By Marc Resnick
We are making advances in non-invasive electronic brain stimulation that continue to amaze me. It is nothing like what happened to Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The one I want to talk about today has some unique issues involved that really peak my interest and warrant some deep thoughts. Good blogging all around.
The advance is called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS). Sounds scary, but it is really not. Basically you hook up some really low power electrodes (1 milli-amp) to the surface of your head as close as possible to the area of your brain you want to stimulate and turn them on for about 20 minutes. The idea is to prime the neurons really close to activation, so that just a little real brain activity, even a small amount that would normally fly under the radar, becomes enough to fire the neurons. By keeping the electrodes on for 20 minutes (as opposed to the seconds that they normally are active), your brain is primed to release certain neurotransmitters for months. So essentially, whatever area is stimulated is primed and ready for action for months. Depending on where you locate the electrodes, this can increase your capacity for sensorimotor skills, vision, mathematical ability, language ability, working memory capacity, creativity, and perhaps others. No physical side effects have been found yet (yet being the key word).
The less ethically questionable application of this is to treat cognitive deficiencies. When someone has a deficiency, for some reason no one seems to mind trying to “fix” them. But if we do this to healthy people to give them “super powers,” we instinctively feel that this is unfair. It just allows the rich to get richer. What about if a company has this as a service every year for its employees. If your job requires memory, you can prime your hippocampus. If your job requires visual acuity, they can prime your visual cortex. If it requires creativity it can prime your pre-frontal cortex.
This brings up a couple of ethical questions. We really don’t know if there are any long term negative side effects. What if priming your creativity makes you less aware of safety hazards in your peripheral vision?
Second, can the company require this as part of your job description? If you don’t like it, don’t accept the job.
Third, your personal life would experience the effects of the stimulation. Does this bring up questions? Do you want to have good visual acuity at home? Working memory capacity? You won’t forget your shopping list at least :-).
I would love to hear your thoughts on this one. Comments appreciated.