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February 16, 2008

The Amygdala, Guilt by Association, the War on Drugs, and the Presidency (Personal, Historical)

My first encounter with the amygdala was when we studied Neuroanatomy as first year medical students. Far less was known then about its function than is now readily available on the internet. ironically, that first encounter took place during the Army-McCarthy hearings, a televised Senate investigation in which “guilt by association” figured prominently. At the time, amygdala was simply an exotic word for part of the brain; little did I realize it would eventually designate an entity that would also be discredited by the same tactic, employed not only by an alcoholic US Senator promulgating his personal brand of anti-communism, but also as a hard-drinking President’s personal aversive reaction to a newly emergent counterculture.

McCarthyism was spiked by the exposure  that attended those Senate hearings in 1954. Although Nixon's political fate was eventually sealed by the remarkably similar political theater of Watergate twenty years later, the drug war had already been institutionalized by amazingly uncritical legislation (the CSA of 1970) and bolstered further by the federal police and scientific agencies (the DEA and NIDA), created during the caretaker interregnum of Gerald Ford between Nixon's departure in 1974 and the election of populist newcomer Jimmy Carter in 1976.

As recognition of the amygdala’s role in the generation of human emotions and the storage of our emotional memories has gradually become greater and more widespread, so has use of (increasingly) weighted terms like “dopamine reward,” and ” hedonic tone.”  The amygdala and mesolimbic system it is part of are now densely associated with the pejorative concept of “drugs of abuse.”

My quick googling this morning turned up ample evidence that, despite the virtual absence of any human studies of cannabis (blocked by NIDA and the DEA), most NIDA favored investigators see studying the amygdala as key to preventing “drug abuse” and “addiction,” while others aware that cannabinoids are known to modulate several of the amygdala’s very diverse functions,
urge that they be studied for their potential therapeutic benefits. Still others are have taken a more focused look at how the emotions it mediates can lead to chronic hypertension and associated structural lesions.

Most evident to me from today's Google exercise and my own study of pot use is the noxious influence a blatantly moralistic drug policy has had on what purports to be scientific thought. Perhaps that concern can best be illustrated by a simple analogy:  even competent explorers will be misled if limited by their sponsors to an outdated map with erroneous origins.

The drug war’s damage to society is further compounded by the media’s refusal to exercise the oversight it claims to be an essential function of any democracy. A question I’ve already asked several times since the Presidential campaign season started is, why have no candidates been asked searching questions about drug policy or marijuana prohibition?

Maybe Obama is a stealth candidate with a secret legalization agenda; if so, I certainly don’t want to jinx him at this early stage. On the other hand, it’s more likely he’s been mute for the same reasons as the others.

But we can always hope...

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at February 16, 2008 08:57 PM