Monday, April 28, 2014

Brain Implants

One of my assignments for an Ethics in Psychology class I am taking was to write a response to a news article. I found one that discusses  the future of neuroprosthetics (aka brain implants). Below is the response I wrote for class, but I'm curious to know what other people think of this stuff too!

The article:

Currently, brain implants are being used to restore sight and hearing, and to help control tremors. In the future, they will likely be used to improve memory and focus, to speed learning, and to essentially give people super-human abilities. With a much greater understanding of the brain, it could be possible to create technology similar to that which was used in The Matrix to teach new skills, by essentially downloading them into the brain. Similar technology could be used to repair and enhance vision, creating night vision, automatically zooming vision, and searching the internet based on things we see. This type of technology has recently been used in the popular television show Agents of SHIELD, which allows individuals implemented with this technology to receive messages, see through walls, etc. Future technology will also lead to increased control of robotics which would be incredibly helpful for individuals who are paralyzed or have amputated limbs replaced with prosthetics. 

This type of technology clearly has great implications for the future. This technology could also be used to allow for better memory, attention, mood and alertness. This could be incredibly beneficial for individuals who suffer from disorders such as ADHD, bipolar disorders, and depression. The greater concern with this technology is in children suffering from these disorders. There is already a problem with parents wanting to medicate children for “disorders” without ever having them appropriately tested for the proper course of action. This type of technology could be very tempting for this type of parent, because it would simply require a procedure to fix all of the ‘problems’ in their child, without having to worry about daily medications, or anything of the likes.
There is also research being done by the military to “cure PTSD, depression, and pain” through the use of neuroprosthetics and electric currents. At this point in time, neither of the mentioned disorders are truly able to be cured. This is great cause for interest and would be a revolutionary treatment for all of society if it would be found to work. 

This type of technology is not something that is currently highly regarded in society. There is great concern with pushing forward with this technology before the necessary brain understanding is present. There would be an increased risk at causing more damage, rather than improving current conditions. There is also the problem of accessibility. This type of technology seems like something that would be incredibly expensive, at least at first. It seems like it would be difficult to have it be something insurance companies would be willing to cover. This, then, would exclude this ‘treatment’ to individuals who could potentially benefit from it.

Mind Reading Technology

One of my assignments for an Ethics in Psychology class I am taking was to write a response to a news article. I found one that discusses  the future of mind reading technology. Below is the response I wrote for class, but I'm curious to know what other people think of this stuff too!

This article strongly follows up with many class discussions on brain scans used to read minds. This type of technology is in very early stages of development, and there is a long way to go until the technology exists to read minds with non-invasive methods. As this type of technology becomes more of a possibility, there are more and more fears instilled in the general public, mainly due to a lack of understanding about how difficult understanding the deeper operations of the human brain truly is. In spite of this, there is still great research being done to “read minds” and learn more about brain structure and function. An example of this, discussed in the author, is a study lead by Allan Cowen which uses fMRIs to reconstruct a face that an individual in the scan is viewing. These recreations aren’t perfect, but have been generally recognizable. Similar technology is also being used to reconstruct viewed videos. This information suggests then that it is possible to “decode dreams based on brain activity” though this is something that would still require a great deal more research before this happened. 

Researchers have also begun working on further ‘brain reading’ technology which could have great implications for our futures. Chun, a Yale Psychology professor, is studying attention, and specifically what happens with brain functions when people essentially zone out. This could have great implications for disorders such as ADHD where these types of experiences are far more common. Another researcher, Stanford neurologist Dr Parvizi, is studying memory retrieval. It is found that we can detect the retrieval of memories, but cannot yet dictate what those memories are. If this technology could be altered so that memories could be retrieved from an individual, on the basis of a brain scan, there could be great implications for individuals with memory impairment disorders such as Alzheimer’s. 

