What If Neuroscience Had No Limits?

By Neuroskeptic | May 8, 2013 12:36 pm

I’ve been wondering:

Suppose neuroscientists faced absolutely no financial or ethical constraints. What would that allow us to do? What kind of hitherto-intractable questions would we be able to answer?

Well, the money would certainly let us make our studies larger and more elaborate, while the lack of ethics would allow us to do the kind of research currently performed on animals, on humans (I did say a complete lack of ethics.)

But those kinds of improvements are all essentially quantitative – bigger samples, better species.

I wonder, would there be a qualitatively different neuroscience in such a neuro-dystopia?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, science, select, Top Posts
  • Faye18

    I am fond of saying that all the best experiments are all unethical. I don’t think things would the qualitatively different. The data would be “better”, more plentiful. I don’t think that would automatically change things in a more qualitative manner.

  • tbekolay

    I think that the big qualitative difference here would be the ability to have experimental subjects (now all humans, naturally) attempt to explain their experiences. Instead of lesioning an area and seeing how it changes a rat’s behavior in a bandit task, we can have our human subject do the same task and narrate their inner thoughts. I think we’d get to the interesting psychological questions a lot faster than we are now. Not that I’m suggesting we should start lesioning human brains!

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      That’s true – but we already have some of those first-person reports, albeit from naturally occurring lesions (strokes, tumors, damage) rather than experimental ones.

      There are some parts of the brain that rarely get selectively damaged by disease, and in a neuro-dystopia we could look at those, but that would be a modest advance.

    • http://twitter.com/AnnaMados Mados

      Research on human subjects actually sounds more ethical (as well a more accurate) compared to how it is currently done.

      • atesh koul

        I agree with tbekolay that we might get a better view with subjective experiences after say lesioning a specific part of the brain. The present understanding based on tumor and strokes involves a lot of vascular and other related changes that makes it less clear…

  • Buddy199

    Ask yourself, “what would North Korea do?” Or, what kind of experiments were actually performed in the U.S.S.R.?

    • TheBrett

      Imperial Japan did something like this with Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731 in Manchuria. They tested bio-weapons on thousands of prisoners-of-war (along with unfortunate civilians), killing a couple thousand of them in the process.

      The US grabbed most of the biowarfare research records from it after World War 2, although I have no idea how useful any of it was. I’ve heard that the experimental design tended to be poor.

      • Buddy199

        Many of the researchers from Japan and Germany who performed human experiments were later granted U.S. citizenship in exchange for cooperation. Along with Werner “I make ze rockets go up, it’s not my department where zey come down” von Braun and his people. If they were useful they got citizenship and a clean slate, if not they were tried for war crimes. Go figure.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Well, North Korea doesn’t have any money. As for the USSR I don’t actually know of any evil neuroscience they carried out – they certainly abused psychiatry for political purposes, but not as a research tool, AFAIK. Certainly they’ve nothing as famous as the Nazi experiments…

      • http://twitter.com/ppaulojr Pedro Oliveira

        Your idea of science without boundaries has been tried before from 1939 to 1945.

  • TheBrett

    You could do far more immersive controlled experiments, like locking thousands of subjects into identical rooms for years at a time, and then splitting off a random sample of those people to change something (like room color in order to determine how the color of our surroundings affects mood).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

    Having thought about this a bit more, I reckon a truly radical innovation would be lesion studies of human children, to study neuroplasticity.

    Can the brain adapt to loss of the frontal lobe? If so, at what age…? How about the amygdala…? Could treatments or stem cells regenerate lost areas…?

    You could do those in animals, but they’re qualitatively different in humans (I would argue) because at least prima facie our brains are more plastic.

    • Benjimin

      You could answer questions about the evolution of language more definitively. Many times, raise a group of kids together in total isolation to see whether full language arises in the tribe’s first generation or the second, whether some groups stay mute (as if language were partly a cultural invention), how far their sense perception of colour is dependant on their vocabulary, whether their languages always conform with our theories of universal grammar. Repeat with humanzees.

      Knowledge and technology would surely advance more quickly, which may or may not make for a better world from a utilitarian perspective, but either way the course of civilisation/history would be qualitatively different (like if fusion power had been solved before there had been enough climate change to affect marine diversity).

