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A Glimpse Into the Future of Healing and Behavioral Change

Posted on February 21, 2014

Welcome to our new Members from Costa Contra County Health Services and Lyons-Martin.  I really enjoyed my time in the Bay Area with some great folks.  This week let’s put our examination of the brain conversation on hold, to discuss what we might have to look forward to for alternative treatments in the future.  I’d like to respond to a recent question posed by my good friend and policy guru at Health Care for the Homeless, Barbara DiPetrio.  Barbara commented on one of my previous blog posts (which is highly encouraged), inquiring:
Early in your post you say that ‘A mix of ions and their electrical charges determine whether an action potential leads to certain behaviors, emotions, and thinking. It is these sodium, chloride, and potassium ions that operate under the principles of quantum mechanics. If we are going to understand how the mind regulates energy and information, we must understand how these ions behave’. By this logic, would taking supplements of sodium, chloride and/or potassium allow us to manipulate our individual responses to these internal forces?”
Barbara’s comment really got me thinking.  As part of my trauma research, I’ve always been interested in how advances in other sciences could be utilized in the healing process for our clients.  One of the puzzles I kick around in my head is how we might use nanotechnology to eliminate the memories of past trauma and decrease resulting post-traumatic symptoms.
In the next 20 years or so, we will have microscopic machines that could travel to all parts of our body including the brain.  These nanomachines will have the capacity to deliver drugs directly to the area they are needed and replace or repair damages caused by aging and injury. If you are interested in more information on the future role of nanotechnology in health care, and how we might have the option to overcome death through nanotechnology in the next couple of decades, I highly suggest Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near, or his documentary, The Singularity.
Soon we may deliver neurotransmitters, ions and possibly even electrical charges to our synapses in order to control whether they fire or not.  While thinking this through, I’ve been considering whether we would want to eliminate traumatic memories.  If you saw the movie Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind, this is a similar concept. While those of us that work with trauma understand how it can devastate individuals and communities, the wisdom and strength gained from the recovery process is an important part of the human experience.  Erasing traumatic memories also eliminates the lessons that can prevent future trauma, and the ability to become stronger when we build resiliency and wisdoms inherent to post-traumatic growth.   
Barbara’s post made me realize that we might be able to lessen the power of traumatic memories, while still realizing the strength gained when overcoming a traumatic past.  I believe the answer to Barbara’s question… “would taking supplements of sodium, chloride and/or potassium allow us to manipulate our individual responses to these internal forces?”, is no, with our present technology.  Even if we could get these supplements directly to the brain they would impact the entire brain and would facilitate all established synapses to increase or decrease their firing through changing the overall electrical charge of the brain.  This would, in theory, increase the post-traumatic stress reactions that haunt many of our clients.
This doesn’t mean that Barbara is wrong; at this point we just don’t have the evolved technology to deliver her proposed intervention.  In the future, we will be able to have people recall traumatic memories and map the exact synaptic connections responsible for specific post-traumatic stress reactions. This mapping would track the synapses that are causing negative coping behaviors like drug abuse, the fight/flight/freeze response, anxiety, and other behaviors and strong emotions that can keep our clients stuck in ongoing cycles of trauma.
Here is where Barbara’s insight is genius.  In the future we may be able to send nanomachines to these synaptic connections.  In the specific area of our brain, nanonmachines could release ions, neurotransmitters, or maybe even an electronic charge to strategically strengthen and weaken synapses that facilitate the manifestation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms.  This would in essence begin to give the traumatized individuals more power over the memories of past trauma and their impact on current functioning. 
I can imagine a process, let’s call it the DiPetrio Process, which would be similar to current systematic desensitization techniques such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).  Desensitization has the client recall a traumatic memory, with the help of a therapist, to gain emotional and cognitive control of their responses to the memories.  The nanomachines would in essence dramatically speed up the healing process.  I think this could be a very important step for victims of complex or repeated trauma who are trapped in cycles of violence and addiction. 
The DiPetrio Process would bolster the physical systems in the brain that give us the ability to control the flow of energy and information.  We could help clients develop capacity in their hippocampus allowing them to manage emotional responses. It could also reduce the influence of the amygdala, decreasing the intensity of emotional responses to stress.  I imagine this process would conducted over an extended period of time, as the client would need time to practice and adjust to new ways of relating with the world.
Even with the DiPetrio Process, we would need to create an environment of safety and support for clients.  Client’s brains can become well adapted to surviving homelessness, domestic violence, or living with addiction.  Rapid healing makes no sense if they live in an unsafe place, or return to a violent relationship, as restructuring would take away tools that enable them to cope and survive within these tragic situations. 
My sad conclusion is that even with this future technology, our current systems might not support rapid recovery.  We still don’t have enough housing, psychiatric beds, or resources necessary to create enough safety to ethically implement the DiPetrio Process.  Even today, while we know so much about how to heal trauma, our society does not value those we serve.  We aren’t provided the necessary resources to give our clients the opportunity to heal and the skills (job training, money management, relationship skills) they would need to thrive in “mainstream” society. 
Until we value all human life and take responsibility for the hurt and struggling in our society, technology and innovation will have little impact.  The hope for our clients lies not in technology, it exists in the hearts of each of us.  Until our society learns to care about our clients, they will never receive the help and healing they need; trauma, addiction and extreme poverty will continue to be passed on from generation to generation. 

I’d like to end this post thanking each of you for what you do to help these clients in need; even though the greater community may not recognize or appreciate the importance, we all know where our clients would be without your support.  

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