By Matthew Beebe
Bioluminescence meets Neurons via the Brain’s DNA! Finally the showdown of the century has begun! I’m glad to be here witnessing this marvel of the modern era, i’m afraid to think about what this means for the mad scientist in us & more than anything, curious to unravel the mysterious inter-workings of what we call consciousness, personality... the famous: who am I?
Lets start from the top, Optogenetics is the new branch of science in which they implant bioluminescent genes (gleaned from deep sea critters) into brain neurons using viruses to encode the DNA inside the neuron. Once operational LED lights are placed within “view” of the newly encoded light sensitive neuron and can be turned on & off at the flip of a light switch. So far experiments have included rats that have controllable temperature sensory. They placed the rat next to a freezer room and it didn’t want to go inside because it’s colder than a well at Christmas. Then the blue LED was flipped on and the rat walked into the freezing cold room without the slightest hint of hesitation.
For years scientists have wanted a way for precise control of the brain. Any & all psychotic medications, depression meds, and the like merely soak the entire brain in the drug hoping to induce a chemistry change in a positive manner. This method is not unlike crop dusting the entire forest next to your small garden hoping that some of it will reach its intended mark. Other methods used electrodes implanted at the problem sites but still effected all the areas surrounding where they were actually looking for results which often caused many side effects.
Red Flags: Human brains? Cyborgs, Robocop, Terminator, (*cough*) For some reason this is the first thing that comes to mind having been a kid in the 90s. I feel we are very prepared for this case scenario, we’ve been talking about what happens when computers interface with brains in movies for decades now. All I can think about is that Google glasses are already obsolete as now I can just get my brain all lit up and place my ipad within my field of vision & read off it like a secret teleprompter via the visual cortex! As a musician, I can just turn on a face recognition software and have names pop up next to all the people I meet at social events that I forget when i’m real toasted... errr.. I mean, I can remember lyrics better if I read them from a teleprompter type of floating text! yay! The only positive from this point in time is that wearable tech has a weird social reputation... This might be the sensible, albeit invasive, alternative.
The real benefits that most folks are talking about have nothing to do with actually controlling neurons in living creatures at all. The true potential of this new technology lies in the mapping of the brain. Finally we’ll get to see a clear picture of how everything is wired up there! Think about it, we can just light up different systems based on what we believe is sensory, motor, or visual cortex and actually experiment with what happens when we turn them on & off! This will be an entirely new perspective on how these connections are made... self-assembly, self-connection processes, memory, speech, the whole shabang! At this point it’s only a hop, skip, & a jump to schematics, blue prints, and dare I say it, computer boards. On & off switches on a neuron sounds dangerously close to ones & zeros in a program code. It’s the comparison we make everyday when we repeat the phrase “smartphone”, implying thought & personification of a machine.
The mad scientist in me jumped out immediately when I heard about this Optogenetic era we now find ourselves in. Can we genetically grow a brain with long axons (the connection “wires” between the neurons) then separate them out encapsulate the neurons with individual LEDs via fiber-optics. Then turn the switches on & off enough times to figure out some simple patterns to the point where we end up with a biological computer? The question crossed my mind & of course the bioethical questions of will my computer have a soul? And, will my future computer be my friend essentially? These are horrible yet important questions to ask as we will be the ones navigating the waters of this future. How do you handle your relationships right now? This should be something to work on, as the internet might become a sentient feeling thing soon...
My final thoughts on this are that we all have a personality based on the way our individual brains fire, we all have a unique firing order and that, at least partially is the reason we are who we are. We know this because of case studies of many people who’ve had brain injuries. Sometimes a brain injury changes them to the point to where close friends and family become estranged from them because of radical behavioral changes. The environment & relationships we build up around us are of course a huge factor in the way neurotransmitters create “bonds” but when it comes down to brass tacks, those bonds are only as strong as the hardware they run on. The brain is programmed by the thoughts we give it everyday, we can physically change our basic mindset on pure inspiration, reactionary emotions, love, hate, etc. The crazy thing to remember is that the only way we can have a computer make a decision is through emotional response. Until that threshold is crossed programmers will have plenty of work for the foreseeable future & the landscape will stay familiar. My vote, lets keep it human for as long as we can for better or worse.