Monday, August 17, 2009

Our Neurotech Future

By: Michael F. Huerta, Ph.D.

In his review of The Neuro Revolution by Zack Lynch, Michael F. Huerta compliments the animated style Lynch uses to describe how our understanding of the brain and newfound ability to affect it via drugs and technology are changing our lives and our societies. Lynch’s predictions for the future are both exciting and within the realm of scientific possibility.

Technology’s potential to improve—or to imperil—our lives and our societies lies at the center of this entertaining and thought-provoking book by Zack Lynch, founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization. 

Written for a lay audience, The Neuro Revolution begins with Lynch’s description of his first bungee jump, from the canopy of a lush rain forest, followed by a shock of pain from an injured spine when his second jump went awry. The experience inspired him to explore neuroscience and neurotechnology (Lynch defines the latter as “the tools we use to understand and influence our brain and nervous system”). With prose that is at times clever and quirky but never dull, Lynch discusses how our understanding of the human brain—as well as our ability to influence it—may shape the future of law, commerce, art, warfare and religion.

Along the way, we read stories of discovery and invention set in a variety of contexts and disciplines. Lynch’s anecdotes illustrate how the findings and technologies of brain science might alter society. He supports his stories and personal musings with references to reader-friendly articles and books; comments and insights from scientists, artists, ethicists and other experts; and historical facts that help the reader appreciate the full trajectory of a discovery.

In addition, Lynch draws heavily on his market-oriented perspective—the Neurotechnology Industry Organization represents companies involved in neuroscience and brain research, as well as patient advocacy groups, and Lynch co-founded a market research firm that focuses on the impact of neurotechnology on business, government and society. Business interests aside, his sketching of the potential commercial significance of new, brain-relevant technologies makes his predictions more compelling. For example, he cites the use of magnetic resonance imaging or detection of electric signals to monitor one’s brain activity and relate it to one’s behavior, which would have commercial value for purposes as wide-ranging as anticipating a person’s response to a drug or to an advertisement. In a world driven by market forces, the marketplace will strongly influence how our future, both as individuals and as a society, will unfold.

Each chapter of The Neuro Revolution focuses on one way that neuroscience will influence our future. The societal ramifications of each chapter’s content, however, are broad, reflecting the expansive nature of the technologies. For instance, the same technologies that Lynch describes in the chapter about legal implications beyond research and standard medical practice might also be relevant to chapters concerning war or commerce. As an example, the use of neuroimaging data and their computational analyses to assess the veracity of witness testimony might also apply to their use in interrogating enemy soldiers or identifying products that are particularly appealing to an individual. As the title of the book indicates, Lynch makes clear that the impact neurotechnological discoveries might have on our world compels us to consider these innovations from a societal, as well as a scientific, perspective.

Readers already familiar with neurotechnology will recognize many of Lynch’s topics. For example, Lynch discusses the past, present and future influences of lie-detection technology in the courtroom, an increasingly prominent subject as the idea of using brain imaging to detect lies gains traction. He points out that several federal national security agencies have applied neuroscience and related technology to try to detect lies. However, Lynch notes that sophisticated technology is not necessarily reliable in every possible application, and we must be careful not to accept claims that scientists have yet to verify. In the courtroom, the consequences of trusting in unproven technology can be significant.  

To provide background on the use of lie-detection tools in the legal system, Lynch offers stories and examples based in legal fact. Then he details how neurological studies of memory might be useful in developing the next generation of lie detectors. Lynch describes this and other neurotechnologies with characteristic zeal and animation without wandering too far from rigorous scientific interpretation. This is a difficult balance to achieve. 

Ethicists and scientists are becoming increasingly interested in using neurotechnology to enhance—or, as Lynch prefers, to “enable”—human functioning. Currently, physical and mental “enhancement” is possible primarily through drugs, but as researchers find new and better ways to link the brain with computer technology, neurological devices meant to improve performance will become more common. The notion of using technology, pharmacologic or otherwise, for this purpose is not new. Professional athletes have been using steroids for years, and the U.S. military has long provided stimulants to pilots flying long-range missions. But with increased specificity of drugs and the development of increasingly sophisticated devices, such as neural prostheses, products that maximize brain function have become a growth market. Lynch points out that as new technologies allow us to modify different brain functions in different ways—for example, enhancing cognition while simultaneously suppressing emotion—we must consider how these capabilities affect the human identity.

Near the end of the book, Lynch asserts that during the next 30 years neuroscience and neurotechnology will produce a “neurosociety” in which “you will eventually be able to continuously shape your emotional stability, sharpen your mental clarity, and extend your most desirable sensory states until they become your dominant experience of reality.” This prediction, which is loaded with existential implications, might seem overly bold or even fanciful. But to anyone familiar with neurotechnology, and to anyone finishing The Neuro Revolution, this view of the future may seem reasonable or even conservative. 

 Given the broad perspective Lynch takes in this book, readers may argue that he should have addressed additional technologies, neuroscience findings and ethical or legal implications more thoroughly. However, suggesting that additional points could be made or that topics could be explored further is more an acknowledgement of the richness and import of Lynch’s subject matter than a criticism of what this slim book offers.

As we continue to learn more about our underlying biology, and as it becomes easier to modify our bodies, momentous questions are arising. For example, when drugs or devices are used to augment brain function in healthy individuals rather than to treat a disorder, where should we set personal, ethical, legal and medical thresholds? People from all walks of life will soon need to address these kinds of questions. The Neuro Revolution is a timely and approachable introduction to the power of neuroscience and neurotechnology to shape our world, inside and out.

The views expressed in this book review do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or the United States government.

About Cerebrum

Bill Glovin, editor
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D., consultant

Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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