Brain Research Raises Boggling Issues

Enhancement or Endangerment?

There is a trend, she says, to do for the brain what cosmetic surgery can do for the nose, even though we know a lot more about our noses than we do about our brains.

"Brain-based enhancement involves intervening in a complex and poorly understood system, and the likelihood of unanticipated problems is consequently higher," she says.

In other words, in an effort to make our minds sharper, we may really dull the equipment. You don't have to look beyond the headlines to realize how wrong science can be, particularly about the effect of drugs.

What may be especially troubling to us common folk is the ability of scientists to peer into our brains without our knowing what they are really looking for. Participants in a study might be told the researchers are looking for some benign reaction to a child in shorts, for example, whereas the investigator may be really trying to determine whether the subject is prone to child molestation.

And as Farah points out, the findings may seem valid at the time, but advances in this rapidly changing field may prove otherwise somewhere down the road.

By the way, Farah says that technique has already been used in "neuromarketing," or the attempt to find out what someone really thinks about a product by monitoring brain waves. In one demonstration, she says, the technique revealed the importance of brand name in choosing whether someone is likely to pick one soft drink over another.

A Brain New World

It may seem that manipulating our brains to enhance our mental skills is still off in the future, but it's already here. A number of drugs are now in widespread use to help users focus on a problem, improve their memory or run a more efficient organization.

The drug Ritalin, for example, was designed to treat children with attention deficit disorder. But it is now in widespread use by college students, particularly during finals. Aricept and others are used to enhance normal brains, not just treat those that are troubled.

People like Farah are now beginning to ask if that takes us in the right direction. It places enormous pressure on students to use drugs in order to compete with others who are using them, thus widening the gap between those who can afford them and those who can't.

And if someone you love is on a mind-altering drug, do you love the person, or do you love the person whose mind has been altered?

Mind-Boggling Questions

Where will all this lead? Neural scientists think it will lead to a better understanding of how the brain functions, and possibly to acceptance of the idea that the brain is nothing more than a biochemical piece of machinery, and everything it does can be explained by those mechanical functions.

That being the case, is personality just the result of gears grinding together? Is there a soul or can everything be explained through the interaction of neurons and electrical and chemical interactions? What does it really mean to be human?

Farah, who is committed to learning more about how the brain works, and how we can change it, raises a much more basic question.

Do we know where we are going?

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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