Nature understands our brain, just as much as our brain understands nature. During the course of evolution, our brain ‘metamorphosed’ with Kafkaesque intent — for far superior purposes, including a state of higher conscious awareness — just as civilisation embarked on a voyage to wreck nature. Our brain is unique, no less — it not only exerts greater and sublime control over biological functions, viz., eating, sleeping and procreation, it has the added advantage, besides skill, to communicate and express emotions. It is also endowed with a host of other attributes, such as the power of cognition, reasoning, judgment, problem-solving, conflict-resolution and creativity, unlike the animal world.
Our cognitive functions are controlled by the prefrontal cortex — the area located behind the forehead. This is what that separates us from other forms of life. It is actually our ‘signature tune,’ one that determines our race, even our destiny. Put simply, the whole idea connotes that the brain has never been static, or constant. It has undergone changes, in the long-term, while going through interim alterations, or refinement, during one’s lifetime.
The popular notion is — the brain is the ‘control tower’ for behaviour. This is true, although the fascinating part is not only does it ‘direct’ one's behaviour, it also, with equal alacrity, ‘taps’ changes within itself in terms of structure and function. Besides, the brain is a resilient organ; it can adapt to each individual's changing world, like duck to water. It is also the reservoir of subjective and objective experiences — this bids fair to the development and progression of one's mind, consciousness and personal or core values that are as unique to each individual as their fingerprint.
While scientific advance and technology have given us the capability to focus on the higher powers of the brain, what has really transformed our race is the rapidly expanding human potential in overcoming brain disease, or illness. The next step would obviously spotlight on augmenting brain function, vision and creativity through innovative applications — right from ‘soon-to-emerge,’ super-high-tech information technology to robotics.
This brings us to the downside of rapid advance — how will rollicking information and scientific explosion defy the powers of our brain? What does medical progress hold vis-à-vis medications, or speciality drugs for memory and anti-aging, or futuristic treatment, including advanced surgery and ‘rejuvenation’ for brain disorders? What would the borders between mind and body, brain and artificial intelligence be? This is not all. The billion rupee question is — how well is our species prepared to handle such challenges, not just from the technological point-of-view, but also from the psycho-sociological, cultural, societal and ethical standpoint? These are not simple questions with easy answers.
While information technology, which is nothing short of manna from heaven, has revolutionised our life, learning and knowledge, it has also challenged our brain’s capacity or competence to coping with the enormous glut of information available at the click of the muse. It is not that our brain isn’t endowed with the wherewithal to filter, organise or selectively disregard information that is not required, yet the fact is most people are glued to devour and expand on the higher powers of the brain with pointless information.
On the flipside though, all of this is not what we figure out to be. It is true that we are bombarded with more than 40,000 thousand thoughts on any given day. The point actually is our brain filters more than 99 per cent of such sensory inputs before it reaches our consciousness awareness, or the mind’s eye. What’s more, since the brain is smart, it will, by way of reflex, ‘sieve’ whatever information is repetitive, boring, or redundant, while retaining new, pertinent and essential information. Interestingly, again, the brain is better equipped than the most advanced computer. It is not only exceptionally good at remembering remote facts, but it is dazzling at organising and associating thoughts with ideas and ideas with thoughts. This is what that provides it with the innate, natural ability to handle new information without being overburdened, or overloaded, with too much of a good thing, or surplus.
More than information or advanced technology on the outside, there is a stunning, definitive biology at work inside the brain. Although the brain has an enormous appetite to storing information, information technology has made ‘relative’ the need for long-term memory in the brain passé. As new research augurs, this will call for greater use of our working memory — not so much our storage memory. This is not all. Just think of it. Our memories in the future may emerge in the form of a pill — a pill that expands our ‘normal’ memory. Such a pill, ‘in the works,’ has already been used in patients with memory loss, or Alzheimer’s disease, with encouraging outcomes.
Now, picture this — as our ability to access and share information will only accelerate, our brains will be challenged to think and make decisions at the speed of thought. Anyone who falls short of it will be doomed, unless one musters one’s intuition and ‘gut feelings,’ with expanded gusto. Add to this yet another type of memory that occurs in the form of genetic material, the DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, the blueprint for the body or chemical reminiscence for traits passed down from generation to generation, and you have the human genetic map. A ‘chart’ that will help locate biomarkers for diagnosis, preventative and curative treatment of a host of hereditary disorders — including diseases of the brain.
You get the idea — gene therapy. Gene therapy is directed towards replacing defective genes with ‘unspoiled’ genes. Gene therapy is far from perfect yet, but what takes the cake is a revolutionary, innovative strategy called chimeraplasty, or targeted gene correction, in which a cell is stimulated to refurbish its own defective genes. All the same, the road to the future is more exciting as genetic information will lead to tests in the mother’s womb, or early in life. This will be a boon to detect markers that suggest genetic predispositions to conditions, such as obesity and addiction, not to speak of emotional disorders. The scientific spin-off would be imminent as one would have the ‘magic wand’ to devise lifestyles that integrate medical analyses with pre-emptive, corrective treatment to stay in optimal health and wellness.
It is not that everything will be hunky-dory with such advances — one must be realistic of possibilities, not eventualities, because genetic medicine will not inevitably enable us to predict an individual’s phenotype, or body structure. This is because your phenotype is not just the expression of genetic information, but also the outcome of environmental influences and life experiences. Let us cull an illustration to bring home the point — the phenotype for brain disorders could range anywhere from ‘zero-symptoms’ to complete disability. One cannot ‘tap’ identical twins with 100 per cent ‘zero-error’ too in such an instance. Nature is a temple of surprises, even enigma. To state the obvious— neither health nor any ‘make-up’ of the human brain and body is predestined, or predictable. To cut a long story short — our environment and behaviour can modify our brains, just as much as autonomy and creative licence can augment, or ‘jazz-up,’ our behaviour.
Yet another downside is gene treatment that alters one gene may impinge on different qualities, including behaviours that we do not want to change. For instance, the same gene linked to heart disease could also influence our brainpower, intellect or creativity. It all, therefore, boils down to risks — that altering a gene may not be a good idea for disorders associated with multiple genes.
While conventional medicine has ‘engineered’ the advent of wonderful drugs, or miracle drugs being replaced by the more miraculous drugs of tomorrow, medical sceptics by themselves are ‘aiming their perceptive guns’ while substantiating the credo that drugs, in any form, only ease symptoms, not the disease per se. This is all due to change, as researchers overwhelm disorders with trophic factors, or specific substances, that ‘fuel’ and replace degenerated cells. Not only that. As computer designed molecules fit precisely into specific receptors for the purpose of treating diseases, the transcendent idea of genetically engineering plants to produce pharmaceuticals will take medical treatment to its acme — absorbing drugs by simply eating the plant food. This could be blasphemy for sceptics, because the human body is not a machine operating independently of the mind. This brings us to the big question that has begun to haunt research more than ever before. Will ‘tweaking’ our brain, or body system, rob us of our ability to cultivate warm, loving relationships, or influence longevity and the capacity to live in harmony with ourselves and others?
It is an uneasy question which calls for answers far beyond our new-found talent to replace our vision and hearing with light and sound detectors or computer chips that transmit appropriate signals to our brain.