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Your brain is absolutely remarkable. Because of the unique and complex method in which neurons organize themselves to keep your body alive and allow it to interact with the environment, a young girl in Holland with only 50% of her brain can now speak two languages.
Nerves talk to one another by passing electrical pulses through a complex network of “telephone lines”. Unfortunately, these cells can sometimes be a little too chatty causing your heart, for example, to beat in erratic and devastating ways.
A new experiment at New York University slightly altered the genetic make-up of cells in a small neuron network forcing them to hang up the phone.
Although this technique may not provide real-time, or dynamic control of neuron behaviors, it brings a new understanding in the relationship between genetic structure and neuron function. It also might lead to new treatments for diseases related by run away electrical activity.
This article from the San Francisco Chronicle provides a nice overview of the history and current state of prosthetic devices and implants. The report makes the important distinction between what is reality and what is still fantasy for the “bionic human”.
Don’t forget our bodies are composed of living tissue, which doesn’t like sitting near plastic and metal. This is the most difficult limitation at this time making the prospect of humans entirely re-composed of artificial parts very arduous.
Until we can build functioning devices out of the living tissue itself, don’t expect seeing Bionic Woman walking around in your neighborhood any time soon.
Large wakes of ethical outcries tend to follow new applications of genetic research. Among the many concerns are parents deciding how to engineer their undeveloped child into the “perfect” human being.
These public debates are so massive that legislation is in the works for placing bans on certain types of genetic work. We seem to have a difficult time allowing ourselves to take advantage of beneficial technologies (in the name of bettering our health and well-being) for fear of evil-doers altering these technologies for use against our well-being.
A recent opinion article from the Economist, brings up these same ethical cries in another human arena: neuroscience. The dooms-day warnings presented here focus on how neuroengineering technologies can destroy our privacy, provide body- and personality-altering drugs to the rich, and potentially bring down the curtain on what we currently deem important in “being human”.
Although some of these concerns are just as valid as worries about the unproven ways genetic engineering can bring negative effects to our society, a key difference when applied to neuroengineering is in that of choice. Many (but not all) genetic technologies are applied before an embryo develops, so the resulting altered human does not have any say as to what is to become of it. On the other hand, plugging into a memory enhancing neuron device must be implemented by yourself.
The final sense that is portrayed in this article is that the authors are scared to discover what we really are all about. What will we do if the claims from philosophers and theologians as to what is the essence of being human is debunked by future discoveries in brain research? The argument made here seems to be that if this happens, then we will all of a sudden not be human anymore. We may know the truth, but that science doesn’t match with what we want.
The prospects of a mad scientist or Big Brother controlling our society via genetic and neuroengineering are certainly frightening. However, they just aren’t very likely unless the voting public remains painfully uneducated. Instead, an equally scary world is one in which we allow policy to force limitations on our development as a society because we don’t want to take the risk of finding out that what we want the world to be like is not really the case.
No matter what deeper understandings come out of future neuroscience research, we will still be human. The only difference is that we will really know what it means to be human, instead of just hoping and guessing. Just because it’s uncomfortable, doesn’t mean we should hide from reality. This is often referred to as denial.
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