American Scandal

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Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.

Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.

The Ice Pick Surgeon | Neural Implants and Superhumans | 5

The Ice Pick Surgeon | Neural Implants and Superhumans | 5

Tue, 29 Jun 2021 07:30

Today, we're far from Walter Freeman and his ice pick lobotomies. But there are growing concerns about a new form of brain surgery that sounds like science fiction. The surgery involves devices known as neural implants, which connect the brain directly to computers. In this interview, Lindsay talks with Chris Kenneally, a science journalist and author. The two discuss the remarkable benefits of neural implants—as well as the deep fears they're already raising.

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From Wondry, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scandal. Today we're wrapping up our series on Walter Freeman, a doctor who earned the nickname the Ice Pick Surgeon. In the 1930s Freeman was looking for a cure for mental illness. When he discovered the lobotomy, he believed he'd found a silver bullet. The procedure involved severing physical connections in the brain and Freeman was convinced that he could cure a variety of diseases from depression to addiction. Freeman traveled the country, performing lobotomies. He went on to lobotomize about 4,000 patients, including men, women, and children. In the process Freeman became one of the most famous doctors in America and with his influence on the medical field, he helped turn the lobotomy into a widespread treatment. Today historians view Freeman as a cautionary tale about the dangers of experimental medicine. And while the lobotomy is now widely seen as barbaric, in modern medicine there are still echoes of Freeman's work. My guest today is Chris Cannelli. She is a journalist and the author of books including The Invisible History of the Human Race. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Cannelli looked at a technology known as Neural Implants. These high tech devices are placed inside human brains and while they can effectively treat some disorders, their expanding use is also raising alarms. In our conversation we'll discuss the benefits of Neural Implants and the reasons why business leaders like Mark Zuckerberg are celebrating the devices. We'll also look at the unintended consequences of placing technology inside the human brain. Our conversation is next. Lots of people don't know it, but autumn is an ideal time to plant. In shorter days and cooler nights create ideal conditions for the plants to get established. If you're looking to spruce up your home, proven winners color choice shrubs has an amazing selection of flowering shrubs and evergreens for planting in gardens and landscapes. With around 320 different proprietary varieties including classics limelight hydrangea and little Henry sweet spire, all of their shrubs are trialled and tested for 8 to 10 years to ensure they outperform anything else on the market. We'll also look at our proven winners color choice shrubs in the distinctive white containers at your local garden center. Learn more and find a local retailer at proven winners color choice dot com slash one tree that's proven winners color choice dot com slash one tree. If you're into true crime, the generation why podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes and conspiracy theories together and we'd love for you to join us. We'll see you in the next video. Thank you so much, Lindsey. In April, you published a story in the New Yorker about a new form of medicine. Your article was titled Do Brain Implants? Change your identity. It's a question that some of your interview subjects have been grappling with. So tell us about one of them. Rita Leggett, the woman you spoke with. What was the medical issue she'd been dealing with and what was this new form of medicine? Rita was this very lovely woman that I met. She lives in rural South Australia and she has been dealing with epilepsy since she was born and it's made her life incredibly difficult. She frequently experience the seizures, which just come out of the blue. There's no way of predicting them. They can be something as mild as a kind of spaced out distracted state or a grown malsegia in which the entire body is essentially sort of taken over and moves without Rita having anything to do with it. She's experienced a huge amount of stigma because of this epilepsy is still an incredibly stigmatized disease and this was happening back in primary school. Students would make fun of her, even her teachers made fun of her continues even to this day. And of course with a disorder with seizures, she's experienced a huge amount of physical injury as well because there's no way to tell when it's going to happen, how it's going to happen. And she's been hurt, she's broken bones and experienced a lot of trauma that way. And of course you can imagine the cumulative impact of that kind of trauma across the entire lifetime. Rita has been engaged for a whole life in trying to find medications to help her manage her disease and she's actually tried not just many medications but many medical professionals as well. It's a really complicated relationship trying to get help managing something like this. But some years back she finally found a neurologist that she really respected and she really trusted. And he was involved in a clinical trial for a neural implant. And he suggested to her that