Deep Brain Stimulation
Isabella Kammerer, Stephanie Ringwald, Ben Reich, Charlotte Schäfer, Isabella Waizinger, Luisa Wirth
Prof. Dr. Nikkah, Dr. Pinsker
Theater for the brain!
Created as part of the theatrical and scientific youth symposium “PIMP YOUR BRAIN” at the Theater Freiburg
Revived at the Science Days at Europapark Rust in October 2009
Does an electrode in your brain have the same quality as an artificial hip joint? How does it feel to live with electrodes implanted in your brain, influencing your ability to move, but also your emotionality? How would it be to be able to assume any mood at the push of a button? And who would be the feeling entity then: the machine or me?
For several months, the group involved with Deep Brain Stimulation studied the procedure of the same name, a method to treat severe Parkinson’s disease, but increasingly also other disorders like incurable depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders or other illnesses originating in the brain. We interviewed doctors at the internationally renowned neurosurgical department of the University Hospital in Freiburg, but also patients before and after the operation as well as brain specialists; we even attended an actual operation. There, electrodes are implanted into the brain in order to stimulate individual areas. This improves movement disorders in Parkinson’s patients. However, during the 1960s and 70s, the technology was also used in animal experiments in order to manipulate social behavior, emotions and movements in animals, and partially also in human beings – with ambiguous, but impressive results. (After mounting criticism, this research was terminated.) Emotion at the push of a button? Improved memory via battery? One “positive” side-effect for stimulated Parkinson’s patients is the occasional improvement of memory. Could this be a pathway towards a new technology to improve human beings?
All the doctors we spoke to rejected the use of this technology for optimization purposes. But where is the borderline between reducing suffering and improving “naturally given” characteristics? We found a report from a researcher at Oxford University about a case where a woman had deep brain stimulation electrodes implanted in order to help her sexual problems. This woman, however, had the devices removed again. Why? Her elevated sexual activity that followed bothered her.
Still, from our perspective it is easy to imagine that deep brain stimulation could be used in the future in order to optimize people. “Whatever can be done, will be done,” is a phrase that we encountered several times during our research. Is there a limit at which we should accept our weaknesses, our mortality, our pain, in order to preserve a “human” element, or could it be reasonable to try and create more equal opportunities by using deep brain stimulation to improve learning disabilities, or to equip fighter pilots with technologies that sharpen their concentration? Is it time to discard the romantic ideal of man as a flawed being? Why should we not want to improve the brain mechanically, if we also use pacemakers in cardiology?
Our workshop performance uses redacted material from interviews with those who have undergone deep brain stimulation, its apologists and skeptics. We describe side-effects and simulate happiness at the push of a button. What would 17-year-old students try to improve about themselves if they had access to deep brain stimulation?
Speechlessness at the push of a button