Nothing mentioned, nothing gained

The Reluctant Neuroscientist: Cognition Leaves Me Cold

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

These words are by Marie Curie, one of the greatest scientists of a time marked by genius scientists. They are powerful words, and struck a chord with me the first time I heard them, after a difficult day at work trying to understand something that I do fear – an aggressive subtype of breast cancer which is particularly adept at finding ways to become resistant to drugs. The situation for patients

English: Marie Curie

English: Marie Curie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

with this type of cancer is not good, and I am reminded of that every day, as I look down microscopes, at computer-generated dose-response curves to drugs, and as I match DNA changes I find in one patient’s cancer to the data in a spreadsheet – whether a person is alive or dead three years after diagnosis reduced to a cold black tick or an x. Ticks are rare, and that is exactly why we need to understand this cancer better. Breast cancer remains one of the most feared malignancies for women the wide world over, but thanks to research, many cases of breast cancer can now realistically be seen as something to survive and overcome, and not so much something to despair. It can be easy to forget sometimes that science truly does work miracles – and one of the reasons I read magazines like New Scientist is to remind myself of the good news stories that make the long hours, low pay and frequent exhaustion worthwhile.

The article in New Scientist was called Bionic Thinking, and although it was a good news story, when I eventually forced myself to read it, it left me cold. Not only did it make me feel distinctly uncomfortable, as many aspects of neuroscience do, but it reminded me of many of the failings of neuroscience studies, and, not for the first time, I was relieved that my plan B – a career as a research neuroscientist – didn’t get put into play.

Our brains are made up of units called neurons, which exist in complicated networks, separated by gaps called synapses. These neurons send electrical signals to each other across their synapses (or synaptic connections), and on a very basic level, that is how the brain works. Imagine a row of fairy lights lighting up in sequence – as the first lights, a signal starts (the neuron fires). This signal travels across the wire separating that light from the next one (the synapse) and when the next light receives the transmission, it lights up. Of course, it isn’t quite that straightforward. Our mental fairy lights are jumbled up, part of highly complex signalling networks, and can transmit a number of different signals and chemicals at different times and in different orders depending on the task we need to do.

Neurons in the brain - illustration

Neurons in the brain – illustration (Photo credit: Rebecca-Lee)

A group of scientists detected, and recorded where and when these neurons fired – like looking at which fairy lights came on and in which exact order, when five rhesus monkeys were performing a set of tasks designed to test their attention, short-term memory and decision-making. The animals were shown random images and were encouraged to later remember and select the same image by being rewarded with juice when they “got it right.” With a lot of attention and decision-making on their own part, the research team carefully pieced together the patterns of electrical stimulation that were involved in a specific layer of the monkeys’ prefrontal cortex – an area associated with many faucets of intelligence – and could hone in on these signals to detect how they differed when a monkey made the wrong decision to when they made the right one.

An implant was developed that could detect the electrical activity going on in the animals’ brains as they performed their tasks. When it detected an electrical impulse that would lead to the monkey making a bad decision, the implant kicked in to dampen down the monkey’s natural, incorrect response, and then stimulated an electrical pattern like the one seen when the monkey was about to make the right decision. The implant improved performance in the task by 10 to 20%, and when it was tested in animals who had been given cocaine (a model of Alzheimer’s, dementia and other brain injury), the implant could improve decision making in these animals to levels “just below” what their decision-making, attention and short-term memory had been before the damage occured.

English: PET scan of a human brain with Alzhei...

English: PET scan of a human brain with Alzheimer’s disease (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alzheimer’s Disease, to me, is one of the most frightening things in life. I should be excited by the news that a new technology has the power to restore cognitive function in a model of it, but I’m not. I’d like to see the power calculation that determined five monkeys would be statistically significant, for a start. Due to the costs, specific expertise required and a mountain of red tape (primate research licences being particularly difficult to get), I can see why only a small number of animals were used. But I’m not convinced that a pattern observed in five individuals can really, confidently claim that the results are anything but coincidence. However in much of the neuroscience studies that I have read, sample sizes are small. And experiments designed to test complicated functions – “higher cognition” such as memory, intelligence and decision making, always seem too simple to be a good representation of something more complex.

To use this study as an example, I’m not convinced that getting a small number of cocaine-addled monkeys to point at a picture is a good representation. Anyone who has had to care for an Alzheimer’s patient will know that 10% cognitive decline is in no way representative of the disease, espcially as it advances, yet this is all the decline that the monkey’s displayed.