she might want to participate in the trial. He asked her if she'd like to try it. Her immediate response was yes. She trusted him and she was desperate for a solution. And the solution was a clinical trial through the biotech company Neurovista. Yeah. So it was actually just a few months later between being asked and receiving the neural implant. She went through an operation. It was placed inside her skull. There was a huge recovery period. But eventually when the implant began to work, what it was able to do for her was predict when her seizures would arrive. And it did that very, very well. So it didn't cure the epilepsy. It didn't make it go away. But let Rita know when something was about to happen. And because of that information, she had about 50 minutes warning. She was able to get herself to a safe place. The first time it happened, she was at the local hairdressers. So she left. She got home. She got into bed, which is about as safe as it gets if you know a seizures on the way. And she was able to take medication for the seizure at that time as well. So it worked incredibly well and it changed her life. So in a sense, this is almost what seismologists use to perhaps predict earthquakes. Yes. Yeah. Absolutely. There's an analogy there to be sure. One of the neurologists they spoke to likened a seizure in some ways to a kind of tornado moving in time and space, but essentially through your brain. It is absolutely and it can be a disaster for people who experience seizures. So if you know one's coming, you can imagine there are sorts of things you can do to at least ameliorate your facts. If not, make it not happen. Well, it sounds like a remarkable advance in medical technology, but what it was a trial. Where they certainly was going to work. How experimental was this? The really fascinating thing about this neurovista trial for this particular neural implant that Rita Leggett had was that before this implant, no one knew if it was even possible to predict seizures at all. It was quite controversial in the field. Some people believed it would one day be possible. Some people thought that it wasn't going to be possible at all. So the implant didn't just change Rita's life didn't just have this incredibly positive effect on her, but it actually proved this incredibly important finding for all of science. And for all people who suffer from epilepsy across the world, even if that particular implant is not necessarily going to work for a particular individual, we know now that it is possible. So this device seems to be a bit of a life changer for her. It doesn't cure it, but certainly it allows her to take measures that will avoid further complications. What happened next? What happened next with Rita was that for a couple of years, she formed this incredibly intimate bond with her own neural implant. It was a kind of a symbiosis and she said to me, we became one. That's how she experienced it. It was such a profound and powerful and beneficial impact. Unfortunately, during the global financial crisis, many companies across the states and across the world lost funding and neurovista lost funding as well. They weren't able to continue trials and potentially bring the neural implant to market because they didn't have the money to do it, not because the implant didn't work, but just because there's a pretty high bar for funding in that kind of situation. So Rita was told after a couple of years of this incredible new life, this new self, this new identity that the implant had to come out again. She said that everyone understood how meaningful it was to her. They let her keep it in as long as they possibly could, but it's just not safe to leave something inside someone's head that requires maintenance, the requires specialized management and specialized overview. So it had to come out. Let's step back a little bit because this is fascinating. I want to know a little bit more about the device itself. We can imagine something being implanted in the brain, but exactly what was it and how did she interact with it? Yeah, so when you're a implant is as you can imagine a really small device that goes inside your skull and the goal of the implant is to detect electrical signals, to sort of read the signals that the brain emits. So essentially you can think of your brain as a small or medium sized electrical device. It's got about 100 million neurons and each of those neurons passes an electrical charge along their length. So when they do that, a neurotransmitter jumps from the end of one neuron to the beginning of another, and this happens in concert with thousands of other neurons at the same time doing the same thing all over the brain. Essentially the kind of activity that underlies everything we do, whether it's an involuntary function, like breathing or whether it's running or moving in particular ways or eating or digestion and complicated thought as well. So all of that is going on in the brain. And the idea of this neural transmitter inside your skull is that it can actually detect those signals, it can read what's happening and it can make sense of them and work out what those signals actually mean in some way. Some neural implants seek to actually deliver electrical signals to the brain as well so that there is a kind of brain computer interface where there is an interaction going on between a computer and a brain that in a sense sidesteps the self. And then there are some sidesteps, voluntary interaction from the actual person. So the implant, even though it's