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."