I’m possibly being a little unfair. It is hard to assess higher cognition – in fact many neuroscientists argue that it may not be possible to model it appropriately in animals at all. I have the advantage of being able to physically see changes in DNA and protein, to look down a microscope after treating cancer cells with new drugs to see if they are still alive or not. Learning and memory are less tangible, and many of the tests are elegently sophisticated. The Morris water maze, for example, allows a rat to swim around until it finds its way to a submerged platform. How quickly it finds the platform a second time is a test of memory. Prepulse inhibition is where a rodent receives a small shock (usually a sound) followed by a larger shock. The theory is that a non-psychotic animal will be less startled by the second sound as the “prepulse” will have set it on alert.

They are elegant. But there is no getting away from the fact that these tests are simple representations of notoriously complicated things.

I think my fear of neuroscience is akin to a fear of the unknown – more specifically, it’s a fear that we are doing too much with a science we understand too little. The authors of the study mentioned above enthuse that “human trials are in sight” even though we still don’t know how the cortex, the area into which the implant goes, actually works. The researchers have stepped around that one to a certain extent by being able to recognise a recorded pattern and play it back, but this is essentially the same as listening to a  recorded pop song in a foreign language and trying to sing it back and convey the same message when you have no idea what that message is. Depressed patients were forced to make do with drugs with heavy side effects and little real effects for decades because neuroscientists thought they knew how depression worked and are only now admitting that they only looked at a few pixels of the entire picture.

But what really alarmed me about this study was a comment, possibly a joke but likely not, made by one of the researchers “why stop at repair when you can enhance as well?”

This, I think, is the real reason I am uncomfortable with cognition being studied. Whenever studies of intelligence are mentioned, whether in casual conversation or scientific literature, it always seems to come back to the scifi-esque question of whether we can tamper with our own brains to artificially enhance our memory, our learning, and our intelligence. While I am a keen proponent of self-improvement through hard work and education, the idea that an implant – technology that you could, conceivably buy – could improve a person’s intellectual capacity without any effort on their part is not a comfortable one.

We live in a society that is deeply unequal, and I have always seen education as a great leveller. It’s easy to get ahead in life when you’re born with the proverbial silver spoon in your mouth, and to do well when you’re born with nothing is much harder. But I have seen myself that it is possible to educate yourself out of the direst of situations, and while the privelaged, upper-middle classes were much over-represented where I went to university, they could not buy their way into better exam results. First class honours went to students who were brainy and worked hard, not to students whose parents had the biggest bank balances. Even the most cursory of glances through history serves as a reminder of how mass education has made the world a better, fairer place, and it is significant that when a culture wants to subjugate a particular group, education is either targeted or left in an existing, poor state while everyone else’s educational oppurtunites rise. When the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, one of their first acts was to close down girls’ schools and outlaw the education of women. Closer to home, many travellers cannot read or write.

Education betters intelligence, and this leads to power and influence in the long run. Intelligence is not confined to a colour, creed or social class, but technology will always be far more accessible to those who already have money and power. What will the world look like when you really can buy brains? One of the greatest forces that we have for equality – possibly the greatest force we have for creating a fairer world – will be lost.

Maybe I saw too many Z-list sci-fi movies along he theme of governments/corporations using science to control people’s thoughts when I was growing up. We’re probably not heading towards a world where a bunch of evil bond villain types use cognitive neuroscience to turn us all into zombies.

But all the same, I’d rather not take the chance.

There is an element of selfishness to my reluctance to learn about the fundamentals of how our brains work. And an element of romance, too.

My intelligence has given me an enormous advantage over other people I have known. I accept there are many, many people who are much cleverer than I ever could be, but I don’t want to give up my advantage to a piece of techno. And while I have always striven to understand how life, the universe, and everything works, as you grow you come to see that mysteries can sometimes add as much magic to your life as understanding can.

Think of the moment that you fell in love, or imagine the moment that you will. Do you want it to be magical, or do you want, in the back of your mind, the voice of an old neuroscientist, reducing your feelings to something as mundane as a network of electrical connections and a list of chemicals?

Love ? I love love love you.

Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Avidly curious biologist I may be, but I know I don’t.

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This entry was posted on September 27, 2012 by in Health, Science and tagged , , , , , .
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