How far are we from discovering mind control devices?

January 2021

Answered by: Malosree Maitra, PhD Student, Integrated Program in Neuroscience

Modern neuroscience has developed many tools for manipulating the function of brain cells, and consequently the resulting behaviors, in a variety of animal models ranging from fruit flies to mice. One such technique is “optogenetics”, in which laboratory animals are genetically modified to express light-sensitive proteins in the neurons in their brains. The proteins allow ions to pass through them when they are exposed to light. This enables neuroscientists to switch neurons “on” and “off” by shining light on them. This in turn can modify the behavior of the animal. For example, by switching on the neurons which “encode” the memory of a frightening event –such as a foot shock, scientists can recreate fearful behaviors in mice. On a cruder level, direct electrical stimulation using implanted electrodes has also been employed, for instance, to remotely control the movements of “cyborg cockroaches”. Of note, these techniques are extremely invasive and often require extensive genetic manipulation, which would be illegal, unethical, and mostly infeasible in humans. These techniques work in laboratory settings and are used to link brain activity mechanistically with behaviors.

However, there are neurotechnologies for altering brain function in humans, mostly in a medical context. For example, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses magnetic fields to disrupt or alter the function of targeted brain regions. TMS has demonstrated potential as a treatment for psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia or depression. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a well-established, although quite invasive, treatment for Parkinson’s disease in which the activation of electrodes implanted into affected brain regions can drastically improve a patient’s motor abilities. On a different note, brain-computer interfaces can allow paralyzed patients to generate speech or move objects by scanning their brain activity –via electroencephalography (EEG) or via implanted electrodes.

Ultimately, whether we have created “mind-control devices” or not is still up for debate. Certainly, invasive technologies applied to animal models in the laboratory are not applicable to human beings. There are, however, many potentially beneficial uses for neurotechnologies that can allow the modification of human brain function –and ultimately human behavior –in medical contexts.

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