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We might one day be able to erase mental illness from our brains. But first, let’s change the way we think about mental health.
By Molly Fosco
Technology is having an increasing impact in the operating theater and beyond. Yet, as experts reveal in The Future of X: Health, patient treatment in 50 years’ time won’t be based entirely on robots or advanced A.I., but rather on raw human connection. In a new five-part podcast, in partnership with Providence St. Joseph Health, OZY paints a picture of health care in 2069, from the chronic diseases we don’t yet recognize to a world without hospitals. Listen up on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.
There’s a famous scene in Charlie Kaufman’s movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Jim Carrey’s character, Joel, confronts his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) in a bookstore. “What’s wrong with your phone?” he mumbles. Clementine turns and smiles. She has no idea who he is. Later, Joel discovers Clementine has had him erased from her memory — completely.
If you’ve ever suffered a broken heart, you know that desperate desire to end the mental anguish, no matter the cost. A broken heart is temporary, but suffering a mental illness is often chronic, and the desire to delete that part of the brain can be persistent and overwhelming. It’s not possible yet, but some futurists hope that neurotechnology will one day allow us to delete depression and other mental illnesses from our brain.
In its simplest form, neurotechnology refers to mapping your brain activity or stimulating it with magnetic pulses. But in the extreme, neurotechnology could mean uploading a copy of your entire brain to a machine. A doctor could then assess which parts of the brain your depression is linked to and deactivate it or repress it. Making an edit to the computer version of your brain would be the same as making an edit to your actual brain, because the two would be interconnected. Pretty wild, right?
In the future, the hope is that, rather than just hit a reset button, we can dialectically manipulate the system in order to put things in a better state.
E.J. Chichilnisky, lead researcher in the Stanford NeuroTechnology Initiative
But there’s a lot more work to be done. “First, we need to better understand the neural circuits that are responsible for those kinds of mental states,” says E.J. Chichilnisky, lead researcher in the Stanford NeuroTechnology Initiative. “In the future, the hope is that, rather than just hit a reset button, we can dialectically manipulate the system in order to put things in a better state.”
Even if we could edit our brains, should we? Along with the bad symptoms of mental illness, we could be losing out on the good. “Hypomania is a kind of sub-manic state where people with bipolar have an enormous amount of energy, confidence, drive and creativity,” says psychiatrist John D. Gartner. In his book, The Hypomanic Edge, Gartner points out that America has the highest rate of diagnosed bipolar disorder, with nearly one in 20 Americans on the bipolar spectrum — almost double the global average.
Gartner ties the high rate to immigration, citing that immigrants are more likely to be ambitious, optimistic and creative — and more likely to have bipolar disorder. He suggests that because America has a higher proportion of hypomanics, they’ve helped shape the country’s character and success. The trick, says Gartner, is to figure out how to properly manage the symptoms of mental illness so people who exhibit some positive symptoms don’t lose the traits that make them unique. “I’ve found using meditation is an effective way to help people self-regulate without having to use as much medication,” Gartner says. He believes too much medication can greatly reduce the “secret sauce” that makes someone successful.
Before scientific innovation can lead to “brain editing,” we need the ability to gather and analyze our brain’s data. And there may be a more imminent technology that can help. One day, we could have a neural implant inside our brains that can anticipate our depression symptoms before they set in.
“From my perspective, I really do see it as a kind of digital dashboard that’s constantly giving people feedback and helping guide people as they’re progressing through life,” says Glen Moriarty, founder of the mental health app 7 Cups. While we don’t have neural implants yet, we do have apps like 7 Cups that can already do many of the things Moriarty is talking about. Data about when, where and how often people use their phones, for example, is incredibly valuable to a therapist. “People have 2,600–2,700 touches on their cell phones per day,” says Arpan Waghray, chief medical officer for Well Being Trust and a practicing psychiatrist. “We now have a way in which we can continuously monitor for certain symptoms.”
Technology like this comes at a critical time. The suicide rate in the U.S. hit a 50-year peak in 2017, according to the CDC. Fourteen people out of every 100,000 died by suicide that year. But if people are being constantly monitored, another familiar concern pops up: privacy. “When do you shift from measurement to surveillance?” asks Waghray. “We also have to be aware of that balance — never compromise on what matters to people the most.”
When it comes to maintaining our mental health, there’s another often overlooked component that can have a huge impact on mood, energy and productivity: sleep. In 2007, two years into starting the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington collapsed and broke her cheekbone. She was diagnosed with exhaustion. The experience inspired Huffington to launch Thrive Global, a startup that promotes healthy sleep and tech habits. “Chronic sleep problems are found in 50 to 80 percent of those seeking help for mental health issues,” Huffington says. “Sleep deprivation always predisposes us to rumination, to negative bias, to those things that, if they’re not arrested, become depression and anxiety.”
But help may soon be on the way. Last year, the University of Pennsylvania found that a quarter of Americans experience insomnia each year. But what if instead of trying to get more sleep, we could hack our bodies to need less? In 2009, neurology professor Ying-Hui Fu from the University of San Francisco discovered a mutation in a gene known as DEC2, which helps control and maintain wakefulness. Those with the mutation naturally need just 4–6 hours of sleep each night. Scientists want to develop a gene therapy that could one day mimic this mutation in anyone, making us all more efficient sleepers and improving our mental health in the process.
But the future of mental wellbeing isn’t all about body hacking and brain editing. It’s also about how we perceive mental health. Did you know that until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association? Thankfully, our perception is different today, but some think it should change even further. In the future, says Gartner, conditions like hypomania could become so destigmatized that they’ll no longer be considered mental illness at all. “The default,” Gartner says, “should be that we respect who people are.”