Take a sprinkling of scientists and mix with a frisson of philosophers. Do lots of stirring; add train guards, artists, accountants and school teachers... and what do you get' A soggy mess of lay people confused by brain-science jargon, such as neurotransmission and voxel-based morphometry' This was the recipe for the Meeting of Minds, a project thought to be the biggest-ever science consultation with the public.
The organiser, the King Baudouin Foundation of Brussels, randomly plucked people from across Europe (including 12 from Britain, managed by the Science Museum’s Dana Centre) and immersed them in brain science. The 126 chosen people have risen to the challenge. They have been on a 12-month roller-coaster, immersed in ideas and discoveries about the brain.
They have challenged the experts and quizzed the pressure groups. With the help of 48 interpreters, they have kept their discussions flowing in nine languages, while a high-tech infrastructure has followed them around and processed their ideas.
Their conclusions on the impact of brain science on society will be presented at the European Parliament. Meanwhile, here are some of the breakthroughs that keep the participants talking into the night.
Your job interview went well but the brain scan afterwards showed you harbour sexist and other politically incorrect tendencies...
• Scientists are learning how to read minds, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which can detect minute changes in blood flow in the brain while you think. Dr Geraint Rees and Dr John-Dylan -Haynes, of University College London, have been using MRI to watch the brains of people gazing at a picture, such as the Necker cube, that seems to alternate between two different images.
The scanner can tell which of the two interpretations you are seeing at any particular moment. “That’s kind of cool because it really is mind-reading,” says Rees. “I can tell you what you are perceiving.”
The technique could eventually detect specific thoughts and feelings. Dr Axel Cleeremans, director of the Cognitive Science Research Unit at the Free University of Brussels, says, “There is a genuine possibility that we might not be able to hide anything from others in the future ' in other words, methods for assessing brain activity will become sufficiently sophisticated that one will be able to find specific and reliable markers for recognition memory, lying and various emotional states.”
These days, when you feel down, you press a little button that activates an electrode in your brain, and happiness comes flooding back...
• Psychosurgery ' tinkering with people’s brains to fix psychiatric problems ' is becoming a realistic prospect because neurosurgeons’ tools have become so precise. Before a patient has an operation, doctors take a 3D, MRI scan of the brain.
During the operation, a video camera films the patient’s head so that its exact position can be linked to the pre-operative scan. This allows the surgeon to “neuro-navigate” through the brain to the nearest millimetre.
The way is open, therefore, to implant tiny electrodes in precise positions among groups of nerve cells. The electrodes emit mild currents that the patient can control with a wireless system. It is called deep-brain stimulation.
Surgeons began by treating Parkinson’s sufferers, then those with Tourette’s syndrome, both of which result in involuntary movements. The treatment reduces the twitching.
“We don’t know why it works,” says Dr Jan Willem Berkelbach van der Sprenkel, neurosurgeon at Utrecht University Medical Centre in Holland. “We don’t even know if we are inducing the blockage of an electrical circuit or if we are stimulating it.” He and others have now made a crucial jump from controlling movements to what they believe is controlling thoughts or moods. In collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, he has treated three patients with obsessive compulsive disorder, with “impressive effect”.
“We may really be changing the mood, the compulsive thinking,” he says. If so, there are many other conditions that might also respond. “There are many kinds of circuits that are important in neurological diseases, but also in psychiatric diseases, such as severe depression.”
But he is uneasy about where psychosurgery could lead. “It’s dangerous because it is easy to make a step to treating a social disease instead of a medical problem. The overlap between normal and abnormal is a gliding scale.”
If young Jack doesn’t get into a good school, he’ll get a rotten secondary education. How many of the other boys in the entrance exam will have an unfair chemical advantage'
• Drugs to enhance our memories, make us more alert, or just make us feel good, will soon be in plentiful supply, according to both the Meeting of Minds project and Britain’s recent Foresight Exercise, Drugs Futures 2025'
In addition to the old faithfuls, nicotine and caffeine, there is already modafinil (Provigil) for sleeping disorders, and methylphenidate (Ritalin) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Other treatments include vasodilators, designed to improve blood flow to the brain, and drugs to prevent damage to the brain from oxidation, free radicals and cell death.
People such as students and office workers are already taking these drugs to improve performance. In these days of competitive child-rearing, a pregnant woman might even try to influence the mental powers of her unborn child.
There is another, potentially huge group of brain-pill poppers: the over-50s. There is fierce debate among doctors about age-associated memory impairment: does everyone over 50 have it; is it “normal” or is it a “condition”; should it be “treated”' Drugs for AAMI (Age Associated Memory Impairment) could be of great value to those struggling to retain jobs against younger competition.
“Maybe nothing is wrong with that,” says Prof. Steven Rose of the Open University's department of biological sciences. “But we older people with mild cognitive impairment have other qualities which, in a quieter society, might have been called wisdom.”
My first love broke my heart, but I’ve unlearnt all those painful feelings with the help of a new pill...
• Imagine a drug that allows you to grapple with spiders without a twitch of your arachnophobia, or one that rids you of your terror of heights ' a drug that gently wipes away irrational troubles. It’s already here and it’s called D-cycloserine.
The drug works on stress-related memories ' associations people have acquired during times of stress that cause them to harbour unnecessary fears.
Research began with rats, which were given shocks and exposed to a bright light at the same time. Eventually, the rats became scared of the harmless light.
But with therapy ' gradually exposing them to the light without shocks ' they lost that scary association. Scientists have found that this “forgetting” happened more quickly and efficiently if the rats were taking D-cycloserine.
Then they made a momentous discovery about exactly how the brain loses these stress-related memories. They are not deleted. Instead, they are overwritten with a new, more pleasant memory. Crucially, therefore, both the therapy and the drug are allowing the creation of new memories, rather than extinguishing old ones.
“This has huge ramifications,” says David Nutt, psychopharmacologist at Bristol University, who also contributed to the Foresight report.
“Every form of psychotherapy is essentially learning something new ' new interpersonal relationships, for example. In theory, you could overwrite anything.
“It could be that all learning is improved by this drug,” says Nutt. “Maybe everyone should have it from childhood as they might learn better. On the other hand, they might learn fear better, too,” he adds.
Your son’s very young, but a scan shows he could be a troublesome teenager. If he ends up in court when he’s older, he’ll be able to prove he couldn’t help doing what he did...
• Children might be scanned for future schizophrenia or even aggression or giftedness. Individual brains vary so much that it’s impossible to say that a difference in the size or shape of a particular region might indicate a problem such as schizophrenia or autism.
But scientists using voxel-based morphometry have found that if they scan 100 people with, say, Alzheimer’s and blend the scans together to get an “average” Alzheimer’s brain, it looks distinctly different from an “average” normal brain created by blending together the images of 100 non-sufferers.
Multiply this up, to make a data bank of thousands of brains blended into one, and some scientists believe it will be possible to use this as a gold standard against which individual brains can be compared to check for abnormalities.
“It’s not unlikely that in the future we will be able to tell whether a kid is prone to develop autism or schizophrenia,” says Prof. Mark van Buchem, head of the neuroimaging research programme at Leiden University Medical Centre in Holland. Although it’s controversial, he thinks people could ultimately find it a great relief to have objective evidence that there is really something wrong with them. (For more information log on to www.meetingmindseurope.org)