A commentary in Nature by a group of psychologists, ethicists and neuroscientists has a controversial message:
Based on our considerations, we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs. [their emphasis]
The authors call for a rejection of the common knee-jerk notion that cognitive enhancement in healthy individuals – using drugs like amphetamines or the fatigue suppressant modafinil, or other means such as brain stimulation – is somehow “cheating”, “unnatural”, or “drug abuse”. None of these criticisms hold up to close scrutiny, they argue, and certainly do not justify a blanket ban on the use of enhancement techniques. Instead, the possible benefits of cognitive enhancement both for individuals and for society at large should be carefully weighed up before a decision is made.
The authors do acknowledge several substantive areas of concern that would need to be addressed before cognition-enhancing treatments became widespread:
- Safety: obviously widespread treatments must not cause overt harm, so there must be “an evidence-based approach to the evaluation of the risks and benefits of cognitive enhancement”;
- Freedom from coercion: that is, ensuring that individuals who don’t wish to use the treatments are free to make that decision, which the authors acknowledge will pose challenges; and
- Fairness: ideally, enhancement should be equally available to all – the authors go so far as to suggest “giving every exam-taker free access to cognitive enhancements, as some schools provide computers during exam week to all students”.
The authors go on to propose a range of policy measures, which they argue should be further developed in a collaboration between “physicians, educators, regulators and others”. These measures are: an accelerated programme of research into the risks and benefits of cognitive enhancement; the broad dissemination of information “concerning the risks, benefits and alternatives to pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement”, and finally, “careful and limited legislative action to channel cognitive-enhancement technologies into useful paths.”
It will be interesting to see how this debate progresses.