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The Electronic Frontier of Longevity and Control
Brian Hanley   Sep 26, 2015   Ethical Technology  

I have been pursuing gene therapies for aging, so my decision to discuss this goes against my current direction. We really don’t know what the limits are of what we might be able to do by playing the autonomic nervous system, but here are some thoughts to chew on.

The human brain is large, but 90% of your nervous system is outside your head. Researchers have found that interrupting vagus nerve signals to the brain can treat rheumatoid arthritis, as well as septic shock symptoms, however, some body subsystems may,  or may not be responsive to this manipulation. We know that nerves signaling the spleen is critical for interruption of sepsis.

We are just starting to attempt to untangle what signals going where do what. Our methods now are similar to using a huge gong and a mallet to stop a band playing. It’s as if a child figured out, “Aha! When I ring this next to daddy’s head he can’t remember what he was yelling about!”

There are corollaries to interrupting nerve signals. It seems clear that our nervous system can tell the difference between different kinds of immune system stimulation for one. We know for sure that at least one organ, our spleen, will respond. But every single lymph node has nerves running to it. What are all those nerves those doing?

Evolution doesn’t tend to keep things that don’t matter. Sure, a species might hang onto something for a while, but overall, species don’t. And yet, mammals all have nerve cells running into every lymph node, which means those nerves are doing something.

This suggests that disease treatment could be aided by the right nervous system signals. Activation of the immune system against cancer could be possible.

In a similar vein, bariatric surgery does things that may be nervous system related. Not only does a person lose weight and normalize blood sugar, but in some cases, the impact is often quicker than makes sense by physiological measures.

The nervous system outside our heads has nodes that are bigger than those of many independent creatures. Our sino-atrial node has more nerve cells than a honeybee does. Honeybees aren’t brilliant, but they are capable of a great deal. Is that size an artifact of the need for redundancy or to develop a strong enough signal to ensure the heart contracts properly? In part, it probably is. But is that all? And what about the celiac plexuses? We have genes active throughout our gut for taste receptors. All sorts of things are going on that we don’t understand and have not mapped yet.

Considering these facts, one has to wonder how much we could possibly learn, and how much control is potentially possible by deep instrumentation of the autonomic nervous system. Could we learn to decipher signals from this ancient, deeply embedded nerve network? And could we perhaps figure out how to play our nervous system like a violin? I suspect that it is possible.

Doing that kind of research is very difficult. Instrumenting the distributed human nervous system so that we are playing along beside it, rather than just walloping the primary trunk-line to the brain to settle things down is also very challenging. We are right on the edge of being able to insert electrodes that won’t necessarily cause harm.  The human brain has been researched better than the autonomic nervous system, so we have a stronger handle on it in many ways. The autonomic nervous system is much more terra incognita.

If I had to place a bet on it, I would wager that the autonomic nervous system will be an important part of regulating our bodies for longevity and health as we age. This is not something I would have expected to say even 2 years ago.

Brian Hanley is the founder of Butterfly Sciences, a company developing gene therapies for aging. He has a range of papers in biosciences, economics, policy and terrorism, in addition to a recent text on radiation treatment. He obtained his PhD in microbiology with honors from UC Davis, has a bachelors degree in computer science, is a multiple entrepreneur and guest lectured for years to the MBA program at Santa Clara University.

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