Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Futurist Interviews Neuroscientist Eliezer Sternberg

The brain is one of the most mysterious systems scientists have ever studied, but the mystery is gradually unraveling. Using the latest computer-based simulation programs, brain imaging, and other new tools, scientists are slowly uncovering how the brain is composed, how its parts interconnect, and how they influence human our behavior. With more research, a clear understanding could finally emerge of where mental illnesses and behavioral disorders begin—and how to stop them. Eliezer Sternberg, a Tufts University School of Medicine doctoral candidate and the author of My Brain Made Me Do It, spoke with Rick Docksai, staff editor for THE FUTURIST, about where brain research might proceed in the decades ahead.

THE FUTURIST: Genetic intervention therapies could reportedly deactivate genes that are linked to disorders. We’ve identified genes that are linked to violent behavior and to mental illnesses. Realistically speaking, how soon would it be before we develop the means to turn those genes off? More importantly, what consequent drop in crime would society probably see if we did?

ELIEZER STERNBERG: Identifying the genes—we can do right now. And I think we’ll be able to find more of them in the future. I think the problem would be that aggressive and violent behavior is not controlled by one gene, or even by a few genes. There are so many genes that coordinate it. I don’t think a simple on- and off- switch would do the trick.

So would we get there in the next 10 years? I doubt it. But even in the next 10 years, if we find ways to connect how they all work and how they develop pathways of activation, we can start to talk about that.

But in the meantime, I think that just correlating genes to violent behavior is kind of a simplistic understanding. Right now, we can say things like ‘A higher percent of a XYY genotype is disproportionately represented in criminal populations.’ That’s interesting; that’s an insight. But there are people with that genotype that aren’t particularly aggressive and don’t do anything violent at all.

To say ‘We just need to find the gene and turn it off’ is premature. I don’t think we know enough about it in depth to say we have to know what it is and then we have our answer. I'm not saying we aren't going to get there, but we do need to learn more.

THE FUTURIST: From what I’ve been told, the genes for certain behaviors often don’t lead to the person having the behaviors until he or she is subjected to certain triggers in the outside environment. The environmental triggers cause the genes’ codes to go into effect.

ELIEZER STERNBERG: With genes, there are codes for proteins in the body. Just having the genes, you can’t necessarily tell what’s going to happen. The environmental interaction is the key. There are segments of chromosomes, and having the gene there doesn’t necessarily tell the degree to which it will be expressed. You have to see how the person lives and their interactions with other people.

THE FUTURIST: You cited many individual cases of adults whose personalities dramatically changed for the worse after they suffered serious injuries that damaged certain lobes of their brains. What kind of help can we offer patients such as these at present? And how might our abilities to help them improve in the next five to 10 years?

ELIEZER STERNBERG: Let’s take the example of a stroke. It destroys half of the motor function in the body, so you can’t move one side of your body. The issue is that you destroyed a lot of circuitry, so the neurons have died. You have broken circuitry. The problem at present is that we don’t understand the circuitry and that it's too small and too complex for us to go in there and fix it.

That distinguishes it from other physiological problems, like a circulatory system problem. With the arteries, they're bigger. We’ve seen them all and mapped them all. It’s a plumbing job. Whereas with the brain, it's much too complex.

What we have been able to do is take advantage of the brain’s natural processes and natural plasticity. Connections in the brain can be rebuilt using those functions. A successful treatment for stroke victims is forcing the patients to use the sides of the body where they lost motion and forcing the neurons to re-grow.

But when you have damage in the frontal lobe, for example, there really is nothing substantial we can do. What we need to be able to do to fix the piping, fix the circuitry, is to have the knowledge of all the circuitry and be able to map them out. We’ve been working on trying to make visual simulations. That technology has a long way to go, but that’s the technology that we would have to master before we could try that.

THE FUTURIST: It sounds like the brain is still largely uncharted territory.

ELIEZER STERNBERG: Exactly. It’s been called the last frontier of science. Its one part of the body we know so little about, but research has picked up in the last 15 years. So I think interesting things could be happening over the next decade.

THE FUTURIST: Mental illness has been in the news a lot lately with the shooting in Tucson, Arizona. The alleged shooter is reported to have paranoid schizophrenia. I’ve read, however, that the vast majority of people who have schizophrenia are no more violent than any “normal” people.

Why is it that one person with the disorder might murder several people while others who have it would never do such a thing? How understood – or misunderstood – are people who have disorders such as schizophrenia? How accurately can we determine whether a person who has such a disorder will commit violent acts as a result of it or not?

ELIEZER STERNBERG: I think schizophrenia is one of these disorders that are least understood. We really don’t know what’s going on with it. What we can say is it’s a chemical imbalance, but it has an incredibly large spectrum of the disorder and a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from hallucinations to depression and things like that. So a diagnosis doesn’t necessitate the makings of a psychotic criminal.

