“Brain-Altering Science and the Search for a New Normal”

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The Story

“Brain-Altering Science and the Search for a New Normal”
by Sarah Scoles
Pacific Standard, March 13, 2017

The Pitch

[Scoles notes: I changed the patient name in the pitch, here, because he ended being anonymized in the article.]

What Happens When Defense Agencies Can Tweak Your Brain in Real-Time?

Kevin had spent his whole adult life suffering debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder. By the time he heard about a deep-brain stimulation (DBS) study at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), he “could not have lived much longer with that incredible amount of suffering,” says his wife, Linda. Doctors at MGH were testing a brain implant that delivers electricity to gray matter, altering its activity and, in this case, hypothetically halting repetitive, intrusive thoughts and behaviors. But when Drs. Darin Dougherty Eman and Eskandar, who head the DBS projects at the hospital, discovered that Kevin also had diagnosed depression, they said he couldn’t participate. They said would implant the device in his brain, though, if he could pay for it. Feeling without options, Kevin petitioned his company for the quarter-million dollars that would be required for the elective surgery. They hedged for months and then coughed up the fortune. And since he got his bionic brain, Kevin has been able to feel calm about compulsions and excited about the rest of life.

MGH has a big stake in DBS treatments and in expanding their applicability—from the currently approved uses against conditions like Parkinson’s Disease and dystonia to other conditions like depression, chronic pain, borderline personality disorder, general anxiety, traumatic brain injury, and addiction. But their plans for combatting those conditions come with creepy strings attached.

MGH, together with the near Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Draper Laboratory, received $30 million in 2014 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to “produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.” With their grant, MGH, MIT, and Draper plan to produce a brand new kind of DBS device.

This implant won’t just zap generically: It will monitor patients’ brains in real-time, sense when their neurons seem depressed (or traumatized or in crave mode), and electrify them in a targeted way, re-aligning their neural activity with a prescribed, personalized version of “normal.” This requires making a neuromap of “normal,” a neuromap of “scared,” a neuromap of “sad,” etc.—none of which are small tasks but are tasks that, armed with $30 million, the team feels they can accomplish.

Skimmed over, that all sounds cool, interesting, futuristic. And that’s largely how the project was reported in the mainstream press. But—as several prominent neuroscientist bloggers red-flagged—both this future device and the research behind it could easily be abused.

After all, if a device knows how to send someone back to “normal,” it can also send them elsewhere. With maps of different mental states and devices that can change them in real-time, it’s not hard to imagine implants that make people afraid, fearless, violent, or totally passive.

This sounds kooky conspiracy-theorist, but consider who funds the research: DARPA, the agency that works on intelligent surveillance systems, exoskeletons for battle, and direct brain-to-brain communication. The agency’s goal is not to advance neuroscience. It’s “to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. National Security and to create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of U.S. military.” And DARPA is notoriously secretive, regularly providing sunny cover-story reasons for its technological innovations while using them for covert defense purposes. And Draper Laboratory—the organization developing the chip itself—is a serious defense contractor that got its start developing guidance systems for ballistic missiles.

So while the DARPA program’s primary stated goal is to alleviate PTSD and traumatic brain injury symptoms in veterans, it’s not crazy to think that’s the tip of a more sinister iceberg. As one critic put it, “the party line is DARPA as nurse, not DARPA as warrior.” And even if the program doesn’t actively have sinister aspects, shouldn’t we be asking more questions about how this technology could be used?

Cuts to funding of science agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have left scientists more likely to seek money from military agencies. But just as nuclear physicists working on the Manhattan Project didn’t all think through the moral consequences of their research, neuroscientists and surgeons like Dougherty and Eskandar—who installed Kevin’s device and will carry out the human trials of the Draper Lab implant—might not be paranoid enough to think through the implications of their work. As a Royal Society report put it, “while hostile uses of neuroscience and related technologies are ever more likely, scientists remain almost oblivious to the dual uses of their research.”

I would like to write a feature article that digs into the MGH, MIT, and Draper program and DARPA’s intentions. The real-time device is still in development and hasn’t entered the human trial phase, so it’s not possible to interview anyone who experiences that kind of neurological alteration. But I would interview a large number of DBS patients, specifically those who have implants for non-FDA approved conditions.

While many, like Kevin, have glowing stories to tell, others have implants that waned in effectiveness, broke inside their brains, or changed their personalities in unexpected ways (which has represented a legal complication in at least one criminal case, where the patient claimed, essentially, “my implant made me do it.”). The article would weave the most relevant and compelling of their narratives together with the stories of the new implant’s development (including visits to Draper and MGH), DARPA’s history in brain work, and Draper’s history in defense work. Ultimately, the article would use these intertwined stories to investigate the role of the military in the development of science, what constitutes “mind control” and what doesn’t, and how to ethically navigate neuroscience.

If you are interested, I can send a list of people I would interview and the places I would find DBS patients and their stories.

I think Pacific Standard readers would be interested in the overlap between individual human stories and big ethical questions, between the government and the scientific community, and between both groups and the general public.

I have had features in Slate, Popular Science, Motherboard, Aeon, and Hakai and have features forthcoming in Wired and Discover. As clips, below are a few links to features that involved spending a lot of time with human beings:

  • this story about socioeconomic clash in a space industry boomtown
  • this story about a wilderness medicine doctor’s attempts to create a universal snakebite antidote
  • and this story about a group of “Veterans for Peace” who restored an old “protest boat.”
  • a full portfolio lives here, and I would be happy to send links to more individual writing samples.

Thanks very much for considering the idea!

Sarah Scoles

Berkeley, CA

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