Baroness Greenfield, who specialises in the physiology of the brain, outlined four future challenges for humanity: the impact of nanotechnology on health, the impact of improved longevity and long-term health, the burden of dementia and the impact of technology on the brain.
Focusing on the impact of technology on brain physiology, she cited research illustrating the impact of increased interaction. She explained how computer gaming led to microstructural abnormalities and affected brain chemistry, stimulating release of dopamine to result in a more childlike mental state that would in turn find the individual seeking further gratification.
Watch Baroness Greenfield at the RCGP annual conference
She highlighted how an under-functioning prefrontal cortex and elevated dopamine release were prominent features in certain conditions.
‘One can see a cycle of an exciting world of the screen releasing dopamine, bringing about more addictive behaviour that inhibits the prefrontal cortex, stimulating conditions of obesity, schizophrenia and childhood, where you put a premium on the senses and therefore seek out scenarios such as the screen environment that pander to the senses rather than to the cognitive, and the cycle continues.
‘With climate change, it’s really damage limitation – we are trying to put the brakes on. Mind change does not have to be like that. We could be harnessing these technologies and start thinking about what we want to do. If we can make the technologies a means not an end, we have an opportunity for shaping the environment as never before.’
Baroness Greenfield also suggested that traditional barriers between generations could merge in the future, because scientific innovations would mean ‘older’ people would be healthier, look better and be able to have children throughout life. Once out of childhood, people would simply be viewed as ‘adults’ until death.