Thursday, July 19, 2007

Promicin and Unlocking the Brain's Potential

Last Sunday night I watched The 4400 for the first time since the early episodes of the show. The last time I had seen an episode the source of the returnee's special powers was unknown. Now, apparently they've figured all that out. As the Wikipedia article* explains:
The human body produces four main neurotransmitters** that control and regulate bodily functions. In The 4400, every 4400 produces a fifth neurotransmitter called promicin that enables him or her to use parts of the cerebellum no human has previously used. This is the cause of the new abilities in each returnee.
While anyone can now have special powers equal to one of the 4400 by taking promicin, there is a great risk involved: half of the people who get a promicin shot die from a brain aneurysm. Is it worth the risk? There are several elaborate web sites that are taking part in the "debate."

Promicin Terror spreads the word about the dark side of promicin injections, including public service message videos and autopsy reports.

Promicin Power, on the other hand, is fighting to allow people to choose to take promicin. They are supported by the "personal" sites of people who have taken promicin and had a positive experience: Promicin Passion and Promicin Dance .

Meanwhile, Promicin Info is supposed to be a non-biased source of general information. You can't claim that the NBC promotional department hasn't been hard at work - it's even got a blog with fake comments.

But what about real brains? Could there really be another neurotransmitter that unlocks special abilities?

It's certainly possible that novel neurotransmitters are yet to be discovered. For example, it's only in the past 15 years or so that the endocannabinoid pathway (or as Scientific American calls it "The Brain's Own Marijuana") has been unraveled. It wouldn't surprise me at all if new neurotransmitter pathways were yet to be discovered.

There's a problem with promicin, though, at least the way I understand it. We humans are extremely unlikely to have receptors in the brain that could respond to promicin unless there is a promicin-like neurotransmitter already present. Sure, promicin could just do a better job of stimulating those pathways than the natural neurotransmitters (sort of in the way that morphine binds opioid receptors), but that wouldn't activate parts of the brain that aren't used under natural conditions.

And that leads to the second problem: the popular idea that we only use a fraction of our brain is just a myth. While we might not be using 100% of our brain at any particular moment, over time - a day or a week - we pretty much use it all. Use it or lose it, as they say. The idea that a part of our brains evolved to include a completely inactive region that won't function unless stimulated by a chemical that won't be synthesized until several centuries from now doesn't make a lot of sense.

Now if they claimed that our descendants boost their mental powers by grafting on an engineered extra bit of brain, that I might buy.

* I had to look stuff up during the commercials because I had no idea what was going on.

** There are definitely more than four neurotransmitters: acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, glutamic acid, GABA, glycine, and others. I suppose that it might be right to say there are four "main types" in some specific regions of the nervous system.

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  1. Anonymous11:10 AM

    As the cost of DNA sequencing drops, it becomes possible to sequence individuals. It would be interesting (with informed consent) to sequence a few former child prodigies, particularly those who are well-adjusted as adults, and their parents or siblings. There might not be any pattern consistent enough to detect, but what if there is? If it becomes technologically feasible for parents using IVF to pick the smartest combination of their genes, would that be a good idea?

  2. Anonymous2:41 PM

    What if we could mix promicin with stemcells which will allow the body to accept it?


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