pharmaceutical corporations. Neuroscience is not only about gaining knowledge of the human brain and its processes but also about being able to act on them and change them, and has thus become indissolubly linked to neurotechnology.

Malfunctions in the brain and mind are horrible burdens for millions of people. Alzheimer's disease is an increasing burden on the aging population of the western world. Neurotechnology gives new hope for those afflicted with it, transforming their lives for the better. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that the major health hazard of the 21st century is the increasing numbers of people suffering from depression. Prozac and other psychotropic drugs designed to interact with the neurotransmitter serotonin, have been developed in the last ten years, and they have been able to mitigate the problems inflicted by this rise, especially through the rapid drop of suicide rates.

Until now, drug treatments have been empirical and uncertain. Now, in combination with genetics, neuroscience offers the possibility to identify specific genes that might lead to a certain condition of the mind, design tailor-made pharmaceuticals to match an individual's unique genotype, and cure specific disorders or enhance specific traits, such as cognition.

In fact, could it be that a great deal of our social and personal ills is attributable to brain malfunctions, depending on defective genes? These ideas have won a lot of converts in recent years, a fact that has become evident in the debate on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is said to affect up to a tenth of all young children (mostly boys), and is characterised by an inability to concentrate and focus, which leads to unruliness and discomfort. It derives from a disorder in the brain functions associated with another neurotransmitter; dopamine, and the prescribed treatment is the drug Ritalin. The rapidly increased use of Ritalin worldwide has brought on the debate about whether this is an appropriate medical approach to an individual problem, or just a cheap fix to avoid the necessity of questioning the broader social context of today's education.

Further disorders have been added to the list since: the aforementioned depression, schizophrenia, various kinds of addiction, aggression, and dispositions towards certain types of crimes. Neurotechnology's promise to alleviate or even remove these problems of course comes with the temptation to manipulate, or even control people. Thus, Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World written in 1930s has often surfaced in the debate as a warning sign. In the novel people were offered a universal panacea, the drug called Soma, which removed all existential pain. Critics have argued that the new designer psychoactive drugs will lead to the same kind of totalitarian control as in Huxley's novel.

Indeed, neurotechnology presents our contemporary society with a powerful set of medical, ethical, legal and social dilemmas. What effects will it have on our sense of individual responsibility? How will we deal with the increased costs of pharmaceutics? How far will this new technology influence legal systems and the administration of justice? How will the fusion of neurotechnology with informatics (mind/machine interface) affect how we live and our perception of the self?

The debate about neuroethics is in its infancy, and while it is certain that some of the prospects of neurotechnology indeed give the defenders of the open and democratic society some worries, neurotechnology also offers a new opportunity.

After all, Huxley's vision didn't come true. During the 20th century medicines were not used to combat the problems of the mind and society. Instead the therapeutic state was developed in Europe, under the assumption that social problems are created by society, and thus any individual could be affected. Anyone could, under the present circumstances, become an alcoholic, a criminal, a schizophrenic, or otherwise deranged. Thus society had to be changed in its entirety in order to protect individuals from harm.

Armies of intellectuals, such as doctors, therapists, teachers, economists, social welfare officers, psychologists, and pedagogues had to be mobilized to "put things right" in the lives of the individuals, as a sort of societal Soma. Prohibitions and support systems were enacted universally, not just for those that might need them. In this process we all had much of our responsibility and freedom, removed. Neuroethics might lead to a new focus in the debate that problems are dependent on the individual and her dispositions, not abstract societal structures, and thus give the responsibility of her well-being back to her, while not inflicting on everybody else's freedom.

Technology can be used both for good and evil, so the ideas that guide the use will decide whether neuroscience will benefit freedom. But the questions neuroscience poses will become more sharply relevant to us in a short span of time. The time to think about them is now.

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