A brain implant could stop sexual predators in their tracks by zapping them in their ‘moment of weakness’.
The device developed by Stanford University targets the nucleus accumbens brain region, which controls the survivalist urges for food and sex.
The team identified a a particular brain signal which is omitted moments before we act on an impulse, overwhelming us with a sense of desire that drowns out inhibitions.
Testing mice, the researchers found that a quick zap to the nucleus accumbens could offset that brain signal, forcing sexual predators to consider the social consequences.
Lead author Casey Halpern said the device could also be used to prevent suicide attempts, a heroin injection, a burst of binge eating or alcohol intake, or a sudden bout of uncontrolled rage.
‘We’ve identified a real-time biomarker for impulsive behavior,’ Dr Halpern, assistant professor of neurosurgery and the study’s senior author, said.
‘Impulses are normal and absolutely necessary for survival. They convert our feelings about what’s rewarding into concrete action to obtain food, sex, sleep and defenses against rivals or predators.’
However, he warned, they can also be dangerous.
Indeed, the publication about his device comes amid widespread debates about sexual assault in all contexts.
The accounts about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Louis CK and others have triggered conversations about hierarchy and sexual culture, but neuroscientists have been digging into the issue of impulse and how a person could so flagrantly disregard decorum.
To investigate impulses, Dr Halpern looked at binge-eating mice.
He discovered that, in keeping with his research on all impulsive behavior, these mice experienced a certain type of brain signal to the nucleus accumbens shortly before entering a binge, and that signal seemed to overwhelm them.
One zap to that region, timed immediately after that brain signal, prevented them from acting on that desire.
The device works with deep-brain stimulation, a standard and FDA-approved type of treatment.
However, while there are DBS devices on the market to treat Parkinson’s, they work on a pre-programmed basis, meaning it sends regular zaps at specific times to treat tremors.
Increasingly though, new devices are being programmed to respond to brain signals.
Dr Halpern believes he has created one to treat potentially dangerous impulses.
‘There’s no available responsive neurostimulation intervention for dangerous impulsive behavior yet, because until now no one’s been able to document a characteristic signature in the brain that could be used for triggering pulse delivery by the device,’ Dr Halpern said.
‘The fact that we saw a similar signal prior to two different behaviors, both intended to obtain rewards — food in the case of mice, money in the case of the human subject — to which the individuals had become hypersensitized by their repeated exposure suggests that this signal may be common to many impulsive behaviors, making them amenable to treatment along similar lines.’