this small thing inside your skull and in readers case it was a couple of silicon straps with electrodes on them. That neural implant was connected up to a box that was also placed on readers body. That box communicated with another device that reader had to carry around with her. And then how device communicated to an enormous bank of computers. So currently, without current technology, even though the implant itself is this tiny thing, it's sort of the starting point and a huge chain of hardware that's trying to predict a seizure or solve some kind of problem for someone. If you're into true crime, the generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes and conspiracy theories together and we'd love for you to join us. Generation Y is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there and we are still at it, unraveling a new case every week. Break down infamous cases like the evil genius bank robbery and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico. Did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game? We cover every angle breaking down theories, diving deep into forensic evidence and interviewing those close to the case. And with over 450 episodes, there's a little something for every true crime listener, follow the generation Y podcast on Amazon music or every listen to podcasts or you can listen ad free by joining Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. So the trial was discontinued, but that doesn't dampen the promise of the technology and it's probably not just epilepsy that it can be used to treat. You mentioned already that there are devices that do more than monitoring that are two way communication with the brain is possible. What other illnesses could this technology treat? So since the beginning of Neural and Plant research, there have been two overlapping, but sort of distinct areas where there's been a lot of research interest and one of them is in the area we've been discussing where there's some kind of disease or condition that impacts someone's life. So with epilepsy or Parkinson's disease, the most widely used implant in the world is a deep brain simulation device and it's used to control or help control the tremors that occur or the can occur with Parkinson's disease. Tremors are a little like seizures in that they come out of the blue, you don't necessarily know they're coming or their sort of frequent permanent regular feature where your body is doing things moving in ways that you don't want it to and that are incredibly disruptive and distressing as well with a deep brain stimulation device that delivers a signal to the brain and actually for many people that eliminates tremors entirely. So that's just an incredible impact, but researchers are looking across all sorts of conditions currently, Tourettes, Hartfailure, Stroke, Arthritis, Depression, Migraines, these are just some of the areas that people are wondering if neural implants might be able to impact. The other area, the other potential application is to assist people who've lost some or all of their limbs or control of some of all of their limbs. So the idea is to restore connection between the brain and the limb or in the case of people who've lost limbs to provide neural control over prosthesis. This is an area that DARPA, the US government's defense advanced research projects agency has long been involved in, you can imagine that for soldiers who've lost limbs in battle that this it would be a way of helping restore function to their bodies into their lives. There's also an idea that the government might be able to create a kind of super soldier with neural implants as well. So not just restore loss function, but create prostheses, maybe weaponized prostheses that people can control with neural implants. Well, at the mere mention of DARPA conspiracy theorists are bound to come out and point out that this technology is reaching a point of maturity unknown for decades. In fact, how long have neural implants been around? So I think researchers have been trying to get inside the human skull with some kind of brain computer interface or at least trying to work at how to do that since at least the 1980s. In the 1990s, the FDA issued an approval for the use of those deep brain stimulation devices, the neural implants that deliver an electrical signal in the case of Parkinson's and some other conditions. So that was the era in which it was entirely possible to perhaps pass someone on the street who had a neural implant that you couldn't necessarily see. So why are we hearing so much about them now? Why did you focus your attention on them? I think that the tech has reached a point where it's possible and plausible to start considering very wide applications, not just Parkinson's disease, but all those other conditions and many others as well. But I think there's two main areas of the moment. One is that the super soldier technology, DARPA has been working on this all the way through. It's very interesting as part of the arms race, the constant arms race that never ends. But it's also the case that I think people are starting to imagine the ways in which neural implants, perhaps because of the success of the last few decades, the ways in which we might be able to create some kind of superhuman. So, you know, the relationship between all individuals and our devices has just become more and more intimate over the last 10 to 15 years. And it's also the case we know this. We can see this that artificial intelligence in the short to medium