(This entry was written in 2014. It will be updated in 2016.)
“Smart pills” – stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall – are now old tech; and while pharmacological enhancements are on the rise, new non-invasive stimulation techniques are adding to the range of ethical dilemmas we face when it comes to manipulating our brains.
Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques (such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that uses the principles of electromagnetic induction to focus currents in the brain) are now commercially available for non-medical improvement (such as memory and cognition boosting). Brain stimulation devices are most commonly used in treatment for various neurological and behavioral conditions, but the same technology can be used to enhance the human brain beyond its natural abilities. For example, a company called Foc.us is currently selling a transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) headset designed “to increase the plasticity of your brain,” making “synapses fire faster” so customers can improve their gaming skills. So far, research shows these techniques to be low-risk.
Neurostimulation can be used to boost motor function, improve memory, and even modify behavior, but it also raises ethical issues related to safety, coercion, and distributive justice. Should we alter our brains to improve their function? At what point do we cross the line? Do we have a responsibility to be the best humans we can be? Can we force others to undergo these treatments if it makes them better citizens and workers? What sorts of inequalities are created if this technology is only available to an elite few? How much of a person’s unique character would be changed by enhancing their brain function? Is neuroenhancement akin to brain doping?
The Next Stage of Neuroenhancement? Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (The Neuroethics Blog)
No ADHD Drugs for Healthy Kids, Say Neurologists (PsychCentral)
Smart Pills and Neuroenhancement: Is It Fair? (Huffington Post)
Project: NERRI – Neuro-Enhancement: Responsible Research and Innovation (Genetic Alliance UK)
Brain Gain: The Underground World of “Neuroenhancing” Drugs (The New Yorker)
Popping Pills a Popular Way to Boost Brain Power (CBS News, 60 Minutes)
Neuroenhancement: Building an Improved Body and Mind (brainfacts.org)