Bioethics Blogs

Can free will be modulated through electrical stimulation?

The will to persevere when many of life’s challenges are thrown at us is an ability that comes more naturally for some than for others. Additionally, even the most determined among us have days and times when moving forward through a challenging task just proves too difficult. The subjective nature of this experience can make it difficult to study, but recently researchers from Stanford University published a case study where electrical brain stimulation (EBS) to the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC) left two patients with the feeling that a challenge was approaching, but also that they could overcome it [1]. For the most recent journal club of the semester, Neuroscience graduate student and AJOB Neuroscience editorial intern Ryan Purcell led a discussion on the experimental procedure to stimulate what is referred to as the “the will to persevere” and the effect this technology may have if it were to become more mainstream in society.

“The location of the electrodes in P1 and P2 overlaid onto the standard emotional salience network derived from a group of normal human subjects.” Parvizi et al.

It has long been known that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and its midcingulate region (aMCC) are involved in emotions that rely on cognitive control, and recent research has shown that this brain network is possibly involved in complex emotions such as motivation and endurance [2,3]. In the case study discussed during journal club though, researchers went beyond an animal study and recorded a first-hand account of two patients becoming determined and motivated to overcome what they perceived as an oncoming challenge during EBS to the aMCC.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.