Would you have any ethical qualms about controlling a cockroach's brain?

The RoboRoach will be marketed to US kids from November. It has always seemed mystifying that researchers struggle to see the thorny side of their technologies.

Most people find it much easier to accept approval than to take the blame. It turns out that we don’t always weasel out of things deliberately – it’s just what human beings do.

This revelation comes from a study published this month by neuroscientists at University College London. Volunteers pressed a button that triggered a sound – a cheer, a note of disgust or something neutral – and then estimated the time that had elapsed between pressing the button and hearing the sound.

Though the elapsed time was always the same, the volunteers getting applause underestimated it and those getting a negative reaction after pressing the button made a gross overestimation.

Patrick Haggard, who led the research, interprets this distortion as showing that people feel more “agency” when things go right: they see a direct connection between their action and a positive result but unconsciously distance themselves from things that go wrong. When children and politicians say, “It wasn’t me,” they might not be lying: that could be their perception.

It is an interesting result to apply to people who put science and technology to work. Take the RoboRoach. From November, kids across the US will be able to buy a kit that allows them to feed a steering signal from a smartphone directly into a cockroach’s brain – creating, in effect, a remotecontrolled insect.

The inventors seem not to have any ethical qualms about the idea. Rather, they argue that it is a “great way to learn about neuro-technology”. It is certainly a good way to explore how scientists and engineers filter their sense of responsibility. At best, the RoboRoach encourages the oversimplification of neuroscience. The message is that you can make an electronic incursion into brain circuits and take control of actions. In the US, a few neuroscientists are already testifying in court that an image of a small region of the brain filling with blood can be interpreted to mean that an individual wasn’t responsible for a criminal action. If RoboRoach does create a new generation of neuroscientists, we really are in trouble.

There are deeper issues here. The technology for RoboRoach grew out of projects to co-opt insects as mobile sensor units. Researchers have already performed neurosurgery on beetles, grafting in electronics that make them take off and fly to a specific location. Put a camera, a microphone or a temperature sensor on their back and you have a new set of eyes and ears. It’s a wonderful idea, say its developers: cyborg beetles could help us find people trapped in collapsed buildings after earthquakes.

Similarly wonderful – superficially, at least – is the Robo Raven, developed at the University of Maryland. It is a rather beautiful drone that flaps its wings, performs aerobatics and was natural-looking enough in field trials to be mobbed by other birds. “This is just the beginning: the possibilities are virtually endless,” says S K Gupta, the lead researcher on the project. One clear possibility is that the Robo Raven will function as a surveillance drone that is almost undetectable in the natural world.

It has always seemed mystifying that researchers struggle to see the thorny side of their technologies. It’s not just a military issue – Google, Facebook and the NSA all think that they are making the world a better place and that any downsides of their operations are not their fault. Now we know why: they can’t help it.

Neuroscience and cockroaches: a match made in heaven? Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Understanding anxiety – my inside view of a debilitating disorder and how to control it

Following a number of recent anxiety attacks, I set out to learn why this happens to me.

As I stepped out of the office one evening after a routine day at work, I found myself glued to the floor. Legs bolted, knees quivering, heart racing – I was cemented into the ground by something paralysing.

I had to work out what was happening, and fast. Was a looming deadline holding me back from leaving? Was an unread message on my phone stopping me in my tracks? Perhaps fatigue had set me on edge. Or that passerby with an unsettling stare caught me off-guard. Maybe it was something more surreal; maybe a sense of dread had taken over, as I started to perceive each onlooker as a potential source of fear. Whether it was all of those things or none of those things, I eventually realised that the sticky situation I had found myself in was the onset of an anxiety attack.

Anxiety is a disorder of varying forms. People may be affected by generalised anxiety disorder – characterised by excessive worrying (often without an identifiable trigger), a specific phobia or panic disorder, in which terror can overwhelm a person without warning. The sufferer experiences physical and mental symptoms of distress that include a feeling of restlessness, shortness of breath, and agitation, exacerbated by the uncontrollable spiralling of their thoughts, which can often be self-deprecating and debilitating.

I had been in this situation before. The rising tension makes for an overwhelming and often paranoid experience, but my awareness of the fact that I was indeed having an anxiety attack was enough to know that this feeling wouldn’t persist for an indefinite amount of time; it would eventually pass, as all anxiety attacks do.

After roughly half an hour of concentrated breathing, conscious changes in thought patterns and eventually moving to a quieter spot, I had managed to calm down.

Though I had managed my anxiety attacks before via similar means, I was curious to know – what exactly was happening during my attacks? What can specifically be done while they’re happening? And could the panic and jitters of anxiety ever be beneficial?

