Ethics of boosting brainpower debated by researchers

STANFORD, Calif. - For decades people have nipped a wrinkle here, reduced a nose size there or paid for help boosting test scores. With this history of paying to improve our bodies and minds, why not extend that liberty to memory-improving drugs or brain-enhancing implants?

These and other questions being raised by modern neuroscience were the topic of a meeting of neuroscientists, ethicists and psychologists funded by the National Science Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences. The group, led by Judy Illes, senior research scholar in biomedical ethics and in radiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, will publish their thoughts in the April 20 online issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience. The article will also appear in the May print issue of the journal. The group's goals were to outline both the ethical issues raised by modern neuroscience and the steps scientists should take, if any.

Plastic surgery and neural enhancement both raise safety issues, Illes said. However, she and co-chair Martha Farah, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, feel the risks are more acceptable when treating an illness rather than taking normal, healthy people and trying to make them better.

Illes said the key difference between physical enhancements such as plastic surgery and neural enhancement through drugs or brain implants comes down to personhood. A nose job doesn't change who you are. Drugs might, she said. "Am I the same person on Ritalin as off?" Farah asked.

Farah said there have been no studies that establish the long-term effects of brain function in children who take Ritalin to control hyperactivity or in people who take medication for depression. It could be that drugs alter the way the brain works, fundamentally changing personality. The drugs may even have unanticipated consequences such as speeding the brain's decline with old age.

The question becomes more complicated

Contact: Amy Adams
Stanford University Medical Center

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