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Neuroscience – “brain enhancements"

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It is likely that drugs created to treat illness will also be able to enhance our natural abilities. Medication to treat Alzheimer‘s disease is likely to improve considerably normal memory function as well. Stimulating medicines, now used to treat children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also increase the ability of the ‘normal’ brain to concentrate. One‘s emotional state can also be improved.

Author / translator Andrea Bandelli

It is likely that drugs created to treat illness will also be able to enhance our natural abilities. Medication to treat Alzheimer‘s disease is likely to improve considerably normal memory function as well. Stimulating medicines, now used to treat children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also increase the ability of the ‘normal’ brain to concentrate. One‘s emotional state can also be improved. The new generation of pharmaceutical drugs to treat depression also have an effect on people who do not suffer from depression: people who take them are less concerned with small everyday worries and live life more optimistically and with more confidence.

Instead of being used for therapy, these drugs might one day be employed for enhancing the normal body, brain and psyche. With all the imagined benefits of taking these drugs and ‘enhancing’ ourselves, is it inevitable that they will be taken for this purpose? Can we, or even should we, try to limit this?

The question is certainly valid if it appears that these drugs are not harmful. What is wrong with increasing memory, intelligence, attention levels, ability to concentrate? Or even to enhance our creativity, empathy or sociability? We already take refuge daily in coffee, cigarettes or a glass of Chardonnay. Don’t we do this mainly for the effect of the caffeine, the nicotine or the alcohol on the brain? Is a pill different from a cup of coffee?

Created 26 January 2010
Last edited 21 June 2018
Topics Ethics, Health, Science

Policy positions

Policy position 1

If a substantial assessment of the potential negative effects is available, there should be no more controls on “brain enhancements” than there are today on alcohol and tobacco, letting the market decide.

Policy position 2

“Brain enhancements” should in any circumstance be regulated under strict medical control – that is, they need to be prescribed by a medical doctor.

Policy position 3

“Brain enhancements” should not be available to the general public but research should be carried on (with clinical trials, military use, etc.) in order to understand the long-term consequences, both medical and social.

Policy position 4

It is morally unacceptable to use this kind of stimulants to enhance a normal behaviour, therefore the use of such substances should be a therapeutical one only - treatment of diseases, impairments and other disorders.

Story cards


I am serving life in Texas for a 1981 murder I was convicted of. Although I am innocent, for twenty years I could find no evidence to support my case. Then, last year, I had Brain Fingerprinting tests. They put some sort of electrode cap on my head, and showed me pictures of the crime scene mixed with completely unrelated pictures. They said that even if I tried to hide my reactions, the device would detect if a memory of the scene was recorded in my brain. And of course, they found that it wasn’t. I have hope at last.

Kevin’s story

For more than eight years I have been suffering from Parkinson’s disease, with my limbs jerking, trembling and shaking. Recently, my medication hasn’t worked as well as before, and my limbs have been contorting uncontrollably. My doctor says that my medication has reached its limit. He has suggested “Deep Brain Stimulation”. They could implant an electrode in my brain to regulate my symptoms. I could turn it on and off with the help of something like a pacemaker in my chest. The chances of good results are high. But wouldn’t it make some kind of robot out of me?

Olive’s story

I am 63. I have recently had problems with my memory. The tests showed that I have “MCI” - Mild Cognitive Impairment, which they say is a ‘pre-dementia’ state. I will probably be affected by Alzheimer’s disease within the next five years, although it is not certain. The doctors have prescribed me a drug that slows this deterioration down, although it won’t stop it. I desperately want this drug, because the idea of dementia terrifies me and my family. But the drug is very expensive, and I don’t know for how long I will get it paid for.

Rose’s story

Hi, I’m 43, a mother of 3 and a housewife. I have been suffering from depression for several years now. My doctor prescribes me antidepressants which help me see the bright side of life. I can’t imagine what my life would be without these pills. I wonder, though, what kind of person I would be without those pills. Who am I, after all? Does the drug help me find the way to my true personality? Or does it make another person out of me, always happy and smiling but… a stranger to myself?

