October 26th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

Truth or Curiosity? - The Dilemmas of Neuroethics and Science

Borges in an interview once said:

"If life's meaning were explained to us, we probably wouldn't understand it. To think that a man can find it is absurd. We can live without understanding what the world is or who we are. The important things are the ethical instinct and the intellectual instinct, are they not? The intellectual instinct is the one that makes us search while knowing that we are never going to find the answer. I think Lessing said that if God were to declare that in His right hand He had the truth and in his left hand He had the investigation of the truth, Lessing would ask God to open His left hand - he would want God to give him the investigation of the truth, not the truth itself. Of course he would want that, because the investigation permits infinite hypotheses, and the truth is only one, and that does not suit the intellect, because the intellect needs curiosity."

The idea that the 'intellect needs curiosity' is interesting indeed and there might be support for it in our brain's own chemistry:

"This suggests people that are curious activate both parts of their brain that comprehend and anticipates information, and those in which such information acts as a secondary reinforcer or reward. Curiosity also increased activity in memory areas such as the hippocampus when subjects guessed trivia questions incorrectly and this suggests that it might act to enhance a person's long term memory for surprising new information. Such activation linked to curiosity predicted better recall of surprising answers one or two weeks later. Dopamine receptors in part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus contribute to the generation of curiosity in mice. These receptors are also important for plasticity and learning and therefore are proposed to represent a molecular link between intelligence and curiosity."

A 'molecular link between intelligence and curiosity' is indeed curious.

Scientists from the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto have discovered a molecular link between intelligence and curiosity, which may lead to the development of drugs to improve learning. "...Dr. Roder and Saab believe they have discovered a region of the brain that generates curiosity and a model for how brain activity leads to curiosity." As they state it:

"Now that we know that some of the molecules and brain regions that control learning and memory also control curiosity, we can go back to the lab and design drugs that may improve cognition in humans - that's the potential benefit for the future," explains Saab. "Immediately, however, we can put into use the knowledge that fostering curiosity should also foster intelligence and vice versa." (read more)

What's interesting in their conclusion is that they hope to design drugs that may improve cognition. 'May' is the key word. What might the side effects of such wonder drugs be? Experimentation with the very fabric of our brain's life seems insane in some ways. How many lab rats will be injected with such experimental drugs to discover the greater cognition? And if the super-rats of our unknown future discover cognition of a superior quality, what then? And, how many humans will volunteer willingly for such wonder drugs under the auspices of a government or corporate sponsorship program(s)? How many humans will be altered on the anvil of modern medical necessity to gain what strange benefits of cognitive maximization? Stranger still is that these scientists do not even question the ethical aspects of such dilemnas....

But not to fear even this has been delievered to us under the guise of 'Neuroethics':

"Neuroethics has established itself as a discipline dedicated to tackling tough practical questions like those of unexpected brain anomalies in research and has been moving age-old debates about mind and brain towards modern theoretical discussions about the understanding of human behaviour enabled by advances in neurosciences. In unusually interdisciplinary collaboration between neuroscientists and scholars from ethics, philosophy, law, and others who focus on the implications and applications of science, consideration of the ethical, legal, social, and policy challenges of neuroscience have been explicitly brought forward. These initiatives are allowing neuroethicists to think about topics well known to other pursuits within the domain of research and bioethics, such as consent, confidentiality, and disclosure, and others unique to the brain, such as personhood, authenticity, agency, and mental states. Through this wide lens, the societal implications both of laboratory studies and clinical neuroscience studies have come into view." (read more)

Oh the modern wonders of modern science, they've even begun to discuss the ethical dilemnas in brain research in the above passage "...such as consent, confidentiality, and disclosure, and others unique to the brain, such as personhood, authenticity, agency, and mental states." The 'consent' of the human guinea pig to question the use of such drugs against his/her will? The 'confidentiality' of the scientists from legal repercussions if such drugs harm the said human guinea pigs? The public 'disclosure' of such activities that either government or private corporations? And the future definition of such items as 'personhood, authenticity, agency, and mental states'?

One begins to wonder if this is about legal definition or a how-to book for subverting the human guinea pigs rights over his/her brain functions. Will the collective society of our (dys)topian future relegate personhood, authenticity, and agency... not to say 'mental states' to the dustbin of neuroethical legalese? Will we become controlled subjects of some vast planetary experiment in the creation of a new type of human through the use of genetic and drug manipulation? Is this just the beginning?

 As the authors of Empowering brain science state with Neuroethics say with alarming clarity:

"Issues of personhood and authenticity, for example, have become hotly debated among neuroethicists as pharmaceuticals developed for improving mental health disorders, sleeping disorders, or attention disorders in children are now being consumed at high rates as off-label “cognitive enhancers” to boost mood, memory, and alertness. If these drugs, or substances like oxytocin, become the Viagra of daily functioning and create new benchmarks for productivity, wakefulness, and emotional love, what will happen to the fabric of society and the character of our interactions with one another? Are these altered states a genuine reflection of a new and improved “me” or “we”, or some transient drug-induced condition that thoroughly confounds what we inherently value? Will we be coerced into conforming to a wave of drug intervention in the ever expanding, do-it-yourself, self-help world? The race for cognitive enhancers poses questions of social justice as well. Will the opportunity gaps between those who can afford them and those who cannot be widened or narrowed? Will the safety of some be compromised as low-cost, poor-quality alternatives are acquired on the black market or on the unregulated internet? Moreover, what happens if enhancement by drugs becomes obsolete, only to be replaced by possibly more enduring, lower-maintenance forms of neurotechnological interventions, such as direct brain stimulation through implanted devices or with stem cells?"