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King: Push is on to treat our brains, not their problems

POSTED: June 3, 2014 1:00 a.m.

More and more of our soldiers are coming back from war with traumatic injuries of one sort or another. High on the list are brain injuries, but depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders are common among service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now researchers say they are as little as five years away from healing these injuries by implanting electronic devices in the damaged area of the brain. As radical as it sounds, they insist it is not very much different than implanting a pace maker in a human heart.

Technically they may be right, but there is a wide gap between the heart, which is really just a pump, and the brain, which is the source of the human mind — some might say the human soul.

It sounds exciting, but I seriously doubt the public is ready for it. Conspiracy theorists already accuse the government of implanting electrodes in people so they can better control the masses. Nevertheless, the brain is big these days ... or should I say, brain science is big. Just check the number of books on the subject in any bookstore.

To steal from TV’s “Star Trek” series, the brain is the final frontier, but it seems the more we learn, the less we know. Perhaps scientists can look into the human brain with imaging equipment and watch various areas light up, but what most of us see — and use to judge our neighbors — is behavior.

Here’s where it gets complicated. What motivates behavior? Is it culture, upbringing, hormones? To what degree can behavior be changed by education?

And what about free will? In other words, who’s in control? Whatever the answer, it begins in the brain.

Last week the Supreme Court rejected a lower court’s decision to execute a man based on his IQ, which apparently was one point too high to qualify him as mentally disabled. Freddie Lee Hall brutally murdered a pregnant woman over 35 years ago and has been on death row ever since.

The man’s behavior on that day over three decades ago was undeniably horrible, but the legal criterion for execution or pardon was based on an intelligence test — his brain function. Personally, I oppose the death penalty, but that’s not the point of this column. I’m simply pointing out the roll brain science plays in our today’s society.

No doubt the Parkinson’s disease patient will gladly undergo a brain implant if it promises relief from the shaking and muscle rigidity that characterize the disease. The veteran plagued with uncontrollable anxiety and nightmares may be more than willing to do the same, but if it works, what happens next?

The research to help military personal with psychiatric disorders using electronic devices is a $70 million program. I suppose that isn’t all that much money in governmental terms, but it is one more case of spending tax dollars trying to fix something when it might be better spent addressing the causes of the problem.

We know that a soldier on the front lines who is bombarded with explosions and in unremitting jeopardy from an unseen enemy in the bush can suffer trauma. Similarly we should realize that a child in the ghetto exposed to family fights, loud TV, gunshots and who is as likely to be beaten by his or her parent as by the bully next door can be similarly traumatized.

Will we implant soldier’s brains with electrodes when they become a problem to their friends and family, or delinquents when they run afoul of the law? Wouldn’t it be better to spend the money on more support for the soldiers in the field and for social programs at home that raise families out of poverty?

I’m sure brain studies are more exciting than working with the poor, and I’m certainly not opposed to the research as such. I just fear we are substituting technology for a better understanding of human behavior.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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