Man walks into a column, no.8: Brains

With apologies to fans of the waking dead, this is a post about the amazing advances in neuroscience and what they mean for society and politics, not a ‘braaaiiinnnnzzzz’ style post about zombies. It is an ‘edited highlights’ version of a new publication by the Royal Society, with the picking-and-choosing driven entirely by whatever piqued my interest, so do check out the full thing, available for download here. With that said, things I learned include:

Despite impressive advances in non-invasive neuroimaging technology, you’re still better off using a polygraph test if you want to know whether someone’s lying. This is because, at the moment, and despite the proven flaws in the standard lie detector tests, most experiments to measure changes in the state of someone’s brain when lying have been conducted with young people who are simulating deception, rather than actually lying. Real-world deception may (or may not) produce quite different brainwaves. We are therefore, perhaps thankfully, a long way off using neuroimaging in the criminal justice process, for example to check whether a witness is credible.

Many large pharmaceutical companies have closed down their psychiatry and neuroscience programmes. This is because there hasn’t been as much success as hoped in developing new chemical compounds to treat common and less-common mental health conditions. It’s also because companies have become risk averse in the face of adverse side effects of previous experiments. With patents for many compounds due to expire soon, there could be real problems round the corner caused by lack of availability of existing and new drugs.

The brain easily decouples from the body. There’s a newer branch of neuroscience which aims to restore lost functionality to people with particular impairments. This can include stimulating neural activity, but also recording and decoding brainwaves in order to predict cognitive intentions, such as that associated with the plan to perform a movement. In an ongoing and thus far successful experiment, this has allowed severely paralysed people to perform basic movements using a robot arm. The brain’s ability to control movement does not diminish when such movement is physically impossible, even for a long period of time.

Mind-controlled computer games may be nearer than you think. The games industry has already developed non-invasive neural interface systems which record and interpret brain activity recorded from the scalp rather than via implants, using these signals to, for example, manoeuvre a small ball through a maze. Admittedly it’s not exactly Call Of Duty (or even Doom, for that matter), but still – controlling a ball with your mind!

Our brains are conditioned to care more about novelty than long-term reward. Experiments show that the reward processes in our brains tend to discount the value of future rewards, meaning even if we know something is going to be good, we’ll focus on something less good if it’s more salient (if it stands out from what’s around it). On the plus side, social co-operation activates the reward centres of the brain that are more ‘plastic’ and involved in learning.

Our brains remain massively underexplored. To date, drug companies have invested by far the greatest effort in research into neurotransmitters (chemicals that send signals between cells) and their receptors. But these comprise less than 10 per cent of all synapse proteins, which leaves 90 per cent to investigate. As one of the authors of the report says:

…from data on genetic disorders that affect the nervous system, it was found that over 130 brain diseases are caused by mutations in synapse proteins. It is already clear that autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder involve dozens of synapse proteins.

So: massive amounts of uncharted territory, and loads of potential for life-changing future discoveries. A nice point to end on.


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