01 July 2011

Neuro-Opto-Genetics and the New Cyborg Future

Using a combination of genetic engineering and laser technology, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have manipulated brain wiring responsible for reward-seeking behaviors, such as drug addiction. The work, conducted in rodent models, is the first to directly demonstrate the role of these specific connections in controlling behavior.

The UNC study, published online on June 29, 2011, by the journal Nature, uses a cutting-edge technique called "optogenetics" to tweak the microcircuitry of the brain and then assess how those changes impact behavior. The findings suggest that therapeutics targeting the path between two critical brain regions, namely the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens, represent potential treatments for addiction and other neuropsychiatric diseases. _SD
It is necessary to read between the lines to understand what is being described. The scientists introduced foreign genes into selected pathways deep inside a rat's brain, then sent light via fiber-optics to trigger activity in the genetically modified pathways. The behaviour of the rats could then be controlled, using external light pulses.

By tapping into a wide variety of neural pathways -- to trigger different brain networks -- entirely different modes of behaviour could be influenced. But that is just the beginning.

The brain can be literally "played like a keyboard," with selective targeting of pathways and stimuli. Different genetic strains of opsins which respond to different wavelengths or pulse patterns of light could be implanted in brain nuclei or pathways quite close to each other, to prevent interference by neighboring brain networks. This level of fine control over the broad range of brain networks would allow the "programming" of a wide range of behaviours -- both skilled and unskilled -- over a period of time.

Utilising the brain's reward centers and pleasure centers -- but on a significantly more nuanced level than previously possible -- scientists and neuro-engineers could instill quite sophisticated behavioural repertoires in the unsuspecting cyborg's brain.

Humans are relatively unsuspecting as to the degree to which their important behaviours are influenced by miniscule quantities of natural chemicals, errant electrical stimuli, or ephemeral environmental phenomena. A sufficiently sophisticated and broad-spectrum approach to behavioural modification and programming could make even the most intelligent animal susceptible to simple light pulses. A short set of pulses might well set into motion behavioural programs which might go on for hours or longer, once the training is complete.

Just a short time spent contemplating the reinforcement pathways involved in maintaining drug addiction, or video game use, tells us that if a program of behavioural modification enlists the reward system of the brain sufficiently, it will become quasi-permanent and difficult to dis-engage, once mature.

These ideas have important implications for normal day to day human activity, at all developmental levels. Most of us will not sit still for genetic modification and implantation of optical or electrical probes. But we are being continuously programmed just the same, and our reward systems are helping to solidify this programming. It is not quite as far as some may imagine, from where we are to what is described above.

Along with the coming age of wonderful medical and psychological cures, will come free-riders of mind modification. We can either learn to tweak ourselves in ways that make us more alert, awake, and alive -- or we can join everyone else as they shuffle down the Idiocracy road.

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