Who Holds the Clicker?

New brain implants may treat intractable mental illness. But who would control those brave new minds?

| December 8, 2005


Medical science recently added another weapon to its arsenal for treating psychological disorders, Lauren Slater reports in Mother Jones. Along with behavioral therapy, pharmacological intervention, and electroshock therapy, sufferers from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder may soon have the option of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). Originally developed as a cure for the shakes associated with Parkinson's, DBS consists of electrode implants that deliver low-voltage jolts to highly localized regions of the brain. The first major study concerning DBS and depression yielded promising results: of six patients treated, four went into complete remission.

The implantation process resembles a cleaned-up relative of lobotomies, the cousin we'd rather forget. As Slater explains, holes are drilled into an awake patient's head, electrodes are lowered into place, wires are run to the battery (implanted just under the clavicle), and the patient is sewn up. Once the swelling goes down, the doctor turns the system on, incrementally adjusting the current's frequency and intensity in order to normalize brain functions. Unlike antidepressants, where the patients must decide to put the pill in their own mouths every day, DBS patients control neither dosage nor administration. The patient may always opt out of treatment, but DBS is a last-ditch effort, so giving up can mean resigning oneself to a lifetime of depression.

Smiling from electrode to electrode, some patients see salvation. Critics, however, look behind the gadgets and see the looming specter of mind control, Slater writes. DBS's beneficial aspects are obvious -- lives once bleak now blossom with hope -- but what is to stop the procedure from being used in the most nefarious of ways? Its power to make you joyous and productive is also its power to twist you into an enraged ruin of your former self. Lobotomy was once imagined as a viable weapon against crime and social deviance, but it left many people obviously incapacitated. Might this invisible, nuanced procedure be the best tool ever to fall into the worst of hands?
-- Nick Rose

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