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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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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