A recent edition of Economist magazine had a very interesting editorial and article about the coming wave of cognitive enhancement drugs that augur the possibility of some tough ethical dilemmas ahead. As research uncovers chemical paths to improving memory and mental processing power for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disabilities, what happens to those who seek to use those chemicals for a brain boost rather than just a neurological repair? Many of us already use over-the-counter drugs, like caffeine, to enhance general alertness or to help study for a test. Where do we draw the line?
Already, it seems, a surprising number of intelligent folks are stepping well over the caffeine line. The scientific journal Nature surveyed its readers, a pretty knowledgeable crowd, about their use of cognitive enhancers (Nature 452, 674-675 (2008)). Of the 1,400 respondents to the poll, one in five “said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory.” Does that mean that 20% of Nature readers are cognitive cheaters?
Maybe I’m overreacting, but if we found that 20% of Sports Illustrated readers used prescription drugs, like steroids, for non-medical reasons to enhance athletic performance, I wager many of us would feel that those folks were doing something unfair. How should we think about “natural” intellectual ability versus one that is artificially enhanced? Is it cheating to use drugs to help you study longer or more readily recall what you’ve learned? What about the student who uses a beta-blocker to reduce the effects of anxiety before a test? Are non-prescription boosters okay but not ones that require a doctor’s permission?
I’m not sure I know how to answer these questions yet. If only the well-informed and well-to-do have access to these brain boosters, then I do think there’s a problem. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. On the other hand, improved intellectual ability seems like a good thing in general. Shouldn’t we encourage it whenever we can? Except when it’s unfair or unhealthy. But who decides that? It seems like a good debate is brewing. I look forward to participating in it. I may need a cup of coffee to keep me awake to read all the relevant research and opinions.