iPlant philosophy: a model of the singularity?

March 22 2008 / by iPlant / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Biotechnology   Year: General   Rating: 19 Hot

I sometimes feel that scientists have lost touch with the profound and the sublime, whereas transhumanists and philosophers have lost touch with science – with utility. Hume saw that causality cannot be articulated (Hume, 1739, 1748) ; he did not say it should therefore be reduced to a topic of rationalization and used only to cultivate one’s social loci.

What happens when neruoscience dissolves the distinction between mind and body? What happens when the intimate, subjective and irrational human mind is fully integrated into the logic of science, and a stable, effective and lucid, yet decidedly neuroscientific model (M1) of the mind is realized? Eliminativists speak about the end of our common-sense understanding of the mind, but offer only vague speculations as to what might replace it (Churchland, 1981). Is this a technological singularity – a point in history so complex and fast-moving that we cannot see beyond it?

The iPlant can be used as an intellectual probe, to model and better characterize the social impact of M1. A critical aspect of scientific models is that they allow us to improve on the systems that they describes. The iPlant helps us improve on the strongest current candidate for M1: the cognitive neuroscience of monoamines, particularly the dopamine model of attention-allocation and learning (Lindskog et al, 2006 Djurfeldt et al, 2001). It is a self-help chip.


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A brain implant for artificial motivation

March 30 2009 / by iPlant / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Biotechnology   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

I recently blogged and vlogged about Medtronic starting a clinical trial where deep brain stimulation (DBS) would be applied to the ventral striatum (part of the human reward circuit) to treat depression in up to 200 patients. Then the article on CNNmoney that I was basing this on disappeared and I worried that the whole thing might have been a mistake or a hoax. But the article has resurfaced on the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, and I finally got around to digging up Medtronic's original press release from 19 Feb 2009, which confirms that they are conducting a clinical trial of DBS as a treatment for depression.


But more than that. It turns out that the entire implant procedure that they're using isn't new at all - it's the same procedure they use to treat OCD (recently FDA approved for up to 4000 patients). The implant is called Reclaim and (quoting the press release) "the anatomical target in the brain is the.. ventral striatum.. which is a central node in the neural circuits believed to regulate mood and anxiety". So it seems DBS implants have been placed in the human reward circuit since the OCD trials started, many years ago. This is good news because it means we're even better at putting DBS implants in the human reward circuit than I thought we were. Basically, DBS applied to the ventral striatum (VS) didn't just alleviate the behavioural tics of OCD patients but also improved their mood. Studies like Schlaepfer et al 2008 (3 patients) and Malone et al 2009 (15 patients), which I thought were ground-breaking, merely confirmed that DBS applied to the VS improves the mood of severely depressed patients as well.

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Let's use rewarding deep brain stimulation to help the baby boomers exercise

September 24 2008 / by iPlant / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Social Issues   Year: General   Rating: 3

The baby boomers are getting older. Their pensions and healthcare will exert an enormous strain on European, north American, East Asian and Australian economies over the next few decades. Advances in medicine and medical technology continue to reduce blood-pressures, patch up hearts, extract cancers and extend life expectancy worldwide, but the brain, it turns out, does not yield to traditional methods, and effective treatments for cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s remain elusive. In the US, the annual cost of care for sufferers of Alzheimer’s is expected to exceed the total current healthcare budget ($1 trillion) as 10 million baby boomers develop the disease (Nixon et al, 2008 , Alzheimer’s Association, 2008).

There is, however, one highly effective preventive treatment: heavy physical exercise cuts one’s risk of stroke and neurodegenerative disease in half (Medina, 2008). Heavy, regular physical exercise improves blood supply to the brain, eliminates free radicals and stimulates the generation of new neurons. In the coming decades, 500 billion dollars or more could thus be saved each year in the US alone if every baby boomer exercised daily. The problem of course is that exercise is difficult and people are sedentary, so sedentary in fact that we are faced with a looming obesity epidemic that compounds the problem of age-related cognitive decline. And there’s no way of using modern medicine to improve people’s motivation to engage in physical exercise, right?

Wrong. A technique called rewarding brain stimulation has for decades allowed researchers to motivate rats to run (Burgess et al, 1991), lift weights (Garner et al, 1991) and learn other behaviours (Hermer-Vasquez et al, 2005).

Here’s how it might work in people: A person needing help to exercise would go to a hospital or a private clinic to be fitted with a deep brain stimulation implant capable of activating his reward system (the dopamine system).

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