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So far we have seen what happens, or may happen, when a person is diagnosed with clinical depression. But what if you’re just feeling a bit low? Or maybe you feel fine but want to feel even better. Can these techniques be used for what we might call “cosmetic mood enhancement”?
We recently showed that non-invasive brain stimulation can provide a lift in mood in otherwise healthy, non-depressed people. The technology we used ? transcranial direct current stimulation ? is cheap and accessible to many people, so could it be used to provide a mood bump to anyone who needs a bit of a lift after a hard day? There are already products available that claim to use non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to modulate mood. Similarly, there are private clinics who will provide (for a fee) a course of neurofeedback training.
At present the evidence for the ability of some of these techniques to improve the mood of non-depressed people is pretty slim, and often no better than placebo. This is not to say that novel treatments should not be available, after all some people are happy to pay for homeopathic treatments even though there’s no evidence that they work.
However the notion of cosmetic mood enhancement leads to possible ethical questions. Do we fully understand the harms associated with mood modulation technology, and are those risks balanced by the potential benefits? For example, could a person become dependent on brain stimulation, just as people can become dependent on alcohol or drugs? What role do manufacturers and private clinics play in communicating and monitoring those risks? And is it fair for some (well-off) people to have access to mood modulation and not others?
We are only beginning to understand how to modulate mood with neuroscientific technology. It would be easy to get carried away with sci-fi speculations about “happiness chips” in the brain, or compulsory mood enhancement to promote worker efficiency, or even misery enhancement to make the worst prisoners suffer for their crimes. But with responsible development of this technology, we have the potential to enhance the lives of a great many people.
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