I think what we can do now is through psychiatric evaluation, you can tell who is more dangerous than the rest. I have patients who tell me they have voices in their heads telling them to kill, telling them to harm themselves, and that they're thinking about listening to the voices. You know who to keep an eye on. With others, it's mild and the person seems under control. But there is no way to use an MRI and take a look inside. There’s no arbitrary method that you can use to tell one way or the other.

The more serious problem is the people who don’t get treatment, people who don’t have family to take them to a doctor. That’s where you have trouble. Someone who has serious psychosis and it’s seriously questionable whether to let that guy out on the street, it’s not going to be hard for a doctor to tell.

THE FUTURIST: You noted on page 130 that criminals may cease their antisocial behavior once they start taking medications that balance their brain chemistry. But clearly, medication only works if you take it. Recent history presents many cases of mentally ill individuals who were on medications but went off their medications and then committed violent acts. The decision to quit a medication – is this rational will at work, or is it brain chemistry? If brain chemistry plays a part, then to what extent are some disturbed individuals essentially untreatable?

ELIEZER STERNBERG: The percentage of people who are good about taking their medications is surprisingly low. There are a significant percentage of people who just don’t want to take their medications. I think in general it takes a responsible person to take medications at the right time every day. Some people are not. Especially within the population of people who are psychiatrically ill, there the percentage of people who are not is going to be higher.

People who are in the psychiatric ward might take their medications in front of the nurse. Of if they live outside the pscyh ward, nurses might go to them in their homes and give them their medications. But both options take a lot of personnel hours and medical expenditures. Outside of that, you need to trust the patient to do it. And if they can’t, then maybe you have to do one of those two things. That’s one of the issues with medicine: If you don’t take it, it doesn't work.

THE FUTURIST: With the new knowledge science is gaining about how brain wiring and human behavior interconnect, it seems like judges, criminal prosecutors, and defense attorneys all really need to know their brain science if they want to reach fair verdicts in criminal cases. How well do most judges, prosecutors, and lawyers understand the science? If they don’t understand it, what would it take to bring them up to speed?

ELIEZER STERNBERG: The first part I would say is that most of them know very little beyond the common knowledge. I think they will all have a common knowledge of how the brain functions. The question is what is the gap between common knowledge and the amount of knowledge needed for the legal decision-making process? How large of a role does brain science really play in the legal processes, or should it play?

At this point it does not play a very large role. So they don’t need that much beyond the insanity defense. There’s not much brain science that comes into play. There are people that testify and try to argue from MRIs or other medical findings but in those cases it’s an outside medical expert arguing, not a lawyer or a member of the court. Brain science doesn’t play more of a role than other niche areas of study.

The next question is should it play a larger role. A chemistry professor I know at Brandeis University, she argues that brain science has revealed that free will doesn’t exist, and that given that free will doesn’t exist, we need to a much better understanding of crime and punishment in general.

I personally don’t believe in that. I don't think that neuroscience has disproved free will. I think we need to incorporate brain science more in future ways that it can serve as evidence. It can also aid certain types of lie detector tests that measure brain activity; while the subject is being asked questions, you can judge from the brain activity whether the subject is lying or not. There are prototypes and they work well, and I think in the future they might take over the current lie detectors that measure stress and don’t work very well, since most people strapped to a lie detector will be stressed whether they are lying or not.

HE FUTURIST: Switching gears a little bit, I’d like your take on artificial intelligence. It’s clear now that human consciousness is extremely complex and that recreating it with mechanical parts is a huge challenge. What is the missing part or parts that robot engineers have so far failed to replicate? How likely is it that they will replicate it some point in our lifetimes?

ELIEZER STERNBERG: The basic approach right now is from computer science. What that means is putting together a set of formal rules, using the programming languages, and using them to try to simulate all the behaviors of a person. I think this approach itself is a dead end in the following sense: It will not duplicate the way that our brains work; it will not duplicate human consciousness. You are not going to make a conscious being out of a computer programming method.

That's not to say that you’re not going to make useful devices. Computer technology is brilliant. It's changing the world. You can make extremely powerful processing machines. But I think the human brain has a certain flexibility and creativity, and there’s no room for that in a strictly algorithmic program system, such as a computer programming system is.

When you look at a computer program, it’s all mapped out. You know exactly how it works. It’s a very strict system. We must do it differently. How we would do it, I don’t know, but it would take a much greater understanding of how our brains work and a new method of creating them.

THE FUTURIST: What I’m hearing is that the brain is a pretty unpredictable system. We can identify the parts and say what they will be inclined to do, but you won’t know for sure what they do until you see the person in everyday life.

ELIEZER STERNBERG: You can argue that in two ways. I can play devil’s advocate and say it’s unpredictable because it’s so complex and we can’t guess how it works. But I think it's something more than that. It's more fundamental. We have an inherently flexible processing system, and that enables us to think the way we do. It’s fundamentally different from how a computer thinks. If we discover it, I think it will perhaps be the greatest leap in science to see how the brain works. But in the meantime, we need to learn a lot more.

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Publisher and/or Author and/or Managing Editor:__Andres Agostini ─ @Futuretronium at Twitter! Futuretronium Book at