100 billion neurons. 100 trillion synapses. 400 miles of blood vessels. Our brains frustrate science with their complexity. In fact, they remain 30 times more powerful than our fastest supercomputer.
But in unlocking their mystery, we open up a world free of permanent brain injury and mental disorders. More than that, we’ll be able to increase our intelligence, erase painful memories, connect our minds to computers, and even connect our minds with the minds of others.
I know, that all sounds crazy, but as you read on, you’ll begin to understand how close we are to breakthroughs that will easily change what it means to be human.
Finally understanding the brain
The average brain is a dense collection of neurons (cells that contain data) and synapses (pathways that allow neurons to communicate). But exactly how those neurons and synapses communicate and how different parts of the brain affect different parts of your body, that remains a mystery. We don't even have tools powerful enough yet to fully understand this organ. Worse, the world's neuroscientists don't even have an agreed upon unified theory of how the brain works.
This state of affairs is largely due to neuroscience’s decentralized nature, as most brain research takes place in universities and scientific institutes around the world. However, promising new initiatives—like the US BRAIN initiative and EU Human Brain Project—are now underway to centralize brain research, along with greater research budgets and more focused research directives.
Together, these initiatives hope to make massive breakthroughs in the neuroscience field of Connectomics—the study of connectomes: comprehensive maps of connections within an organism's nervous system. (Basically, scientists want to understand what each neuron and synapse inside your brain really does.) To this end, the projects getting the most attention include:
Optogenetics. This refers to a neuroscience technique (related to connectomics) that uses light to control neurons. In English, this means using the latest genetic editing tools described in earlier chapters of this series to genetically engineer neurons inside the brain's of lab animals, so they become sensitized to light. This makes it easier to monitor which neurons fire up inside the brain whenever these animals move or think. When applied to humans, this technology will allow scientists to more precisely understand what parts of the brain control your thoughts, emotions, and body.
Barcoding the brain. Another technique, FISSEQ barcoding, injects the brain with a specially engineered virus designed to harmlessly imprint unique barcodes into the infected neurons. This will allow scientists to identify connections and activity down to the individual synapse, potentially outperforming optogenetics.
Whole brain imaging. Instead of identifying the function of neurons and synapses individually, an alternate approach is to record them all simultaneously. And amazingly enough, we already have the imaging tools (early versions anyway) to do that. The downside is that imaging an individual brain generates up to 200 terabytes of data (roughly what Facebook generates in a day). And it will only be until quantum computers enter the marketplace, around the mid-2020s, that we'll be able to fully process that amount of big data easily.
Gene sequencing and editing. Described in chapter three, and in this context, applied to the brain.
Overall, the challenge of mapping out the connectome is being compared to that of mapping the human genome, achieved back in 2001. While far more challenging, the connectome’s eventual payoff (by the early 2030s) will pave the way to a grand theory of the brain that will unite the field of neuroscience.
This future level of understanding can lead to a variety of applications, like perfectly mind-controlled prosthetic limbs, advances in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), brain-to-brain communication (hello, electronic telepathy), knowledge and skill uploading into the brain, Matrix-like uploading of your mind into the web—the works! But for this chapter, let’s focus on how this grand theory will apply to healing the brain and mind.
Decisive treatment for mental illness
Generally speaking, all mental disorders stem from one or a combination of gene defects, physical injuries, and emotional trauma. In the future, you'll receive customized treatment for these brain conditions based off a combination of technology and therapy techniques that will diagnose you perfectly.
For mental disorders caused predominantly by genetic defects—including illnesses like Parkinson's disease, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—these will not only be diagnosed much earlier on in life through future, mass market genetic testing/sequencing, but we’ll then be able to edit out these troublesome genes (and their corresponding disorders) using customized gene therapy procedures.
For mental disorders caused by physical injuries—including concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from workplace accidents or combat in war zones—these conditions will eventually be treated through a combination of stem cell therapy to regrow injured areas of the brain (described in the last chapter), as well as specialized brain implants (neuroprosthetics).
The latter, in particular, is already being actively tested for mass market use by 2020. Using a technique called deep brain stimulation (DBS), surgeons implant a 1-millimeter thin electrode into a specific area of the brain. Similar to a pacemaker, these implants stimulate the brain with a mild, steady flow of electricity to interrupt negative feedback loops that cause disruptive mental disorders. They’ve already been found successful in treating patients with severe OCD, insomnia, and depression.
But when it comes to those paralyzing mental disorders caused by emotional trauma—including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), extreme periods of grief or guilt, prolonged exposure to stress and mental abuse from your environment, etc—these conditions are a trickier puzzle to cure.
The plague of troublesome memories
Just as there's no grand theory of the brain, science also doesn't have a complete understanding of how we form memories. What we do know is that memories are classified into three general types:
Sensory memory: “I remember seeing that car pass by four seconds ago; smelling that hot dog stand three seconds ago; hearing a classic rock song while passing by the record store.”
