Medical breakthroughs in recent years have led to wondrous benefits for the sick and the injured, but they have also empowered us to tinker with human biology in unprecedented ways. Some experts are concerned that we are on the brink of changing what it means to be human by enhancing healthy brains.
We are knocking at the doorway to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, with mind altering drugs, potential brain implants, and magnetic stimulation that may someday make it possible for normal college students to breeze through finals in a way they can only dream of today.
As exciting as that may sound, it's a pathway fraught with pitfalls, because no one really knows precisely where the path will lead, and what the final consequences will be in a growing effort to make us think, remember, and even forget, better than we can today.
No one is predicting that Huxley's grim, loveless, and highly manipulated world is just around the corner, and hopefully humans will never venture that far into playing God, but we've already taken the first few steps.
Confronting the Future
Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on nutritional supplements in hopes of improving their memory — a form of brain enhancement at its most basic level — even though it's not known for certain that the drugs actually help.
And the controversial drug Ritalin, normally prescribed for children with attention deficit disorder, is now widely taken by college students to give them an edge in their academic performance, especially while preparing for a major exam.
"We are starting to tamper with our biology," says Judy Illes, senior research scholar in biomedical ethics at Stanford University School of Medicine. "There are significant ethical issues that need to be addressed head on."
Illes is one of the leaders of a movement within the neuroscientific community to get out ahead of the potential ethical issues and establish guidelines that will facilitate ongoing research. Part of their goal is to avoid public relations blunders that could hamper progress — doing to them what fear over potential human cloning has done to geneticists.
"We want to formulate some policy from the inside that empowers the research, so it doesn't get tripped up along the way because of some sort of bad press or catastrophic event," Illes says.
Illes co-chaired a blue ribbon panel of experts last June, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences, who grappled with the unknowns of where modern science may be leading us in this brand new arena.
The results of that meeting were published in the April 20 online issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, and they offer much food for thought. The panel, consisting of neuroscientists, ethicists, psychologists and educators, concluded that the new age of brain enhancement is already here, and the future is very murky indeed.
"Neither the benefits nor the dangers of neurocognitive enhancement are trivial," the panel concluded. The panelists were much more comfortable with the use of mind altering drugs to heal the sick than they were with boosting the brain power of normal, healthy persons.
Tinkering With Personhood
This is a far trickier area than the use of cosmetic surgery to improve appearances, or steroids to improve physical performance, the panel concluded, because it tampers with our basic "personhood."
"Neurocognitive enhancement involves intervening in a far more complex system, and we are therefore at great risk of unanticipated problems," the panel warns. No one knows at this point if taking Ritalin during finals will result in a more rapid mental decline in old age.
Some drugs, and some new technologies, have improved normal mental performance in laboratory settings, but they didn't work the same for everybody.
"Those with lower levels of performance are more likely to benefit from enhancement than those with higher levels," the panelists said. Thus widespread use of brain enhancing drugs might lessen the gap between the smart and the not-so-smart, a "homogenization" of human cognitive prowess, as Illes puts it.
The panel dealt mainly with drugs, because that's where so much action is these days. Virtually every major pharmaceutical company in the world is working on drugs that would enhance memory, and some are in advanced stages of clinical trials. Most of these drugs strengthen synapses, the electrical contact points at which brain cells trade information, but some are targeting such things as the way the brain records memories.
Conversely, a number of companies are developing drugs that will let us erase unpleasant memories, like witnessing a traumatic event, to help patients deal with depression over something they cannot forget.
A number of drugs are under development that will help normal people deal better with a wide range of mental challenges, including coping with emotions. The military is experimenting with drugs that would ease fear, for example, thus making combat a more cerebral challenge, and less emotional.
But University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan worries that soldiers so enhanced — fearless in battle — may also be far more vulnerable.
One of the most promising areas of research is at the far end of high technology. It's called "transcranial magnetic stimulation," and it holds great promise for treating persons with severe depression, or various mental disorders. "TMS," as it is called, uses magnets to increase or decrease activity in very specific areas of the brain.
It's only been around for a couple of decades, and it's so non-invasive that persons who might otherwise have to undergo brain surgery, or electric shock treatments, hardly feel a thing. A magnetic coil, held against the scalp, produces magnetic pulses that easily pass through the skull, inducing an electric current that alters the activity of specific brain cells — depending on how the coil is programed — either increasing or decreasing their activity.
There doesn't seem to be much debate over using this very promising technique to treat the sick, but that's not all it can do. In one experiment, researchers found that TMS accelerated the ability of normal volunteers to solve problems that required analytical reasoning.
Does that mean someday we will all wear electrified hats that regulate our thought process, thus making us something very different than we are today? Maybe, but maybe not. No one really knows where all of this is leading.
In Huxley's Brave New World, babies were engineered so that they would grow up ideally suited to perform certain tasks. Not too bright if they were to be worker bees, and fearless if they were to be soldiers, but Huxley didn't originate that idea.
Plato, in ancient Greece, argued that people should be told what material they were made of, wood for some, so they would accept more menial chores. He figured gold would be reserved for philosophers, like him, who would also serve as king.
Both, one would hope, were wrong. Huxley of describing improbable science. Plato of bad philosophy.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.