Deep Brain Stimulation: It’s electrifying

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What if you could walk into a doctor’s office and say, “I want to be less introverted” or, “I want to be braver” and plan a surgery to accomplish that desire? Would you do it? And more importantly, should you do it? While the technology is not yet at that point, deep brain stimulation could one day be used to selectively tailor changes in one’s personality.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is most commonly being used as a treatment for patients with severe movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease for whom medication is not a viable option. The system involves surgically placing a neurostimulator in the chest to deliver routine electrical signals to electrodes implanted in the brain. The goal of this pace-making electrical current is to override faulty signaling pathways, specifically those that cause tremors, stiffness and other movement abnormalities in patients with Parkinson’s.

Success of DBS in Parkinson’s patients has prompted more recent research into the usage of this therapy for psychiatric diseases such as depression and Tourette syndrome, and has been sanctioned in cases of treatment-resistant obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, doctors and scientists remain unaware of the exact mechanisms by which these electrical signals remedy observed symptoms. In the instance of Parkinson’s disease, for which DBS has been approved, doctors know where to implant the device and see clear alleviation of symptoms. This is not the case for depression, the neurological basis of which is still a mystery. Insufficient understanding of DBS and mental disease states is thus a considerable barrier to the authorization of the procedure for such mental illnesses. Therefore, scientists cannot yet confirm DBS as a concrete treatment for depression, despite improvements in the depression of some trial patients following the surgical implantation of these devices.

An additional factor to be wary of is the possibility of unintended side effects of this procedure. There is so much about the workings of the brain that remains unknown, as exemplified by the lack of complete knowledge about DBS. Consequently, application of an electrical signal to the brain with the intent of producing one goal could easily induce another unintended result. DBS could cause the desired outcome of curing one’s depression, but simultaneously accidentally swap one’s tendency towards introversion with extroversion or even change something as seemingly unrelated as music preference. The interconnectedness and complexity of electrical pathways in the brain also opens up the possibility of more harmful or unwanted symptoms including aggression, mania and total personality changes. Ergo, it is important for scientific research to continue in the field of DBS, so that its exact workings may be understood and controlled.

Since electrically stimulating the brain can create such profound effects on character and personality, determining which regions produce which effect could lead to the feasibility of deliberate self-modification, as touched upon earlier. Patients could pay out-of-pocket for “cosmetic” DBS to request alterations such as improved memory or removal of shyness. However, giving people this option would not be wise.

Our personalities, flaws and all, are what make us human. We are not robots controlled by the computers in our heads, but rather thinking, cognizant beings with the power to choose our own actions. In people with depression or Parkinson’s, their brains are actively working against them, taking away their abilities to choose happiness or control their movements. For these people, DBS could very well be a plausible treatment to regain control of their lives. Nevertheless, remedying diseases should be the extent of this technology. Knowledge about the brain and the ability to change its wiring should be used to return human autonomy, not to artificially eliminate flaws or unwanted personality traits.


Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at veronica.eskander@uconn.edu.  

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