Through all of this, as technology continues to advance, there will be great concerns with privacy and autonomy. At some point, people will likely be asking “what if I don’t want my thoughts read, or my memories accessed?” This is going to be a concern pressing forward that will only be able to be addressed through adequate education. And even if it were possible to properly educate individuals about this technology, people would still have fears and concerns. This is something that will happen in time, and it is with that technology that, over time, will require a great deal of education.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Memory Dampening

Recently, I had a bit of a conversation on Twitter about memory dampening. It is a concept, within neuroethics, that is currently being discussed in my Ethics in Psychology class. Since people seemed to be interested in it, I figured I'd share some knowledge that I have, in a way more effective than 140 characters at a time.

For starters, I should probably explain what neuroethics is. Wikipedia is incredibly helpful for a basic definition of neuroehtics and it says that it "concerns the ethical, legal and social impact of neuroscience, including the ways in which neurotechnology can be used to predict or alter human behavior and the implications of our mechanistic understanding of brain function for society... integrating neuroscientific knowledge with ethical and social thought."  That doesn't do a great job of understanding what neuroethics is, if you don't have any background knowledge. So, basically, it's the ethical considerations of the use of neurotechnology (medications, treatments, etc) for various things to change how humans act or react to situations in society.

One of these things specifically is beta-blocker medications which would be used for memory dampening. Now, it's important to explain what memory dampening is because it's a complicated thing. It is not the removal of memories. It is not targeted to specific memories. It is essentially removing the pain from memories. It leaves the memories in tact, but dampens (lessens) the emotional aspect of it. However, this type of medication would have to be taken within a span of a few hours before or after a traumatic event. There is also speculation that it could provide the same results in a situation similar to that of someone with PTSD who is re-experiencing the event in their mind, with all of the emotional turmoil that was previously experienced in the initial event.

There are a lot of ethical concerns with using these types of medications. These are the questions that researchers and doctors have to be able to answer. Some of them are as follows:
-Do we selectively chose who has access to these drugs based on their susceptibility to PTSD? If so, how do we decide who is truly susceptible when the effects of "trauma" are different for everyone? What is traumatic for one person may not be for another.
-Do we allow doctors to prescribe these medications immediately after moments of trauma (ie natural disasters, assaults, etc) while the patient is unable to assess the potential risks and benefits of the medications?
-Are we okay with changing the fundamental nature memory has for the formation of individual personality, for the sake of dulling the pain of an event?
-If we use these drugs, how will people learn to deal with pain?
-How do we judge when pain becomes too much, and thus worth the use of these drugs?
-When, in treatment, do we introduce these drugs? By themselves, prior to therapy, in conjunction with therapy, or after therapy has concluded?

There are many more issues associated with these beta blocker drugs to dampen the emotional effects of memories. Obviously I can't write everything about it because then I'd have to write a book and not a blog post. But the above is a brief enough explanation to scratch the surface and allow enough understanding to be able to adequately ask questions about what is going on.

With that objective introduction out of the way, here's how I feel about it. Personally, I would never take memory dampening drugs. I do live with mild PTSD symptoms due to past experiences. But I know that my life experiences have shaped the person that I am. I would not have the view on life that my stable self has, if it weren't for the pains I have endured in my life. My mind is my most powerful weapon and my most valued possession. It is what makes me who I am.  I do what I can to constantly expand my mind, and strengthen the neuronal connections of my brain. It is for this reason that I have taken five years of French, and three years of Spanish, and want to pursue further language acquisition. This is one of the reasons why I actively pursue trying to be creative in many different ways. The more you use your brain in different ways, the stronger it becomes. I do all I can to add to my brain. Removing memories would not only take away my natural ability to deal with trouble in life, but it would also change who I am. I am primarily against the use of using memory dampening drugs, because there is a lot of bad that comes from it, and in most cases it seems the risks would outweigh the benefits.

Conversely, I can also see the beneficial side of it.For some people, traumatic experiences become so controlling over their lives that it is incredibly debilitating. For these people, I can see where the medications would be beneficial. I do feel though that it is necessary for these medications to be used in conjunction with therapy in order to attain the most beneficial coping skills to be able to go back to leading a normal life.

This is just an overview of beta blockers and how they work, and an introduction of some of the issues related to them. I have a lot more opinions about this stuff, and could go on for far longer than I probably should, so if you want to know how I feel about a more specific aspect of this stuff, please feel free to ask! You can ask in the comments here, email me at or find me on twitter: @jennmorton01