Over twenty years ago, I was introduced to neuroscience and its physiology during a frightening discussion with a neonatologist as we viewed sonograms of my son’s brain. Premature babies often suffer cranial hemorrhage, and we were looking at a big one through the soft spot in his skull.
Shock and fear created fog where most of that memory should be. I do remember hearing that, because there was the greatest damage on the right side, cognition and abstract thinking would likely be affected. Miracles frequently occur in the NICU, though, and we were blessed with one. Over the next few months, a beautiful process was photographed in black and white: young cellular complexes self-repairing by rejuvenation and replacement.
My child’s brain literally grew back, and I saw it happen with technology.
Much more has been discovered in the intervening twenty years, peeling away layers in the mysteries of the brain. These insights stand poised to radically change our world. As we’ve learned more about how the brain works, we are having to re-examine and evaluate what the brain thinks, and what we think about that.
Now it’s possible to scan a brain and assign physical proof to behaviors. Information about brain abnormalities is regularly used for legal defense and psychiatric diagnostics. We’ve learned that brain development isn’t complete until age 24 or 25. These discoveries lead to different expectations and understandings. Can we honestly charge a young teen as an adult with criminal behavior? Can we really blame our high-schoolers for being unable to predict the consequences of impulsive decisions? Could this explain the craziness that transpired in our own young lives?
Neurological research is showing up in marketing analytics. Our decision processes and responses can be tracked when we’re wanting and buying. Perhaps this area of study will reveal why we think we “need” something new and exciting. Receptor data could feasibly be organized into priorities of response. Once this is done, marketers could position more specifically to responses that would yield the highest conversion. This is a long way from subliminal imagery of popcorn and snacks inserted into single frames at the movies!
Links to addictive and intoxicating transmitters, like dopamine, have been aligned with romantic feelings. Attachments such as these trigger areas associated with reward in the brain. No wonder we feel giddy during the first stages of a new love! And no wonder for some people there is a letdown as the relationship progresses into a more comfortable, but perhaps less exciting, phase.
Much good research has focused on geriatric and longevity issues. What would happen if we could develop a drug or vaccine to maintain youthful vigor in brain cells? Would elderly stroke victims recover their faculties more rapidly and completely? Would dementia be a thing of the past?
Neuro-receptor research has isolated synaptic behaviors to the point where certain electrical stimuli can restore mobility, improve weak muscle tone, or reduce spasticity. Imagine the implications for individuals in the community of compromised physical abilities! Research at the University of Minnesota in particular has shown exceptional progress with cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s patients.
Is there a downside to all this discovery? Some think so. If you had asked me twenty-one years ago in that neonatal conference room, my response would have been incredulous and immediate. No question! What parent wouldn’t want to give a chemical assist to cellular repair and circumvent cerebral malfunction in a child? Who would question ensuring more typical physical and cognitive development? Improve the miracle? Say the word!
If we can screen for and identify anomalies and injuries, and administer fixes, to what standard do we aim? The implication is that we might, indeed, eliminate or drastically reduce instances of physical infirmity. While we may easily discern a metric for physical wholeness, what is the totality of cognitive ability? Is there a threshold? If we play around with cognition, would the natural progression of our interference result in, perhaps, a minimum I.Q.? Would it ever be acceptable to impose a maximum I.Q.?
At-risk conditions present additional challenges for the ethical application of our knowledge. Would we wait for the risk to manifest, no matter the probability? What if we could see in a scan the propensity for aberrant behavior down the road? The argument could be made that society might greatly benefit from the elimination of behaviors. No more pedophiles, serial killers, shoplifters, bullies or alcoholics might be good things to strive toward.
Altering attraction nodes to engineer behaviors that society finds more appropriate is a slippery slope. Perhaps it would lead to only the physically beautiful being allowed to attract, and subsequently reproduce.
At my son’s tiny bedside all those years ago, I was taken into confidence by Zan, his charge nurse. In a whisper, she conspiratorially warned that, “all the neuros think they’re God, you know.” In her considered opinion, the ability to manipulate brain function via surgery or other interventive treatment created an even more distorted level of omnipotence than in plain old M.D’s.
Eventually, an altercation with the neurosurgeon confirmed Zan’s admonition. It seemed to his father and me that our child was more experimental subject than suffering human. My son’s dad firmly set him straight in a heated discussion that I remember in vivid detail.
In retrospect, I can see why it’s an easy leap. Miracles often appear to result from the treatment doctors order or perform. This tendency might be more easily excused when we consider the consequences of less than an agile facility with the surgeon’s instruments – especially when used on those half the size of a full-term infant. Perhaps this might be the real miracle of all.
With miraculous skill and knowledge comes power. We must maintain the restraint to use it in responsible ways. Ongoing conversations are needed so we can establish boundaries and standards. Technology and research have the potential to release the ultimate secrets to what makes us uniquely human within our collective humanity.
The responsibility we have is to keep us . . . us.
- Cerebral Palsy in Infant- Ways to Prevent It (brainpalsy.com)
- Neurodegenerative Disease and the Coming Epidemic [Highlight HEALTH] (highlighthealth.com)
- Does the brain really choose brands in the same way as Google? (brandstrategy.wordpress.com)
- Daredevils Explained by Science [Research ] (cityfile.com)
- Preclinical Studies Suggest That Living Cell Technologies’ NeurotrophinCell Is Effective In Parkinson’s Disease (medicalnewstoday.com)
- What’s the Problem with Neuroscience? (socialhallucinations.com)
- Mind Reading and Neuromarketing on 60 Minutes (futurelab.net)