future is going to be underwriting pretty much everything in our digital lives. So, these are these very sort of powerful relationships that are being formed. And right now, or just in the last few years, certain individuals, for example, Mark Zuckerberg at Elon Musk have shown an enormous amount of interest in getting engaged in this kind of technology. And potentially getting inside that relationship between people and their devices, you can imagine what kind of power someone might have if you had a neural implant in your head. And they had a direct line to it. Well, I know that I personally have certainly become so accustomed to my devices that I attempt to perhaps turn my daughter down or rewind a conversation with my wife. But the idea of an integrated human, an extended human is not new. This is something of science fiction lore, but certainly it's on the horizon. And you mentioned Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. These are giants of the tech industry. So it's becoming less medical and perhaps more sociological. Is there any proof that these neural implants will actually turn us into these kinds of enhanced humans? I don't know. They were at the proof stage yet, but we're certainly at the proof of concept, I think. And look across a number of different areas for that kind of proof. So, you know, we've got just basic experiments in cognitive science and in neurology where people are kind of messing with people's heads where they're trying to get inside them and insert false memories or successfully change your altar influence naturally formed memories and thoughts that people have. I mean, social media, Facebook in particular, try to run social experiments where they're influencing people's tastes or choices. And most importantly, I think influencing their connections to other people. And then of course, we've got the neural implant science as well. So I do think it's a matter of time. I think it's probably a lot more complicated than we all imagine it's going to be like most science is. But I think it's reasonable to be concerned about superhuman technology right now. Let's go back to medicine. Where the state of the art is now, this seems like a ripe opportunity for advancement. How effective are these neural implants when they're used to help actual disease? Incredibly effective so far. I mean, certainly there are some individuals that they don't work for. And no one actually quite knows why that's the case either some individuals where the brain, it just doesn't work with an implant. There's just no uptake. I think there were some people like that in the neurovista trial. There's also this strange phenomenon that the neurovista people also for the first time really worked out and understood, which is that there's a period of time or there was a period of time for the first time. There was a period of time for many people in the trial where after the implant was placed on the brain, the normal electrical signals of the brain just went a little bit haywire. They just didn't quite understand what was going on. It didn't work or it didn't seem to emit signals in the way a brain normally does. It was almost abandoned to that point because they thought that it just simply wasn't working. I don't believe there was a dramatic impact in the way people were living their lives at that time. So they were walking around. The brain wasn't emitting signals that it normally does, but their lives were relatively normal. But there was a point where the brain kind of synced with the device. The device was able to read the brain and they were able to work together. So there are these complications and challenges. But then once they actually started to work for reader particular. She's really the prime example of the most extraordinary impact. There was incredibly beneficial. She grieved when her device was taken away because it had such a wonderful impact on her life. My understanding of the Parkinson's cases, the deep brain stimulation. I've heard from people since the article who wrote to tell me how incredibly helpful the device has been in their lives, how it's changed everything about their lives and how grateful they are for it. Things have a question. The implant when first introduced into the brain caused some trouble. And then later these patients develop an enormous affection for their implants. I'm left wondering if that affection isn't something more than just the effects that the implant gives them, the benefits. If tinkering with the brain in a physical manner, we shouldn't be surprised if there are real personality changes. Yeah, absolutely. And that's that's funny. In so much of science, when we look back, we realize we shouldn't have been surprised. But certainly people have been surprised about these impacts. So Frederick Gilbert, who's a new art ethicist at the University of Tasmania, has done a huge amount of research into this area because of Gilbert, reader legged was able to come to the attention of the rest of the world because of the work that he did with her. And he pointed me in the direction of some studies. There's one in particular around 2006 that showed that there were all these unexpected consequences of having what was an otherwise quite successful implantation experience. So the implant was doing what it was supposed to do, but a couple of years after the implant had been being used and was doing what it was supposed to do, there were these huge impacts in people's lives. So I think in this one particular study, at