So for example, if someone with depression shows dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — it is not as active as it is in other brains — we actually use electromagnetic currents from devices placed on the scalp to induce neural rewiring in those areas.
So in the case of the area that was less active than normal, we give a pulse, we stimulate it, we do whatever we can over several sessions to say: Can we upregulate that? Can we make this brain essentially push back towards normal behavior, one area at a time?
And while this is a new technology, some of the pioneering work by Dr. Jonathan Downer at the University of Toronto shows nearly a 33% remission rate for treatment-resistant depression, which is depression where patients have seen no relief from therapy, they’ve seen no relief from anti-depressants, and they are running out of options.
And another wonderful thing about the idea of neuroplasticity is that while drugs are very specific on a molecular level, they’re quite general still in their delivery, often affecting a whole host of parts around the body that we didn’t intend, and leading to the laundry list of side effects that you’re probably used to hearing at rapid speed at the end of drug commercials.
But neuroplasticity kind of takes the other approach. Instead, we’re targeting very large patches of your brain, but we’re leaving the rest of you alone. We’re now in the midst of the personal medicine revolution — you can sequence your genome; you can get SNPs — it’s $100-$200.
I think neuroplasticity can fit into this because the devices that we use can be tailored very specifically to each individual. We can deliver just the right stimulating pulse for John, and we can give just the right targeting area for Jenny.
There is a lot of flexibility to make sure that we address the fact that we’re as different on the inside — probably more so — than we are on the outside, and any optimal treatment mechanism should cater to that.
So, to me this seems like science fiction coming true. I mean, we are on the frontier of non-invasively being able to rewire your brain to alleviate certain types of mental disorders.
While there is certainly debate in the literature as there always is: What’s the right sham? What’s the right control? Where do you target? It doesn’t matter.
We’re almost there, and the possibilities are startling. And once we get there, the next question becomes: If we can rewire your brain using devices, would it at all be possible to help your brain rewire itself with just your own thoughts?
I know it seems kind of crazy, but that’s the idea of something called real-time neurofeedback. Essentially, what we’re doing, if you give the example of, let’s say, addiction. In cocaine addiction, we show a subject luring images of cocaine, and we induce their craving networks.
So these are cocaine addicts. And then we present them with a real-time feedback of what their brain is actually doing. What is the craving network in your brain really doing? And the idea is that we’re asking people to surf their mental landscape and do whatever it is they need to do to make that bar go down, which essentially is exploiting whatever conscious control, and probably in most cases unconscious control, that you have over your own brain to rewire it intelligently at just the right times, with just a little bit of biofeedback.
Now, I think this has real implications for the legal system because we’re getting to the point where our neurochemistry is getting really good. We’re now able to give different types of drugs to change mood states.
And in one case, we, as a government, are now disarming criminals with drugs. And that might sound like a 1984-esque type of statement, but consider that we already do it.
In California and many other states, we mandate what’s called chemical castration for re-offending sex offenders. So they’re forced to take medroxyprogesterone acetate to reduce their libido — and it’s effective.
And I’m not here to comment on the morality of the subject, but I do feel that as we look for new ways to rehabilitate criminals instead of warehouse them, neuroplasticity would be an incredible option, where, before we say, you have to take this drug or we’re not letting you out, we instead see: Is there any possibility for this person to be rewired or to rewire themselves?
And moving beyond deficits, what if instead of just treating deficits, we actually use this to improve ourselves, just our own impulse control — where — yeah, all right, I don’t know which one I want right now — where we use our own intelligent brain plasticity to modulate and upregulate our long-term decision-making, our attention, our impulse control.
What if we went to the biofeedback mental gym as much as we went to the real gym, and we lifted our behavioral problems with as much vigor as we lift our 45 pound plates. I think it’s a beautiful idea.
And there’s one more application of neuroplasticity I’d like to talk with you about, but in order to do so, we’re going to run a quick experiment.
Everyone, look under your seats. Some of you will see a pair of earplugs; they look like this. And some of you stole them before the break. I know who you are. Pull them out. Okay.
So here’s the experiment. Those of you who have earplugs, you’re going to be speakers, and everyone else, you’re going to be listeners. Okay? Open them up. Get ready.
Now, I’d like you all to meet my friend Mimi. Mimi is seven months old, and she loves to talk. When I press Play, your job, speakers, is to mimic what she’s saying. Listeners, your job is to see how well did they do. Okay, put in your earplugs.
And for those of you at home, go ahead and plug your ears the old fashioned way and see if you can play along.
(Cute baby noises)
Take out your earplugs.
Yeah, like, pretty terrible, actually. And look, I kind of set you all up to fail on that one because lip reading is a really difficult problem. But lip reading babies who, as all you missed, can make vocalizations without their mouth moving at all, and then who speak with toys in their mouth is a really, really difficult problem. This is harder than neuroscience.