Susan’s story

Three years ago, I testified on behalf of Lee, then 17, who was on trial for attempting to kill a 15-year old kid. I told the court what I believe, that Lee had no control over his violent behaviour because he had grown up in a violent household. I used brain imaging techniques to show that his brain had less grey matter than normal in the prefrontal lobe. This fits the classic pattern for violence. It helped convince the jury to acquit him of attempted murder and convict him on the lesser charge of aggravated assault.

Dr. Anderson’s story

I teach in a secondary school. Up to a third of the boys in my classes are on the drug Ritalin, even though, most of them do not have the Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) for which it is normally prescribed. More and more wealthy parents are giving the drug to their children to help them focus and study. Will the day come when we have to ask the students to hand in a urine sample along with their exam papers, just to find out if their achievements are the result of hard work or of drugs?

Margaret’s story

John and I just had our first baby, a marvellous little boy called Oliver. Now I have to resume my work as a freelance writer. My heart breaks at the idea of leaving Oliver in a day care centre every day. The staff are very professional, but I have read somewhere that babies put into crèches are more prone to become delinquent later in life. On the other hand, if I keep him at home he will have to spend time watching videos and television, and I’ve read that that is harmful too.

Sybil’s story

My son Kevin had a motorcycle accident five years ago. He was 22. Ever since, he has been in a sort of coma called “a vegetative state”. His brain cortex is dead, so he’ll never be able to think or feel. The only part of his brain that’s still alive is the “animal brain” that makes his heart beat and makes him breathe. There is no chance he will regain consciousness. So what’s the point? Sometimes I feel he is alive, sometimes I feel he’s dead, and sometimes I no longer feel I know what the difference is.

Barbara’s story


The regulation of techniques

Should brain imaging be allowed for purposes other than diagnosis or treatment of a disease? Who should be allowed to use it?

Electrodes and pills

Is having an electrode in my brain different from taking a pill?

Human freedom and dignity

Is court-ordered drug treatment for aggressive or sexually inappropriate behaviour a violation of the individual’s freedom and human dignity? And what if the treatment consists of implanting electrodes?

Enhancing myself

Which of the following would I improve, if it were possible by artificial means (pill, electrode, TMS etc.):
• Memory?
• Intelligence?
• Mood?
Are some methods more acceptable than others?

Drugs and society

Will brain enhancement have broad social effects? Will some social groups have an advantage over others if they use them?

Drugs for those in power

Should we ask presidents and prime ministers, making decisions that might alter the world, to take brain enhancing drugs?

Affecting evolution

Will we change the evolution of humanity by artificially changing the human brain?

Judging the risks

How can we know the long term risks of most psychoactive drugs, especially when people start taking them at a young age, and take them for a long time?

The control of the use of medicines

“Once a medicine is approved and accepted, other people will make use of it for other purposes.”

Will people be forced into brain enhancement?

There is a danger that employers and schools seeking higher performing workers and students will force them into brain enhancement. This needs to be stopped.

The effect of drugs

Am I still the same person after taking a drug that acts on my brain?

Drugs or therapy

Should depression be treated with a pill or by talking to a therapist?

Where does the remedy lie?

If a problem is located in the brain, should the remedy be found only in the brain?

Drawing the line

In the realm of mood disorders, how can we draw a clear limit between healthy and sick?

What sort of disorder is depression?

Is depression a disorder of the individual or a disorder of a society?

Hiding the problem

Is there a risk that the use of brain drugs could mask a social problem?

Society’s attitudes

How much do we socially accept the range of variation of human behaviour?

Our unease about drugs

“Most of us would love to go through life cheerful and svelte, focusing like a laser beam at work and enjoying rapturous sex each night. Yet most of us feel uneasy about the idea of achieving these things through drugs. Why?”

Who is in charge?

“Who defines behaviour and behavioural disorder, who should control treatment?”

Getting an edge

“Is it ethical to use drugs to gain an advantage over others?”

Brain enhancement and fairness

“Education is a cognitive enhancer that is very inequitably distributed, but society is not against education. Conversely, neurocognitive enhancers might be relatively easy to distribute widely.”

Drugs to pass exams

If cognitive enhancement drugs are developed, what are the implications for people using them to pass competitive exams?

Coffee and other stimulants

Is taking a stimulant before a test any different from gulping down a cup of coffee?

