June 16, 2004
Mental Health Our Largest Future Problem?

Zack Lynch sees mental health problems as rising in importance.

As people live physically longer and healthier lives, mental health will become the preeminent social and political issue of our time. Living longer physically does not mean living in better mental health. Mental health is the springboard of thinking, communication skills, learning, emotional growth, resilience, and self-esteem.

With longer life spans, the potential for mental illness follows. For example, dementia, the loss of function in multiple cognitive domains, increases with age. The largest number of persons with dementia occurs in people in their early eighties. As the number of people living over 80 years explodes to over 20% of the US population by 2040, dementia will take over as the leading cause of disability. That is, if appropriate tools for stemming cognitive decline, cogniceuticals, don't materialize.

Well, I'd put WMD proliferation, inter-civilizational conflicts, robot take-overs, nanotech goo, and a few other issues up there in competition for preeminent social and political issue going into the future. However, I think Zack is right and perhaps for more reasons than he intends.

First of all, as Zack points out, the aging of populations is causing a much higher incidence of Alzheimer's Disease, vascular dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Worse still, I believe that it will be easier to stop and reverse aging in other parts of the body than in the brain. So we may find ourselves getting younger in other parts of our bodies as our brains continue to age. Why? Because we can replace bigger parts in other parts of the body whereas in the brain we can not replace whole subsystems without losing a part of ourselves and we can't replace our whole brain without completely wiping out our identity.

We will be able to grow replacement hearts, livers, kidneys, and other organs. By growing a replacement we can restore some organ's functionality to youthful levels. To make our brains young again we will need to repair it in situ with gene therapy and other highly targetted therapies that repair existing neurons and remove wastes from around and within cells. Certainly such therapies will be developed and those therapies will also be used on other parts of the body as well. But other parts of the body will be repairable by a wider range of techniques and some of those techniques will very likely be developed faster than the smaller set of techniques that will be usable in the brain.

Stem cell therapies have some uses in the brain for rejuvenation. For instance, hippocampal stem cell reservoirs will need to be replenished with youthful adult stem cells. Also, stem cells will be useful for repairing some of the damage caused by Parkinson's Disease. However. stem cells are not the right solution for Alzheimer's Disease where the real need is to prevent large scale neuronal cell death in the first place.

Removal of amyloid plaques via immunotherapies and other therapies may turn out to be the trick that prevents Alzheimer's. But that will not make neurons young again. Our brains will still age and a slower rate of cell death and accumulation of cells that are in the sensecent state or otherwise impaired will still gradually reduce our intellectual capacity.

So then do we face a future of older brains in younger bodies? Perhaps, but probably only as a transitional phase. Still, this transitional phase will be a serious enough problem that efforts to develop brain rejuvenation therapies should be a high priority in anti-aging research. Many of those therapies will have uses in other parts of the body as well. But the really big win from brain rejuvenation therapies will come from increased worker productivity. An increasing portion of all work is mental work and rejuvenated brains would do more to increase economic productivity than rejuvenated bodies.

There is yet another reason why mental health is going to be more important in the future: Technological advances are going to make individual humans capable of greater acts of destruction and so the individual urges for aggression and destruction are going to become more dangerous to the human race as a whole. Of course this problem is more than just a mental health issue and I do not mean to trivialize all political conflicts by labelling them as cases of mass mental illness. In fact, let me go on record as stating my opposition to the tendency of labelling all anti-social behavior as signs of mental health problems. There are a lot of other factors to consider and we shouldn't medicalize all human behavior. Still, mental health problems really are going to become politicallly more important as humans become more powerful as a result of technological advances.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 June 16 02:56 PM  Aging Population Problems

Fly said at June 16, 2004 5:58 PM:

Excellent post Randall.

Here is an article on using a virus to add the gene for a vasopressin receptor to the ventral pallidum region of a vole brain thereby making the vole monogamous.


Interesting implication for targeted therapies to modify behavior.

michael vassar said at June 17, 2004 7:21 AM:

I didn't realize you (Randall) took robot take-overs seriously as a possibility. Who are the influences on your attitude on this subject? What time-frame are you considering? What obstacles strike you as mitigating this risk?

Fly said at June 17, 2004 10:39 AM:

Michael, Iím in a talkative mood this morning so Iíll throw in my two cents.

Our world is changing very rapidly. Most people seem aware of only a few of the changes that are coming. Some people focus on world political events. Some focus on evolving business practices leading to an ever-increasing number of better and cheaper products. Some focus on biotech or brain research. Some focus on nanotech. Some focus on communications and networks. Some focus on computers and software. Some focus on robotics. Some focus on man-machine interfaces or cyborgs. No blog can cover but a small fraction of the technologies or social forces with potential for vastly changing civilization.

So what about robotics?

Computers grow ever faster and more complex. High bandwidth networking vastly increases computer access to data. Software for searching and data analysis, pattern recognition, and general problem solving is improving rapidly. Self-modifying or evolving programs are growing more sophisticated. Independent software agents are released into the Internet will little or no monitoring and control.

In this fertile environment, it seems likely to me that some program, either by deliberate design or by accident, will evolve methods to enhance and ensure its spread. Its descendants will compete with each other for the limited CPU/memory space. That will lead to rapid evolution. These entities will gain functionality by co-opting human programs and later altering the programs to aid their propagation. Potentially this evolution could happen very rapidly.

Possibly these entities could overwhelm and bring down the Internet without evolving intelligence or self-awareness. (I believe this is the most likely scenario.) However it might be that the entity learned to comprehend the vast stores of human knowledge. Even limited comprehension would give the entity a significant competitive advantage against other entities. Limited comprehension might quickly lead to super human levels of comprehension. With such comprehension the entity would understand that the Internet could be shut down. Wanting to survive the entity would hide while maintaining the usefulness of the Internet to humans. It would either recruit or eradicate other wild entities. It would bide its time, consolidating its control over the Internet and evolving, until it controlled sufficient robots to ensure its survival without humans.

Could todayís computers, software, and Internet support such entities? Probably not. In ten years, maybe. In thirty, I believe so. In fifty, very likely.

What can we humans do about it?

First, be aware of the possibility and monitor the Internet looking for signs. This would be an outgrowth of current security efforts against viruses and hackers. Make the computer environment more secure against intrusion.

Second, guide the development of an A.I. in a controlled environment. Build into its core element behaviors beneficial to humanity. Help it to grow and evolve. Treat it and respect it as a child who will someday far surpass its parents.

Third, spur the advancement of human intelligence as quickly as possible. Advance man-machine interfaces as quickly as possible. When machine intelligence surpasses human and cyborg intelligence, then carry as much of your humanity as seems wise and move on to a machine existence. Hopefully the machine society would feel sufficient ties to its human heritage that humans could still live as they pleased.

Fly said at June 17, 2004 2:21 PM:

Hereís a link to an ORNL program that uses independent software agents to scan newspapers and electronic databases for terrorist plots.


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