The citizens in Aldhous Huxley’s Brave New World were encouraged by their government to take the sadness-erasing drug Soma to ease the fulfillment of their lives in a superficial society. In his later lectures he predicted that our future society would mimic that of his fictional novel in its use of scientific methods for population management. A recent psychological study with the element, Lithium, now appears to perhaps bring Huxley’s vision one step closer.
The report by researchers in Japan appears to confirm that low levels of Lithium in drinking water may lead to lower levels of suicide in a consuming population. The study, carried out by a team from the universities of Oita and Hiroshima in the prefecture of Oita has recently been published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. In areas where the levels of the element were highest, the risk of suicide appeared to be significantly reduced.
Lithium has been associated with mental health for many years, used in high levels to promote mood stabilisation for individuals suffering from Bipolar disorder. The levels of the element used in the Japanese trials however, varied between 0.7 and 59 milograms; hundreds of times lower than traditionally used in a clinical context. At these levels, scientists claim that the drug would seem to be too diluted to offer any medicinal benefit.
However, they point to a previous trial which demonstrated that people suffering from Bipolar who did not respond to Lithium emotionally, were still less likely to attempt suicide. Scientists believe that although the levels of the element remain low, over time they may accumulate in the body and produce a diagnosable result.
An earlier study conducted in the United States also suggested the beneficial mood altering effects of Lithium. This research, carried out in 27 Texas counties between 1978-1987 found that not only were levels of suicide reduced with Lithium treatment, but other socially undesirable patterns also fell. At levels between 70-170 milograms there was a direct inverse correlation with incidences of rape, robbery and burglary.
The element also appears to have produced an effect in drug addictions, especially with harder drugs. Arrests for possession of Opium and Cocaine raw substances and derivatives fell significantly in the study. Subject to further controlled evaluation the report makes the following recommendation:
“increasing the human lithium intakes by supplementation, or the lithiation of drinking water is suggested as a possible means of crime, suicide, and drug-dependency reduction at the individual and community level.”
Experts interviewed in connection with the Oita research have given similar statements, citing the results as evidence of the need for further clinical trials prior to possible drinking water lithiation. Although further research and debate is necessary, ‘the eventual benefits for community mental health may be considerable.’
American psychiatrist Peter Kramer, who is best known for his work Listening to Prozac, raised the possibility of public health authorities supplementing water supplies at a conference in Germany earlier this year. He argues that this study may mark the onset of a ‘public health revolution’ in which pharmaceuticals may be added to water supplies in order to further the ‘common good’.
He has been joined in his recommendations by Dr. Archelle Georgiou, a recognized American physician, who argues that the success of the Fluoride experiment should make further fortification attempts more acceptable.
This well publicised effort with Fluoride first began in Grand Rapids, Michigan on 25th January 1945, when H. Trendley Dean launched the campaign to fortify the drinking supply. Advocates point to reductions in tooth decay and improved oral health which have since reduced public health costs in the long term. The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has since described this program as, “one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the twentieth century.”
This program though, has not been without its critics, both from medical and ethical standpoints. Mainstream physicians have questioned the possible toxicity of prolonged exposure to Fluoride in the body. Political activists have also raised their criticisms at a policy they regard as “un-democratic”, since it removes public choice from the equation.
The bioethicist and medical historian, Jacob Appel, dispels these claims, arguing that the availability of bottled water means that those opposed to the policy can seek non-fortified alternatives. “There is nothing unreasonable about placing the burden not to drink,” he asserts, “on the resistant minority.”
The opportunities to beneficially impact the public health of the populace with this method outweigh the protests of those few on the margins.
Appel claims that any changes to public health policy should be democratic and consultative. It appears however, that the extent of the democratic debate he calls for is that, “the public ought to be informed which pharmaceuticals have been added to the water and should choose what to imbibe accordingly.” The public are hence accorded the generous right to make their informed choice after policy has been made, and presumably after they have also paid their water bill.
Like Kramer and Georgiou, Appel sees this current study as pointing to a future in which the common water supply can be harnessed to deliver health altering treatments at a low cost. Regardless of whether Lithium is eventually adopted there are other therapies on the horizon which may be just as influential. Statins, which reduce cholesterol and increase life-expectancy in otherwise healthy individuals, may be a possibility. If a chemical can be isolated which successfully blocks pleasure pathways involved in the use of narcotics, this might be an opportunity to deter addictions.
When considering the risks of hypothyroidism, nephrotoxicity and weight gain with Lithium, and those of muscle breakdown with Statins, such advocates suggest that the “risks should be minimised”, or that susceptible individuals should be identified in advance. In the rush to implement these nationwide technological ‘wonder therapies’ however, it is unclear whether these loose controls will be implemented stringently enough to avoid these or other unknown adverse side effects. Whether the supplemented medication is known as Soma or not though, it seems likely that it will not be long before behaviour altering drugs can be administered nationwide.