NAMI Media Watch: Hacking Brains, Looking to the Future

APR. 01, 2016

By Bob Carolla

The Washington Post recently published a three-part series titled “Brain Hacking.” Written by Pulitzer Prize winning science and health reporter Amy Ellis Nutt, this series is worth reading.

Hacking in this case doesn’t refer to criminal activity but to skilled scientific research using innovative technologies—and computers.

Part one of the series focuses on The Mind’s Biology, in which doctors seek to “fix” electrical circuits in the brain. The approach uses combinations of DNA biomarkers, brain imaging, neurofeedback and electrical stimulation.

The article profiles one doctor using such tools in practice, although one wonders whether some are truly “ready for primetime.” Understanding brain circuitry is an important area of inquiry and may help eventually to inform treatment. It’s good that skilled researchers and practitioners are approaching mental health issues from novel angles. However, some approaches may be expensive and their effectiveness uncertain. In considering new technology or treatment options, it’s important to keep a fundamental principle in mind: doctors and patients must be partners and consult closely in making treatment choices. That includes comparative discussions of effectiveness, risks and side effects. Are they evidence-based?

The first article notes that Thomas Insel, M.D., former head of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) believes researchers and clinicians are still at “the beginning of a long road” and that “rigorous study” is needed for biological tests and other tools.

Part two of the series is titled Hot-Wired For Happiness? Susumu Tonegawa, M.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a molecular biologist, neuroscientist and winner of the Nobel Prize, has eliminated depression in mice by “reactivating happy memory cells.” His search for a breakthrough is fueled by his experience with depression, following the death of his son from suicide.

Part three of the series, the final installment, is titled OCD Goes Under the Microscope. It examines efforts to identify patterns of activation associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  One multi-year study involves children and teenagers “playing” with joysticks and computers while lying inside of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The study requires a supercomputer to store and analyze the thousands of images being generated.

Relevant to such “computational research,” the Scientific American recently published an article: Can Big Data Help Psychiatry Unravel the Complexity of Mental Illness? It is a good companion to the Washington Post series and easy to understand for those of us without a Ph.D. in math or science. An article for those looking for something more challenging is New Studies of the 'Natural History' of Schizophrenia Raise Hope for New Treatments, published in Medical News Today. The article summarizes studies published in a special issue of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

NAMI’s mission involves education, support and advocacy for individuals and families affected by mental illness. More fundamentally, NAMI supports scientific research—the kind that can lead to breakthroughs in prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Always watch for stories in news media about medical research involving mental illness. Science advances incrementally, sometimes with twists and turns, but in the long run, it points the way to the future. It also provides hope.


MAY, 05, 2016 10:00:57 PM
Cindy Aller
I was born with bipolar disorder and I've been studying the mind for decades. It's always refreshing to hear other people's viewpoints.

APR, 27, 2016 06:46:19 PM
Technology data future is amazing what can be accomplished if you seeking the truth, it the only resource that has never let me down. In other words God has the answers. From the little knowledge experience I have is that, Man is for ever increasing in knowledge but never coming into the truth. As the old slogan says the Truth shall set you FREE.

APR, 27, 2016 06:28:25 PM
I don't think treatment will be forced upon anyone. If I could cure my son from his agony from hearing voices and being paranoid it would be worth every penny! My son is fortunate enough to have insight into his illness. He is waiting for this day.

APR, 10, 2016 09:47:15 PM
Brains are complicated, but brain health is everyone's business. Understanding how they work is going to lessen the darkness and the fear.

APR, 01, 2016 09:30:10 PM
Will it eventually be apart of the forced treatment.

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.