Anyone who follows the sports world is well-aware of the concept of doping, in which athletes participate to establish an edge over the competition. This goes back a long ways and includes more famous examples like the East German Olympic machine, and the sprinter Ben Johnson, but also the more recent examples of Todd Landis, Marion Jones and, of course, Barry Bonds.
Competition seems to do that to people, clouding their judgment, confusing their ideals, pushing them to a point where it seems almost immoral not to give yourself any and every possible advantage. Well, doping is extending beyond the physical and entering the realm of cognitive capacity. A new commentary in Nature, written by Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir of Cambridge, argues that the increased use of “cognitive-enhancing drugs” poses a number of serious ethical issues that can no longer be ignored.
Basically, healthy, intelligent people are taking things like ritalin and modafinil to obtain a cognitive edge over their peers without fully understanding the health-risks and problems that may accompany their drug use. The goal of this commentary, and of this blog entry, is to encourage a serious dialogue about these issues, allowing us all to shape our views of what it means to enhance our intelligence, and what the implications are (physical or otherwise) if we do so pharmacologically. Adding a separate layer of complexity, should cognitive enhancers only be used by the ill, or is health status irrelevant to the main issue? A few starter questions to begin to ponder:
1. Should adults with severe memory and concentration problems be given cognitive enhancing drugs?
2. If such drugs have only mild side effects, should they be prescribed more widely for other psychiatric disorders?
3. Do the same arguments apply for young children and adolescents with neuropsychiatric disorders, such as those suffering from ADHD?
4. Would you boost your own brain power?
5. How would you react if you knew your colleagues – or your students – were taking cognitive enhancers?
6. How should society react?
Your comments and opinions are welcome here, but additionally, these same questions are posted in a forum on the Nature Network. There, you will have the unique opportunity to interact with the authors of the Nature commentary over the next two weeks. In addition, to better prep you for the coming debate, further reading on this topic are posted here and here.
This current craze reminds me of another pharmaceutical enhancement that has been popular over the past couple of years: the increased use of resveratrol to counteract just about everything having to do with poor health. It’s the miracle drug that let’s you eat bacon, but not get fat. The reason underlying the French paradox (for those of you who have been living in a cave over the past 2 years, resveratrol is found in red wine). A quick Google search yields a myriad of discussion boards and chats littered with the experimental chemistry of everyday people taking ridiculous amounts of this stuff, without any knowledge as to the safety or long-term repercussions. Most of these math-savvy geniuses simply calculate the proportionate dose for what was given to the mice in David Sinclair’s most recent study, and consume that amount per day. Thus, many people are taking this compound in doses on the order of thousands of milligrams (quite a boon for the vitamin and supplement business, who is thoroughly encouraging this practice). Some of these user discussions touch on safety, and whether the resveratrol-containing products that they are buying actually deliver what they promise. However, responses to these concerns are too often ridiculed, or simply waved away as not believable by the other discussion board participants. This resveratrol “craze” is a perfect example of the interaction between science and the public being largely based on ignorance and “gut feelings” about what is correct, as opposed to actual dialogue and education. This is exemplified by postings at this forum (especially those of “gardner”). What are these people thinking? We need to address both the science and the ethics in order to provide appropriate guidelines for the science-challenged public in the form of modest regulation.
It is interesting to compare human enhancement through “work” (diet/exercise as a physical example or education/study as a cognitive example) and through pharmacological means. If both exercise and doping, or studying and enhancers, turn on the same respective sets of genes and modify protein expression patterns in similar fashions, it seems that the ethical questions simply boil down to whether we value popping a pill or taking an injection the same way as we do a good work ethic. We don’t value pill-popping over work ethic, so chemical enhancement becomes controversial. This is, of course, placing the health questions/risks aside, because for a more pure debate about the ethics, we can’t mix concerns about public health policy with human enhancement.
When a person lies about the means by which they are enhanced, we are outraged (see Barry Bonds), but is this because of the doping or because of the deception? If athletes were more forthcoming with their pharmaceutical transgressions, would the public be somewhat more accepting? (see the forgiveness of Jason Giambi over steroid use as an example…) Therefore, as long as those who use cognitive enhancers do not lie about their actions, granting others full disclosure and allowing all successes to be placed in their proper perspective (for you baseball fans, the application of an “asterisk”, if you will?), will society ultimately accept this brain doping as just another personal choice?