Considering the Ethical Implications of Cognitive Enhancement
As part of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, President Obama asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) to “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards – both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.” As the Bioethics Commission resumes its consideration of these ethical issues, it turned this morning to the ethical implications of cognitive enhancement specifically.
The session featured Peter Reiner, V.M.D., Ph.D., from the University of British Columbia’s National Core for Neuroethics, Kinsmen Laboratory of Neurological Research, and Brain Research Centre; Rear Admiral Peter J. Delany, Ph.D., LCSW-C, Director of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA); Adrian Raine, Ph.D., the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania; and Nick Bostrom, Ph.D. a professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford and founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute.
Starting off the conversation with a presentation titled, “Cognitive Enhancement Past, Present and Future,” Reiner discussed the definition of cognitive enhancement. In doing so, he explained both the historic understanding and looked forward to how this definition is evolving.
“Cognitive enhancement is more complicated than it seems at first blush,” explained Reiner. “We’re already well on our way to enhancing ourselves with all sorts of drugs, devices and more.”
“I’d submit as we move forward we need to give a fair hearing to the public’s enthusiasms and fears, their utilitarian dreams and their visions for societal harmony for these are the norms to which our policies should hew,” Reiner concluded.
Delany, who oversees a SAMHSA program to collect, analyze, and disseminate critical public health data on substance abuse, mental illness, and related disorders, spoke briefly about how common cognitive enhancement is today, and how we might be able to reliably track both the prevalence of cognitive enhancement and results—both potential benefits and harmful outcomes.
Focusing on prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, Delany explained that data show that people—especially college age students—who use cognitive enhancements also have increased use of other substances such as alcohol, marijuana or cocaine.
Raine later moved the discussion to the potential implications of nutrition as a cognitive enhancer and the possible use of nutritional supplements to alter behavior.
Citing extensive correlational studies about consumption of Omega-3 and a reduction in anti-social behaviors, Raine raised several ethical questions about the use of natural compounds, like fish oil, as a cognitive enhancer.
“To what extent is Omega-3 really different to drugs, medication?” asked Raine. “Our bodies don’t produce Omega-3. Yes, it’s natural, but in some ways it’s nothing short of a drug.”
“We wouldn’t give drugs to sedate prisoners. We wouldn’t give drugs to children to reduce their anti-social and aggressive behaviors. So why would we give Omega-3 to reduce such behaviors that aren’t wanted in society?” asked Raine.
Rounding out the morning’s first session, Bostrom addressed concerns in ensuring fair and equal access to cognitive enhancements, especially given the potential benefits both on an individual level and a societal level.
“There are already large inequalities in cognitive capacities—partly biological, partly because different people have different amounts of education, and so forth,” said Bostrom. “One question that one can ask about a hypothetical new cognitive enhancement intervention is whether it would increase or decrease that. That might partly depend on the system we have to access [the enhancement].”
Up next in this busy day, the Bioethics Commission will consider questions around direct-to-consumer neurotechnology.