Scientists Discover Brain Circuits Attached to Mood, and How to Hack Them

Emotional hacking is real with implications toward mental health. What if this got into the wrong hands? We could be joyously enslaved without the emotional countenance to fight back. 

 

Imagine being happy all the time. A devastating divorce, no problem? The boss dumping work on you, without compensation? No big deal. Your kid throat punched someone at recess, and might get expelled? You can handle any of these situations calmly, and walk away stress free. Why? You’ve got a conscious handle on your emotions. You can turn your mood up or down at the twist of a dial. How is that possible?


Researchers at Duke University, experimenting on laboratory mice, were recently able to identify the brain circuitry related to mood. They used “super-fine electrodes” along with a minuscule amount of a specific drug. Not only were they able to classify which neurons were responsible for mood, they were also able to actually control a subject’s mood, dialing it up and down at will. In a study in the July 20 issue of the journal Neuron, researchers were able to take mice prone to depression, anxiety, or stress, and restore them to relative emotional health, just by tweaking the circuitry responsible in their brains.

Kafui Dzirasa was the lead researcher in this study. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry, behavioral sciences, and neurobiology. Dr. Dzirasa said that if you “turn the volume up” on mice who hadn’t had stress, they soon become so. Those who had experienced stress and didn’t manage it well, had their emotional volume turned back down, to normal.

 

Model of the limbic system. Neurons connecting this to the prefrontal cortex regulate emotions.

These circuits or bundles of neurons regulate our emotional life. It is what researchers call the emotional “pacemaker” of the brain, located in the prefrontal cortex. The bundle is also attached to the limbic system, and allows it to “keep time.” The limbic system is responsible for our main drives such as eating and sex. It also regulates the amygdala or emotional center, responsible for things like the stress response. The circuits in the prefrontal cortex act as a signaling system which helps regulate mood.

This circuitry regulates and converts signals from one another, as the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex are in constant contact. Now researchers can discover which cells go with what area and understand more deeply how they interact with one another, even recognizing when they aren’t working right. Said differently, this might lead to a better understanding behind the pathogenesis of certain mood disorders or how they develop, and could lead to better methods of diagnosis and treatment.

Duke researchers used several approaches to look at what role these circuits had in different mood disorders. Brain stimulation in the prefrontal cortex could help lessen or even alleviate things like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and chronic stress, to name a few. These disorders are at epidemic proportions today. But lots of times the drugs associated with them don’t work, or have side effects. Not only did Duke researchers want to understand how this complex system worked, they wanted to know if it had implications for possible drug development.

 

Drugs like Paxil are often prescribed to the depressed, but they have serious side effects, including suicidal thoughts.

In this experiment, 32 electrode arrays were placed inside four precise areas in the brains of mice. Then the mice were subjected to stressful situations, and researchers recorded the activity they found within their brains. The kind of situation the mice encountered is known as chronic social defeat. This allowed researchers to observe interaction between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, which is where it is believed major depression arises from.

To understand the data being recorded, the neuroscientists turned to colleagues, who applied statistical analysis and machine learning algorithms, to identify which parts of the brain certain data originated from, and how to decipher the timing control mechanism. Dr. Dzirasa said they discovered that the inner workings were a “clock signature” which determined which mice became resilient and which susceptible to stress.

By using very small amounts of a specific drug called DREADD (Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drug), researchers could control each circuit. Though it may have implications in humans, one must understand that a mouse brain is not a human one. Scientists can only discern something akin to mood in a mouse by its behavior. Far more research must be done before this work bears clinical benefits.

 

A model of deep brain stimulation using electrodes.

Still, the implications are enormous. Think about the societal costs which could be saved. Those with mental health issues could turn up or down their mood to overcome their disorder. But this discovery also contains the seeds of emotional totalitarianism. In decades or more to come, workers and activists could be made happy when really they are fed up, and thus much needed social change could be eliminated.

We have emotions for a reason. Sure, sometimes someone gets stuck in depression or anxiety, and cannot function properly. But for others at times, our emotions are telling us something is wrong, with a relationship or in our career path, for instance. An oyster only makes a pearl out of an irritant. Negative emotions force us to change and grow. Without them, opportunities for growth may be missed.

We do not know the larger implications of complete conscious emotional control. Is this a mere technological fix? Surely, just because you’ve changed someone’s perception, doesn’t mean the underlying problem has been solved. This breakthrough has a lot of promise in terms of managing certain mental health issues. But unregulated, and if the same is true in human brains, it could lead to an anesthetized world where everyone is okay with everything and anything, and nothing ever changes, a Brave New World where every negative emotion is diagnosable, and soma is a ubiquitous pill prescribed by a doctor.

To learn more about brain stimulation and its effect on depression click here: 

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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

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