Short-term memory: “About ten minutes ago, a campaign supporter knocked on my door and talked with me about why I should vote Trump for president.”
Long-term memory: “Seven years ago, I went on a Euro trip with two buddies. One time, I remember getting high on shrooms in Amsterdam and then somehow ending up in Paris the next day. Best time ever.”
Of these three memory types, long-term memories are the most complex; they contain subclasses like implicit memory and explicit memory, the latter of which can be further broken down by semantic memory, episodic memory, and most important, emotional memories. This complexity is why they can cause so much damage.
The inability to properly record and process long-term memories is the main reason behind many psychological disorders. It’s also why the future of curing psychological disorders will involve either restoring long-term memories or helping patients to manage or completely erase troublesome long-term memories.
Restoring memories to heal the mind
Until now, there have been few effective treatments for sufferers of TBI or genetic disorders like Parkinson’s disease, where it comes to restoring lost (or stopping the ongoing loss of) long-term memories. In the US alone, 1.7 million suffer from TBI each year, 270,000 of whom are military veterans.
Stem cell and gene therapy are still at least a decade away (~2025) from potentially healing TBI injuries and curing Parkinson's. Until then, brain implants similar to the ones described earlier appear to address these conditions today. They are already used to treat epilepsy, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer’s patients, and further developments of this technology (especially those funded by DARPA) could restore the ability of TBI sufferers to create new and restore old long-term memories by 2020.
Erasing memories to heal the mind
Maybe you were cheated on by someone you loved, or maybe you forgot your lines at a major public speaking event; negative memories have a nasty habit of lingering in your mind. Such memories can either teach you to make better decisions, or they can make you more cautious of taking certain actions.
But when people experience more traumatic memories, such as finding the murdered body of a loved one or surviving a war zone, these memories can turn toxic—potentially leading to permanent phobias, substance abuse, and negative changes in personality, like increased aggression, depression, etc. PTSD, for example, is often referred to as the disease of memory; traumatic incidents, and the negative emotions felt throughout, remain stuck in the present as sufferers cannot forget and lessen their intensity over time.
That’s why when traditional conversational-based therapies, drugs, and even recent virtual reality-based therapies, fail to help the patient overcome their memory-based disorder, future therapists and doctors may prescribe the removal of the traumatic memory altogether.
Yes, I know, this sounds like a Sci-Fi plot device from the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but research into memory erasure is moving faster than you think.
The leading technique works off a new understanding of how memories are themselves remembered. You see, unlike what common wisdom might tell you, a memory is never set in stone. Instead, the act of remembering a memory changes the memory itself. For example, a happy memory of a loved one could permanently turn into a bittersweet, even painful, memory if remembered during their funeral.
On a scientific level, your brain records long-term memories as a collection of neurons, synapses, and chemicals. When you prompt your brain to remember a memory, it needs to reform this collection in a specific way for you to remember said memory. But it’s during that reconsolidation phase when your memory is most vulnerable to being altered or erased. And that’s exactly what scientists have discovered how to do.
In a nutshell, initial trials of this process go a little something like this:
You visit a medical clinic for an appointment with a specialized therapist and lab technician;
The therapist would then ask you a series of questions to isolate the root cause (memory) of your phobia or PTSD;
Once isolated, the therapist would keep you thinking and talking about that memory to keep your mind actively focused on the memory and its associated emotions;
During this prolonged recollection, the lab technician would have you swallow a pill or inject you with the memory inhibiting drug;
As the recollection continues and the drug kicks in, the emotions associated with the memory begin to lessen and fade, alongside the select details of the memory (depending on the drug used, the memory may not entirely disappear);
You stay inside the room until the drug wears off completely, i.e. when your natural ability to form normal short- and long-term memories stabilizes.
We are a collection of memories
While our bodies may be a giant collection of cells, our minds are a giant collection of memories. Our memories form the underlying lattice of our personalities and worldviews. The removal of a single memory—purposefully or, worse, accidentally—would have an unpredictable effect on our psyche and how we function in our day-to-day lives.
(Now that I think about it, this warning sounds very similar to the butterfly effect mentioned in almost every time travel movie of the past three decades. Interesting.)
For this reason, while memory minimization and removal sounds like an exciting therapy approach to help PTSD sufferers or rape victims overcome the emotional trauma of their past, it’s important to note that such treatments will never be offered lightly.
There you have it, with the trends and tools outlined above, the end of permanent and crippling mental illness will be seen in our lifetimes. Between this and the blockbuster new drugs, precision medicine, and the end of permanent physical injuries described in earlier chapters, you’d think that our Future of Health series has covered it all … well, not quite. Next up, we’ll discuss what tomorrow’s hospitals will look like, as well as the future state of the healthcare system.