Fixing the Soul

Left: normal tadpole brain. Center: injections with a suppressor of neural induction (Notch) caused a significantly elevated incidence of malformed brain in tadpole embryos, including near complete loss of forebrain/olfactory bulbs, and malformed midbrain and eyes. The embryos also exhibited loss of the normal voltage pattern. Right: Restoring hyperpolarization (normal voltage pattern) restored normal brain morphology, with well-formed forebrain/olfactory bulb, midbrain, and hindbrain. Credit: Vaibhav P. Pai et al./ The Journal of Neuroscience

Medicine has made amazing progresses in these last fifty years in all its branches with possibly the exception of the brain. Yes, we have today the possibility of performing surgery via robotic assistance that were simply unimaginable few years ago and we have drugs that can alleviate depression and electrical stimulators to be implanted in the brina to control seizures. But we are still baffled when the issues are a consequence of some mis-wiring in the brain, like the autisms syndrome (on which the growing consensus is that it is the consequence of yet unknown causes that result in a mis-wiring of axons and dendrites).

The fact is that the complexity of the brain wiring is overwhelming. And, we do not know how to re-wire a brain.

And yet, we now understand that it is the wiring that leads to the emergence of awareness and what we call thinking, emotion and more generally "soul" (I am taking here a scientific -experiment based- perspective, leaving out religious and unprovable belief, knowing that science is not able to explain it all, yet and may be never). Being able to understand the wiring (something that both the European Flagship "The Brain" initiative and the "Connectomics" initiative in the US are trying to do) is clearly important but unless we can find ways to fix mis-wiring it will make no good.

And this is where this news from Tuft University fits.

By experimenting with tadpoles, researchers at Tuft have been able to understand the role played by bio-electricity in the development of the brain. They have then started to use bio-electricity to redirect the growth of tadpoles brain and have learnt how to re-wire a brain to fit a desired architecture. In practice they have shown that, at least in principle, we now have a tool to rewire a brain, and therefore, if you allow me, to fix the soul.

We are clearly white far from a medical application but for the first time we have discovered a tool that could be used. Before it was just unthinkable. Now it is a matter of lengthy studies and experiments. No guarantee of success, of course, but there is a road ahead.

Also, and this may be a bit depressing, it turns out that tadpoles' brain has several similarities with ours from the point of view of the genesis of neurones connectivity so that we can really start to consider how to apply this tool to fix "human brains".

And, of course, this opens up a can of worms. Just think about the debates on the appropriateness of some plastic surgery... Imagine plastic surgery on the brain. Clearly having the possibility of "curing" autisms is a dream coming true, but at the same time do we have a definition for "normality"? Who can say what normal is and decide that what is "abnormal" should  can be fixed? And what about fixing what is considered "normal" to attain a "super normal". As soon as we touch the brain we are potentially touching the soul. Science is leading us onto unexplored paths that evolution has not been considered. Controlling evolution brings lights and shadows to the fore and the big problem is that it si difficult to distinguish light from shadow...

Author - Roberto Saracco

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