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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Brain-Boosting Drugs FAQ: What You Must Know

7 Scientists Assert Brain-Boosting Drugs Are OK: Are They Wrong?

Is it cheating or unnatural to use brain-boosting drugs?

Yes, say critics such as Leon R. Kass, MD, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. It is cheating. But even worse, it's unnatural.

"One major trouble with biotechical (especially mental) 'improvers' is that they produce changes in us by disrupting the normal character of human being-at-work-in-the-world ... which, when fine and full, constitutes human flourishing," Kass wrote in 2003. "With biotechnical interventions that skip the realm of intelligible meaning, we cannot really own the transformations nor experience them as genuinely ours."

This loss, Kass argues, subtracts from our humanity.

But in this week's Nature editorial, Greely and colleagues say brain boosting is not cheating. It's not against the rules to drink a double espresso or hire a private tutor, they argue, so why disallow use of brain-boosting drugs?

More importantly, they say, we already live highly unnatural lives.

"Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here and say thus far but no further?"

If other people outperform me because they use brain-boosting drugs, won't I be compelled to use them? Aren't brain-boosting drugs unfair to those who don't use them?

These are tricky questions, Greely and colleagues admit. They say policies should prohibit requiring people to take brain-boosting drugs except where public safety is at stake.

As to fairness, they note that people already have unequal access to brain-enhancing experiences such as private tutoring.

In cases where the drugs are merely used to temporarily boost exam performance, Greely and colleagues suggest that drug use would be unfair. But if the drugs boosted one's long-term learning, they have less of a problem with unfairness.

"Cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world," Greely and colleagues suggest.

How would brain-boosting drugs be regulated?

Greely and colleagues suggest that policies regarding cognitive-enhancing drugs should be based on scientific evidence. They call for:

  • Accelerated research into the risks and benefits of cognitive enhancement
  • Participation of medical and scientific organizations in formulating guidelines
  • Education to increase public understanding of cognitive enhancement
  • Legal reforms -- not new laws -- to align existing laws with "emerging social norms and information about safety"
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