Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dana Foundation: Enhancing Brains - What Are We Afraid Of?

Whether it's doing crosswords, listen to aural patterns, learning a language, or some product from an infomercial, cognitive enhancement is a hot topic in research an especially in marketing.

This new article from the Dana Foundation takes a look at the topic, and why we might be a little hesitant about some of the possibilities. One recent study suggests that a fairly large number of academics and/or researchers are already chemically enhancing brain function with Adderall, Ritalin, or Provigil, among other options.

Enhancing Brains

What Are We Afraid Of?

By Henry T. Greely, J.D.
July 14, 2010

Editor’s note: In 2008, Henry T. Greely, a professor at Stanford Law School, co-authored a commentary in Nature; it concluded that “safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.” The article inspired an impressive number of responses from readers, and the debate has continued in scholarly journals and the mainstream media in the years following publication. Here Professor Greely builds on that momentum, arguing that only some concerns about cognitive enhancements are justified and proper attention is needed to address such issues. He contends that rather than banning cognitive enhancements, as some have suggested, we should determine rules for their use.

In December 2008, I was the first author on a paper in Nature called “Towards Responsible Use of Cognitive-Enhancing Drugs by the Healthy.”1 We argued that there was nothing inherently wrong with the use of drugs for cognitive enhancement, although issues of safety, fairness, and coercion will require attention. I received far more communications about that article than about anything else I have ever written. About one-third of them were thoughtful responses, some in favor of cognitive enhancement and some opposed. Another third said, roughly, “How much crack were you smoking when you wrote that?” The last third said, also roughly, “How much money did large drug companies pay you to write that?” (I kept waiting for “How much crack did large drug companies give you to write that?” but, alas, that question never came.) In spite of what some of my correspondents seemed to think, the article had not called for putting stimulants into the water supply. We thought we were taking an open-minded but cautious approach to the issue. So, what prompted this strong response and what, if anything, can we learn from it?

Probing that question is my ultimate aim in this article, but we will get there somewhat indirectly. I will first make an affirmative argument for cognitive enhancement through drugs or other neuroscientific interventions. Then I will talk about concerns, both appropriate and inappropriate, about these kinds of enhancements. Only then will I try to understand the strong negative reactions to our paper and what we might learn from them.

Read the whole article: online or as a PDF.

This next passage is from a 2008 New York Times article that riffs on the Nature study mentioned by Professor Greeley:

In a recent commentary in the journal Nature, two Cambridge University researchers reported that about a dozen of their colleagues had admitted to regular use of prescription drugs like Adderall, a stimulant, and Provigil, which promotes wakefulness, to improve their academic performance. The former is approved to treat attention deficit disorder, the latter narcolepsy, and both are considered more effective, and more widely available, than the drugs circulating in dorms a generation ago.

Letters flooded the journal, and an online debate immediately bubbled up. The journal has been conducting its own, more rigorous survey, and so far at least 20 respondents have said that they used the drugs for nonmedical purposes, according to Philip Campbell, the journal’s editor in chief. The debate has also caught fire on the Web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education, where academics and students are sniping at one another.

But is prescription tweaking to perform on exams, or prepare presentations and grants, really the same as injecting hormones to chase down a home run record, or win the Tour de France?

Some argue that such use could be worse, given the potentially deep impact on society. And the behavior of academics in particular, as intellectual leaders, could serve as an example to others.

In his book “Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution,” Francis Fukuyama raises the broader issue of performance enhancement: “The original purpose of medicine is to heal the sick, not turn healthy people into gods.” He and others point out that increased use of such drugs could raise the standard of what is considered “normal” performance and widen the gap between those who have access to the medications and those who don’t — and even erode the relationship between struggle and the building of character.

Where do you stand on this topic?

Personally, I have favored allowing athletes to use any chemicals that will not kill them, under a doctors supervision, to improve performance - so I feel the same way about cognitive enhancement. Give me some Provigil and a syringe of testosterone.

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