least 65% of patients had a breakdown in their marriage, 64% of them wanted to leave their careers. So, you know, their intellect was the same, their anxiety levels were the same. They were the same and all sorts of measures. The symptoms that they got the implant for had been eliminated, but their lives were completely different in so many ways. And there were reports of these really strange experiences. One patient described themselves as feeling like an electronic doll. Another one talked about themselves as kind of Robocop. And some of the consequences weren't the kinds of things that sound necessarily negative, but still really change people's experience of themselves. So some of them had this incredible sort of buoyancy, this incredible energy. One woman felt 15 years younger. She tried to lift a pool table. She ruptured a disc in her back. She should not have done that. And the families of these people experienced them as different as well. I'm haunted by one of the small case studies in this paper where one woman was told by her family that she was unrecognizable to them. And they grieved for the old her. Well, this is now starting to have echoes from our series on the lobotomy. Those were operations that were irreversible. In Rita's case, the implant was removed, but how reversible was that removal? Were there any effects? Yeah. So there are a number of ways in which neural implant may have long term consequences in your life. And one is simply just that the tissue of the brain is incredibly delicate. So even gently placing tiny silicon strap inside it might cause scarring. This obviously is important for the function of the brain, but it's particularly important for people who participate in clinical trials. Because what it means is that someone who participates in developing a technology that might change people's lives might not then be able to receive that technology that they've helped develop. So if they have a neural implant in a clinical trial and even if it's a very successful implant in the trial, if it has to come out again, it might leave scarring that means another implant cannot be placed in. So that's a potentially enormous consequence. But I think that there are also permanent psychological consequences as well. Again, in Rita's case, one of those permanent consequences was a sense of grief. She lost something that was one of the most important things in her life and that grief is never going to quite go away. But at the same time, the experience of having the implant taught her things about herself. Rita's story is incredible because even though she didn't want the implant taken out since it was taken out, she's been able to manage her epilepsy successfully because the implant taught her things about herself, the intimate relationship she had with this device in her head taught her things about her body showed her ways that she might be able to read signals in her body that she could then use to successfully predict her life. She's been able to do that since then. So absolutely permanent consequences, some physical, some psychological. Well, that's encouraging news that Rita might have been proved even without the implant. But on the horizon for her, is she looking for another? She would absolutely have another if it was offered to her, yes. Well, let's look at the potentially larger future for neural implants and that's not as a medical device, but as a lifestyle device. Now, we may not think of it as we're doing it, but we often will manipulate our brain chemistry throughout the day for all sorts of different purposes. Whether it's a cup of coffee to get us going the morning or a cigarette in the afternoon or an after dinner drink. We are really accustomed socially and personally to taking things that change our neural processing. So how would moving from chemical changes to physical changes be any fundamentally different? Yeah, I think that's such an interesting way to think about it because absolutely we do. We constantly manipulate our own brains just to get through the day. We change ourselves as we ingest substances and even as we move our bodies, the thing about neural implants is that there is a way in which they're trying to sidestep the self. So, a neural implant is going to involve some kind of brain computer interface whereby a device that is separate from you, some kind of computer is trying to read the signals of your brain and make some kind of sense of it to try to understand what's going on inside your brain. And then again, potentially to deliver signals to your brain as well, a kind of direct communication with, you know, if you want to think about it as with your control panel without you being involved and not only is there sort of a scenario in which that happens and you're not directly involved inside that communication process. But someone else could be inside that communication process when you set up some kind of brain computer interface. Someone else could be on the other end of the computer communicating with your brain in ways that you can't control. You bring up two issues here. One more philosophical and one certainly that we're more accustomed to dealing with one of privacy and personal control. But let's think about the philosophical one. If you are augmented by a device and you do have complete control over this device, how is it really any different than the inaccessibility of your subconscious is the device really something other than you? Yeah, that's a great question. I don't know the answer to that