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Mind control, with or without happy pills

health-and-fitness Updated: Dec 17, 2011 22:28 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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A little tweaking in the electrical connections in the brain can humble the dominant and make wimps mighty. Scientists have shown that Huxleyan mind-control can be achieved by simply injecting a gene-toting virus into mPFC neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex of wussy brains. Once inserted, the gene amplifies transmission of electrical signals to strengthen neuron connections, making minds dominant and better able to control emotions, including anger and aggression. Reverse tweaking makes calms aggressive brains by making the neurons sluggish.

Since these experiments have so far worked only in mice, it’s a little early to start freaking out at the thought of evil Dr Brainiacs controlling your brain with squirts of gene-encrypted viruses. Till then, you alone have a say on how much control your brain has on your emotions.

Take serotonin, the happiness hormone produced in the brain, which does more than make you happy. Fluctuations in its levels triggered by something as basic as skipping meals or stress can affect brain regions that regulate anger, reports the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Researchers from Cambridge University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain to show that low serotonin levels — which have previously been linked to aggression — make it tougher for the brain to control emotional responses to anger. Low serotonin levels in the brain weakened communication between the amygdala — a region in the emotional limbic system of the brain — and the frontal lobes that control movement, planning, reasoning and judgment as compared to when serotonin levels are normal.

The links between low serotonin and depression, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder and aggression are well established. Several biochemical glitches can lead to low levels of the hormone — low production, lack of receptor sites able to receive the serotonin produced, inability of the hormone to reach the receptor sites, or a shortage of tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin.

The problem with controlling serotonin artificially is that researchers are still not clear about the cause and effect — whether a dip in serotonin causes the depression or vice versa. And while its level can be measured in the blood — and it is low in people with depression — there’s no method to measure it in the brain.

So while popular anti-depressant medications such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) target neurons and reduce the symptoms of depression, scientists still don’t know how exactly they work inside the brain.

That’s why it comes as no surprise that antidepression drugs are much like each other in snapping people out of a low. A review of a study of 234 popular antidepressants such as SSRIs and SNRIs showed no major differences in effectiveness, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week.

This means that people should choose a drug going by how it works for them based on the price, how quickly it takes effect, how easy is the dosing schedule and whether it produces side effects, such as nausea, restlessness, weight gain or lowered libido.

Since depression covers a wide variety of symptoms — low self-worth, feeling low, disturbed sleep appetite changes, low energy, and poor concentration — and everyone goes through highs and lows, they go for treatment only if these problems become chronic (lasts for more than six to eight weeks), recurrent (bouts of depression occur three four times a year) or interfere with routine functioning more than a few weeks.

Increasingly, seeking treatment is becoming a norm. In India, the market for antidepressants stands at R500 crore, growing at 17% annually. A cheaper way to control mood and mind is exercising — just 40 minutes a day is as effective as antidepressants or psychotherapy — but given the paucity of time and inclination to sweat it out, pill-popping may just be the way ahead for most people.