Soapbox: Your mind, privatized

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I am a practicing neurologist. To me, the brain is the most fascinating entity in the universe. A physical structure which enables us to manipulate tools and communicate using language, it also allows us to rationally probe the unknown and progress in our ability to satisfy human and planetary needs. It is the most advanced achievement of evolution.

So I should have been overjoyed to learn last April that President Obama was proposing a $100 million initial fund for advanced research to fully map out the human brain, to identify its numerous neural circuits, each one a complex interconnection of the living wires we call ‘nerves’. Finally we’ll be able to offer something meaningful to our patients with devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, for which there are currently no cures or satisfactory treatments. Even the project’s title is catchy — The BRAIN Initiative — for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

But I was skeptical, not overjoyed, because I am not only a neurologist, but also a socialist. I have learned, using my brain, that no capitalist government invests $100 million dollars for strictly humanitarian reasons. And whenever they employ a catchy title, there’s also a catch.

Obama earmarked three funding recipients — the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). But beware! The NIH, for example, does research for political agendas, as it did for Bush’s unscientific, anti-education No Child Left Behind fiasco. And DARPA, established in 1958, is charged with protecting “U.S. national security” by “maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.” U.S. “warfighters”, says DARPA, “perform under the most challenging operational condition,” so “harnessing the capabilities of neuroscience” may help sustain mental alertness during prolonged missions.

Scientific American blogger and veteran journalist John Horgan rightly criticized BRAIN (May 22, 2013) for what he calls the “militarization of brain science.” This is nothing new. In the 1990s, the U.S. Army Research Institute studied neuroscience to help develop cognitive enhancement for the battlefield. It advocated exploiting neuroscience to aid both the military and private employers in “personnel selection and training” by identifying subtle mental traits.

Big business is drooling over BRAIN’s big dollar signs. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, will acquire publicly funded scientific information to help manufacture its expensive, privately-owned, neuropsychiatric drugs. And writing for the Wall Street Journal (Apr. 15, 2013), Gregory Sorensen called for promoting BRAIN by eliminating corporate taxes on the medical-technology industry.

But corporate America is also worried. Forbes Magazine contributor David DiSalvo asked in an Apr. 3, 2013 article, “Are we too late?,” referring to the European Union’s billion-euro Human Brain Project and China’s Brainnetome. It’s never too late to share knowledge, but DiSalvo is talking about being too late to cash in on the booty.

To understand BRAIN, we also need to consider capitalist patents, an exclusive ownership right to an invention. Helen Mayberg, a neurologist at Emory University, identified a neural circuit deep in the brain that influences major depression. Using an already available technology to stimulate nerves with electrical wires, she was able to provide dramatic relief to her patients. Now Mayberg holds a patent on this technique, whose only novel component is the circuit she identified. Researchers must pay to use such patents, which impedes medical investigations. Imagine how many patents BRAIN will generate!

If all of this sounds like one grand scheme to further enrich the 1 percent and sharpen the mental weapons of imperialist warfare, welcome to science under capitalism.

Science is a social enterprise, where individual researchers build on accumulated knowledge. But capitalism uses this knowledge for the benefit of the few. Searching for a solution to its latest crisis, this moribund economic system seeks to turn our brains into private property and weapons of mass destruction. We need a radical alternative — a sane, socialist world, where science serves the interests of humanity, minimizes suffering, and keeps our planet sustainable.

Dr. Strauss is a neurologist in Baltimore, Md., author of The Linguistics, Neurology, and Politics of Phonics: Silent “E” Speaks Out (Erlbaum), and co-author of the forthcoming book, Reading: The Grand Illusion. Send feedback to

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