More than Humans? The Ethical Debate about Neuroenhancement

Can we force a suspect in a trial to undergo a scan of his/her brain to read his/her mind (e.g. a lie detector) and this must be objective evidence to the case? Can we force certain professionals (surgeons, pilots or people with important responsibilities) to take psychostimulants (e.g. methylphenidate) to ensure maximum performance and concentration, and reduce the risk of errors? Must we allow the use of beta-blockers, for example, by musicians before a concert in order to control the nerves, increase control, and improve the performance? Must we allow the use of psychostimulants (methylphenidate) among students so they can get better results? Should neurostimulation be used in schools and among students to improve the pace of learning, increased memory and improve performance in mathematics?

Neuroscience is promising yet it also generates large fears and concerns. This scientific discipline was born in a time where biological technology started to grow rapidly with the techniques that allowed direct observation of the brain activity, which in turn facilitated an understanding of the nervous system and provided new applications and technologies in the treatment of mental illnesses. Thus neuroscience aims to understand how the brain works to act on it.

All new tools for studying the brain, new ways of understanding diseases and new treatments that modify the biology of the brain (which have already shown their effectiveness), lead to the development of neuroscience as a field beyond medicine. All this new knowledge has given way to a use that is not only for therapeutic purposes. Use of this knowledge outside the health sector made the new technologies become cognitive enhancement tools and this is when what is known as neuroenhancement techniques appeared.

The neuroenhancement techniques aim to enhance our skills and improve our cognitive abilities. Neuroscience applications in the medical field has already had high moral and ethical implications to its use, so you can imagine how the neuroenhancement techniques designed at the improvement of cognitive abilities in healthy people has intensified the debate around ethical and philosophical implications.

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The fast rate of technological development is making available new ways to intervene directly on people, but the most strikingof these developments is the possibility of intervening the brain to both treat diseases and to change behaviour or modify feelings. Neuroscience have implications for all areas of society that we consider important: scientific, legal, social and political. The understand of human behaviour, creating new forms of treatment for enhancement and improvement of cognitive abilities, and the possible consequences that this involves, affects issues that should be treated from an interdisciplinary point of view.

The reality is that many of the techniques for neuroenhancement are already on the market for everyone. Currently there are many pharmaceutical companies that sell drugs to healthy people who look for an improvement[1]. In my opinion, the companies that seem to succeed are those who have used the Internet as a way to market their products for at home use directly by the consumer, including brain stimulation products. All this leads to the urgent need to raise a public debate to address questions about its use and its potential, but also on the risks and the need for its regulation as it may be in play fundamental values of our society.

To treat these last objections in a rational way and to consider the positive and negative aspects, we must first release the prejudices and fears that have associated the treatment of the mind and the direct intervention on the brain. The arguments against neuroenhancement should be specific, thus, not based solely on the fact that it is “dangerous” because it intervenes with brain activity.

Leaving aside prejudices and irrational fears, questions are raised about possible dangers: which considerations should legislation take to ensure responsible use, how may they be introduced into society and how can they affect the values that we consider fundamental? The main arguments to take into account to justify the need of regulation for neuroenhancement have to do with the individual effects of the improvements, including their impact on society and its contributions (both beneficial and harmful ones). Some questions remain: What should we really worry about in these methods? Do we currently have reasonable reasons to reject or limit new technologies in a time when it seems that they are directly responsible for progress?

At the individual level, the concerns that have been raised about their use are about safety and side effects, the authenticity of the enhanced minds and the value of what is achieved after improvement. At a social level, ethical concerns have to do with the extent that improvements can increase or decrease social inequality, if individuals can be coerced to take drugs or how the improvement affects aspects related to the maintenance of social cohesion. Considering the main philosophical objections that are on the table today, there are no general arguments of principle strong enough to rule out a priori brain technologies.

However, given that neuroscience can change the moral, social and legal landscape, it seems that is necessary to treat from the beginning, assess and analyze its possibilities and implications, case by case, think where this “progress” leads us and, if necessary, take steps to prevent the development of an undesirable society.

Today, neuroenhancement is in its infancy and would need to have some kind of regulation that would allow it to progress in the right direction and evolve according to the values that we defend as a society. There have been many predictions about what they can offer in the distant future but that does not mean that we are talking about a technology that does not really exist now. The value of speculation is not prediction but reflection. We have the ability to step in and guide our own evolution, to create the future human, now, more than ever, we can shape our future, but where we do want to go? Do we know the answer to this latter question?

[1] NY Times “The Selling of ADHD” article. Accessed on November 22: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/health/the-selling-of-attention-deficit-disorder.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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