Extending the power of the courts

Courts can already force treatment on criminals. Is there a danger that treatment will be forced on anyone that society regards as ‘deviant’?

The evolving brain

20 years ago, scientists thought that the brain could not change after infancy, apart the loss of nerve cells during the ageing. Now we know that the brain constantly remodels itself throughout life, as a result of learning and adapting to the environment.

What is consciousness?

Scientists say by the time we’re conscious of doing something, in our brain it is already done. This means our brain controls how we act, and that consciousness doesn’t control our actions, but is a way for our brain to explain its actions.

Links between brain anatomy and behaviour

In searching for a link between behaviour and anatomy or biology of brain, scientists discovered that 21 individuals with “antisocial behaviour” averaged 11% less volume in part of their brain.

Animal models

Studying behaviours like addiction, aggression and parenting behaviour in animals, scientists discovered that they can be modified by using drugs. Some of this research is already applied to humans.

Drug resistance

People suffering from Parkinson’s disease can’t control well their movements. The cause is the death of brain cells in a part of the brain which controls movement. Drugs are available to treat Parkinson’s but many people become resistent to them.

Treating biological and psychological problems

Deep brain stimulators have been used to treat Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders. They are now being trialed to treat psychiatric conditions, like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Stem cell therapy

Parkinson’s disease is a good candidate for stem cell therapy because the damaged area of the brain is small and easily identified. Replacing damaged cells with the help of stem cells could lead to improvement or even a cure.

Frontal lobotomies

Between 1930-1950 schizophrenic patients were treated by removing the front part of their brain, changing their personality forever. Modern deep brain stimulation techniques can act much more selectively on the brain, and can be reversible.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

It seems that TMS can improve performance in memory and reasoning tasks, rouse people from the effects of severe fatigue, or teach them a new skill.

The trend to medicalise

By giving non-medical conditions a medical or psychological label are we encouraging treatment through the use of prescribed medication?

Drug enhancements

Drug treatments can make normal people “better than normal”. Drug enhancements already exist for mood, memory, cognition, and essential functions like sleep, appetite and sex.

New antidepressant drugs

These are much safer than the previous ones, and this leads to a wider use. There is a trend for using them as “mood-brighteners” by perfectly healthy people wanting to feel “better than well”.

Treatment without symptoms

Depression can come and go, often with years between episodes. Patients today are likely to be treated with a new generation of antidepressants over a period of years, even when they show no symptoms.

Fiction meets fact

In Aldous Huxley's 1930’s book Brave New World, a drug called Soma removed all feelings of pain. Today there is a variety of brain drugs available by consumer choice or upon prescription.

Depression epidemic

The World Health Organisation has identified depression as the major health hazard of this century. Mental disorders are one of the leading causes of disease and disability in Europe and beyond.

Drugs without prescription

Many brain drugs are taken not just to treat diseases. Some people who take anti-anxiety drugs may not be particularly anxious.

Drugs for learning

Ritalin and similar psycho-stimulant drugs have been proved to improve vigilance, response time, problem-solving and planning. It is considered to be the most widely used recreational drug on American campuses.

Memory-enhancing drugs

Many drug companies are now directing enormous research efforts to the development of memory-boosting drugs. Memory-enhancing nutritional supplements are already a billon-dollar industry, despite little evidence that they work.

Soldier power

Drugs to treat sleep disorders can prolong wakefulness for days. Its use by healthy people has been investigated by the military.

Military experiments

The military is spending $20 million to investigate new ways to prevent tiredness and enable soldiers to stay awake, alert, and effective for up to seven days without suffering any effects.


The US military has suggested humans need an upgrade. They are researching ways to make soldiers smarter, tougher, faster, and stronger - in short, superhuman.

The dangers of memory enhancers

“Maybe it is not a good thing to have memory enhanced chronically every day for the rest of your life. Maybe that will produce psychological side effects, like cramp your head with too many things you can’t forget.”

Over the counter

Many brain enhancing drugs were originally designed to treat a medical condition, but have proved to be safe enough for wider use.


We don’t know the effect of the overflow of information from the media on maturing brains. It’s been suggested that media influence on the brain may be more dangerous than drugs.

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