question. If you remain in complete control of it, if it is an unhackable device and we know there is no such thing as an unhackable device, but theoretically if it were, then I guess you could think about it as just another tool, another tool to get through the day or live your life or make your choices. But you know, any device unless you invented and built that device, any device is going to have the operating system, right, whether it's artificial intelligence or preset algorithms that someone else has created. They're going to be influencing the way that the device impacts you and someone else created those. So actually, I guess not, it's not you. There's other people in there as well. Well, it's the other people that we have to worry about. Certainly if someone begins selling these devices, they're selling them. There is something in it for them. So if I don't know Facebook started producing neural implants, what issues would we really have to start thinking about? Obviously privacy, but what else? Yeah, if Facebook starts selling neural implants, please do not buy one. Please do not accept one for free. Privacy is everything when it comes to a neural implant. If someone's inside your skull directly doing things to your brain, it just could not be more dystopian or scary. I mean, I think a lot of people see that straight away. We know the ways in which Facebook and other social media tries to influence us constantly. People rightfully fear some kind of robot puppet situation where they're being controlled remotely. But I think that the real danger is more subtle and more powerful than that. So readers experience was that she felt like a new self. She felt she had a new identity. She felt like she had been created a new and she had this incredibly intimate, close relationship with this device. And she had this enormous amount of positive regard for the device. She loved her device in the most straightforward and clear way. She loved it. It was a relationship of love. So if that relationship was able to be mediated by a social media giant or anyone who wanted to make some kind of money or exit some kind of control over you, I just I don't know how you get out of that situation. Let's wrap up this conversation with by leaving the technocratic dystopia behind and turning to medical science and thinking about what's good about it. Certainly technology has given us so many things and the pace of change just accelerates. So when it comes to new medical technologies, what are some that we should celebrate? You know, I've been thinking a lot about this unbelievable global effort we recently saw to create the COVID 19 vaccine. So, you know, it was just this desperately needed technology. It was created in warp speed out of essentially nothing when you consider the normal processes of vaccine creation. We all saw in real time how fraught it was with politics, state politics, federal politics, global politics. We all saw in real time that there were massive funding issues, massive production supply chain distribution issues. But even though there were these failures, there was this large epic historical achievement despite this failure, despite those asymmetries, like it's still happening right now, we're experiencing it. And so all those forces, all those incredible forces for good that drove the science of the vaccine were in the end more powerful than the forces that worked against the good that worked against the good science that worked against the caring society. And I think we can think about neural implants in the same way. It's a much smaller tech right now at the very least. And there are scientists who might influence it. There are, you know, there's the public expectation around it. There's government funded bodies, privately funded bodies. There are individuals like Mark Zuckerberg, like Elon Musk, who really want to be engaged in it. So there are lots of places where it can go wrong. But I think real legates example showed us there are so many places where it could go right where we need it and where we're looking after people in society by embracing it and by driving it further. Chris Caneelee, thank you so much for speaking with me on American scandal. It's a pleasure, Lindsay. Thanks for having me. That was my conversation with Chris Caneelee, an author and journalist whose article about neural implants appeared in the New Yorker. Next on American scandal. In Northeast Oklahoma, news broke about a shocking murder. The victim was a member of the Osage Nation, a native tribe that had grown wealthy after discovering oil beneath their land. But while the murder was brutal, it was only the beginning. Soon there were more deaths. And when family members began looking for answers, they uncovered a conspiracy that was tangled up with money, power and politics. From Wondering, this is episode five of five of the Ice Pick Surgeon from American scandal. In our next series, in Northeast Oklahoma, news broke about a shocking murder. The victim was a member of the Osage Nation, a native tribe that had grown wealthy after discovering oil beneath their land. But while the murder was brutal, it was only the beginning of a conspiracy that led to more deaths, tangled up with money, power and politics. American scandal was hosted, edited and exeked produced by me, Lindsay Graham for airship, audio editing by Molly Bach, music by Lindsay Graham. Our senior producer is Gabe Riven, exeked producers, our Stephanie Jenns, Jenny Lauer Beckman and her nonlobez for wandering.