Are Psychoactive Drugs a Thing of the Past?
Before I actually get started on this article, I would like to immediately answer the question I posed in the title: no. Psychoactive drugs are alive and well. But they might not be for long.
In a recent article titled “Changing brains: why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era”, The Observer reports that large pharmaceutical companies have, for the most part, significantly slowed research on new drugs.
We already have drugs meant to treat pretty much any problem, and it has been a long time since the era of discovering revolutionary new prescription medications on a regular basis. Now, the occasional new drug has the same effects as a previous one, but it provides fewer side effects. Better, yes, but hardly exciting. And because of this, Big Pharma has largely ceased funneling major research dollars into new psychoactive drugs.
But that does not mean they are slowing their research. Pharmaceutical companies are still investing billions of dollars every year in new technologies and methods for treating various diseases.
So what are they working on now? One of the major up-and-coming areas is optogenetics, a term that you’ll likely be hearing about quite a bit over the next several years. Optogenetics is a fascinating neuroscientific field that may soon allow scientists to stimulate specific networks of neurons — a far more fine-grained approach than altering neurotransmitters, as many current psychoactive drugs do.
Optogenetics is based on a very interesting technological method. First, a virus containing the genetic details for light-sensitive proteins is injected into the brain. This virus “infects” a specific population of neurons, making them reactive to a specific wavelength of light (generally in the blue range). Next, tiny fiber optic cables are implanted in the brain, also targeting specific neurons. When a pulse of light is sent through the cable, the neuron is activated or inhibited.
It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. In fact, they’ve actually been using a similar strategy to treat Parkinson’s disease for a while now, though they use electrodes instead of fiber-optics. Obviously, the electrodes offer significantly less fine control. And over the next decade or so, you can expect to see billions upon billions of dollars spent on research in this area. They have successfully used this technology in mice, but as of yet, there have been no human trials (at least that I am aware of).
But this kind of research brings with it very important philosophical considerations. Many cognitive scientists — including neuroscientists — have an essentially mechanistic view of the brain-mind-body interface; desires, preferences, and actions are determined by chemical and electrical reactions in the brain, all coming together to make us who we are. There is little room for the idea of a soul or, sometimes, even free will in this kind of view.
If this is the case, what happens to us when we fundamentally alter the brain and use that to affect changes in behavior? The change in behavior could be something as significant and positive as inhibiting suicidal behavior or encouraging compassion. What does this mean for us as people? Does this change who we are? If so, should we allow Big Pharma, an industry known for manipulating medicine and academic research to its own purposes, to dictate how this technology works and is applied?
There are a lot of questions surrounding optogenetics, and these are just a few. Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let us know what you think about optogenetics and its potential future uses.
Bell, V. (2013). Changing brains: why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era. The Observer, Sunday 22 September.
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