  • David Lewis

    I think neuroscience would just run off the cliff and have the Road Runner moment a lot sooner. In fact reports these days (see the NYTimes) suggest we may already be at that cliff edge. Thomas Insel, head of NIMH, is saying neuroscience has stalled in its quest to explain mental disorders (hence it isn’t much help for DSM-5.) Somebody else (the story doesn’t say who) is also saying that all neuroscience has done so far is find out how little it knows.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jan.moren Jan Moren

    There’s some things you could do of course, that you don’t do now. Especially regarding language acquisition and things like that. And you could get direct verbal reports on subjective experiences.

    But overall, humans really are terrible research animals. With our conscious processes and language we’re very much an outlier among mammals, so anything we learn about humans risks being valid only for us and not to neural systems in general.

    And those brains make humans difficult to work with. Have a hungry rat run a T-maze for food and it will more or less behave as you expect. Humans, on the other hand, will be trying to second-guess the experimental set-up, decide they’re on a diet, worry if the treats really are gluten-free decaf pellets, or try to write their name in urine on the labyrinth walls just for fun.

    For a lot of research on basic neural processes, as opposed to the specific human abilities, smaller and less complicated animals are probably a faster, easier way forward, with fewer headaches and less data noise.

  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa

    Since it’d be the same mix of 60% mediocre scientists, 35% lousy ones and 5% exceptional ones indeed the result would quantitative only. If however the money would be used to setup an educational system with strict screening maybe over time the ratio’s would change enough so more exceptional scientists would take part and do better work in less time. Also it would prevent the publication pollution currently prevalent, where maybe 1 out of a 1000 papers is actually worth reading/believing it.

  • disqus_AYXu28GY1O

    I believe it’s called ‘Vault-Tec’.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic


  • Didn’t feel like limits

    I’m a survivor of involuntary psychiatric drugging. I know the lifelong pain and terror of having the government assault my brain. From your place of relative safety and basic human rights and dignity you can have these whimsical thought experiments. I myself can only weep and try and pick up the pieces of my shattered sense of equality and humanity after my dehumanizers were though with me. I will never forgive those who felt their faith in their pseudoscience was more important than a stranger’s basic human right to be listened to when I tried to say no to them. It is the greatest tragedy of my life. How anybody could be so callous and have so much contempt for me. I broke no law. I didn’t deserve to have my brain assaulted and I don’t deserve to spend the rest of my life in fear of it happening again. Such is the life of a second class citizen with a psychiatric label.

    • Lucy in the Sky


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  • bsci

    I’m a bit fascinated how you said there were no limits on ethics or resources and all the ideas so far focus primarily on the ethics part. I like to try to remain ethical, but the unlimited resources interest me. I think the biggest thing for both human and animal work would be huge sample sizes that will blur the line between neuroscience and epidemiology. When we’re talking over all the classification issues of mental health issues, what if we had the people and equipment to test an entire city or country, to actually get a real sense of prevalence, comorbid symptoms, and biological markers. What if treatments could similarly be tried on a massive scale? Even with existing treatments, what would happening if everyone in a school or region got full standard of mental health care at the earliest point of detection? What treatments would actually change outcomes across a population?

  • http://www.facebook.com/budgie.mitchell Budgie Mitchell

    My personal take is this: if you had no limits on what you could do, our hypothetical evil scientists could extract a very small section of a live brain, examine its structure, then ATTEMPT TO mimic the tissue’s function in electronics – that is to say, the neural network would be replicated in silicon – and then re-insert the silcon “in place” so that it can interface with the real brain * in order to trace its input *

    They could repeat this process until a significant portion of the brain is electronic, and then perhaps be able to capture neuron activity in real time.

    Remember, our hypothetical evil scientists don’t care if the subject lives or dies, goes deaf or blind or enters a persistent vegititave state so would keep trying with new subjects until their substitution technique worked. Or worked of a fashion.

    Personally yes I’m sure all this torture would unlock more secrets of the brain, but frankly the idea’s sickening….

    Unlikely? I don’t think so.

    What’s holding North Korea back, you ask? Nanotech.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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