So Sandy has a great post today about the DBS human experimentation. As a short summary, DBS (deep brain stimulation) is electrodes surgically connected to a certain area of the brain, and a pacemaker implanted in the chest, in order to then give doctors the ability to send electrical shocks to that area of the brain. The idea is that the brain is sending the “wrong” signals on its own, and it needs surgery to be “fixed” so that the “right” signals are sent.
DBS has found a place in anti-obesity medicine, as a possible method to make fat people permanently thin.
Naturally, brain surgery to make fat people thinner would make the creators of this method, and brain surgeons, dazzlingly rich. This is of course because there has been no weight loss method thus far that has been shown to be generally effective post five years.
Needless to say, in this day and age of many popular prescription medications going generic, the success – or dare I say it, perceived success – of this method would be a boon.
And indeed, as Sandy so well details, the very basis of the methodology behind this surgery is faulty. The assumption is made that fatness is caused by an addiction to food or some other kind of neuropsychological food disorder. The shocks are directed on a portion of the brain that has been suggested in animal studies to reduce hunger.
As those who have had eating disorders know, it is a disconnect with the impulses of hunger that is cultivated during the disorder (not that this disconnect is the cause, of course). In order to most successfully starve oneself, one desires to unhook the natural hunger impulse as much as possible. During a binge, the hunger impulse is also ignored, as one gorges far past the point of fullness (note: for those who are unacquainted with binge eating disorder, it doesn’t mean simply having seconds of a meal or snacking when one is not hungry, or having that second bowl of ice cream on an especially stressful night).
All that aside, there is an especially important quote from Sandy’s article that I think deserves emphasis:
At a meeting of the American Neuropsychiatric Association, Dr. Lozano also described a troubling complication observed when stimulation spread to the hypothalamus, which is the target for DBS:
[T]here have been reports of aggressive behavior induced by intraoperative stimulation in the vicinity of the subthalamic nucleus, thought to be related to the spread of the current to the hypothalamus. There have also been acute depression and anxiety induced by stimulation in the vicinity of the substantia nigra pars reticulata; there have also been reports of euphoria and laughter… by stimulation in the subthalamic nucleus. Because the subthalamic nucleus is rather small… it’s quite difficult to only be in the motor territory without having some spillover into the cognitive and limbic territory, so we often, if the current is too high, or if the electrodes are misplaced, get some of these collateral effects.
Which brings me to the title of this post. You see, I’m a total geek. I love Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and other good sci fi. I’m a science fiction writer, myself. And since the lead researcher of this experiment himself compares it to borderline science fiction, I think it’s apt to reflect a great piece of writing from the movie, Serenity.
In this movie, the crew of the starship Serenity discover a human experiment on a massive scale. The planet Miranda had been terraformed by the Alliance government, and a general call had been sent out for individuals to become part of a new civilization on Miranda. What they hadn’t been told is that the Alliance government, in partnership with its government healthcare researchers (as far as I can tell in the Firefly series, off of which Serenity is based, healthcare is nationalized), have developed an airborne drug called Pax.
Pax was supposed to be a “civilizing” drug – meant to weed out aggression amongst the population. However, it had horrible side effects. It worked, in the sense that along with aggression ambition, and even the simple will to live was weeded out, causing many of the population to just allow themselves to die. However, in a small number of cases Pax had the opposite effect – it caused extreme aggression. Those individuals so warped by the drug were to become a permanent threat to the Galaxy at large.
Sure, it’s an exaggerated, geeky example. However, the point is when we start abandoning the idea of rigorous science and studies based on fact with real outcomes, and start marketing anything and everything because there is a population steeped in fear about a particular “malady” (here it is obesity, in the Serenity movie it was aggression), we bear the brunt of unexpected side effects.
Perhaps DBS-surgered obese people won’t become monsters who want to kill their fellow man, but even if they are in the very least bit not just worse off after the surgery than they were before, but the same, it is a violation of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” I consider cutting into healthy brain tissue harm. I consider even cutting into the skin of a person for a reason that is not shown to improve their health harm.
What do you think?