The biology of an anxiety attack

The biological basis of an anxiety attack is tied to the actions of the body’s autonomic nervous system – a division of our nervous system that, without conscious control, regulates our bodily organs and systems.

When stimulated, the autonomic nervous system kicks into gear, causing the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. And that’s when things flare up.

Pulses of adrenaline are produced in response to a stimulus  one that causes the body to kick into a defensive fight-or-flight mode. With anxiety, these stressful stimuli include excessive thoughts, heightened worries, trauma triggers and objects posing as threats. Even subconscious phenomena have been proposed as provokers; it is known that sufferers may wake up from a night’s sleep in a bout of panic. The stimuli add to the existing level of distress, making a person’s breath shallower, often inducing profuse sweating, and initiating a dark foreboding, all in the space of a moment.

Combating anxiety

According to the NHS, there are a number of techniques that can be employed to manage the distressing symptoms of an attack. Staying in a fixed spot, deep breathing and actively issuing a challenge in your mind to the fears on which you may be fixating are crucial things to do in the immediate stages. I wasn’t sure whether in my latest case I had done this instinctively or out of habit from past struggles. Either way, the methods were relieving.

The end of an attack is reached through an eventual depletion of adrenaline, which tells the body that it no longer needs to be on high alert. It brings with it tiredness but a welcome passing of the crisis. However, without a longer-term, pragmatic approach to tackling the disorder, it’s almost certain that an individual will face another intense period of anxiousness. So how should anxiety sufferers manage the issue over a longer period of time?

This is where therapy can be an extremely useful form of intervention. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most common form of therapy for the disorder, with research demonstrating its effectiveness in treating the closely related disorders under the umbrella of anxiety. CBT focuses on a reconfiguring of thought patterns, shifting perceptions and a redefining of negative sources of fear.

Recently, I spoke to David Potts, a CBT therapist, to discuss how therapy can be of benefit. He said: “In therapy we'd work on specifics. It would involve telling yourself what the triggers are. Often people have very negative views about what's happening to them [during an attack]; they'll think I'm having a heart attack or I'm going to die and those kinds of thoughts form a vicious cycle and the panic gets worse.”

According to Potts, being attuned to the occurrence of an anxiety attack is essential in taking active steps to overcome it. It can facilitate the process of calming down, allowing the person in the midst of an attack to separate the thoughts in their mind from the reality of a particular situation.

Therapy can also offer an individualised approach to understanding a person’s anxiety. Potts told me: “Often, from a therapy perspective, we are considering what’s happening to them [the patient] in their lives that lead them to be more anxious than other people. It could include things they’ve experienced in childhood, it could be ways that families are, or it could involve ways that they’ve learnt to manage different emotions.”

Beyond therapy, medication is available to aid anxiety. Appropriate to a disorder that can affect people in various ways, there are different types of medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common form of medication. SSRIs are antidepressants that seek to increase levels of serotonin in our brains – a neurotransmitter thought to be central to the maintenance of mood. Other drugs available (in case of side effects from SSRIs) include serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), pregabalin and benzodiazepines. Though alleviating, medication is something that should supplement forms of therapy, as the pills themselves won’t solve the social triggers and problems that cause anxiety.

As people have increasingly moved towards holistic lifestyles, emphasis on exercise and dietary intake has been elevated. Eating healthier has been linked to reduced symptoms of anxiety, while exercise has been proven to reduce levels of stress in the long run. Reduced stress equates to a reduced risk of an anxiety attack.

Changes to the brain from exercise have been documented too. Researchers at Princeton University found that physical exercise generates excitable new brain cells in the hippocampus – an area of the brain involved in emotional responses. Though the excitability of the neurons would generally be unfavourable (priming the brain for anxiety), researchers found that the impact of exercise was one which had a calming effect, as the exercise was able to switch off the newly-generated, excitable neurons at times when they weren’t required.

When just a ten-minute walk has been shown to offer benefit, there seems to be very little to oppose the implementation of exercise as a form of therapy for anxiety.

Living with anxiety

Perhaps surprisingly, anxiety can be harnessed as a tool of empowerment for some. When it occurs at a smaller scale, it can serve as an informative warning against stressors, and help an individual focus and pinpoint their attention.

As a sufferer, acknowledgement of anxiety seems to be the key to unlocking the resources that can dull its impact. With carefully paid attention, responsibility and mindfulness, the waves of anxiety threatening to drench you can be reduced to smaller, more manageable ebbs and flows.