Put down the smart drugs – cognitive enhancement is ethically risky business – Nicole Vincent

Cognitive performance enhancers promise to deliver a better version of ourselves: smarter, more alert and more mentally agile. But what if such enhancement was no longer a personal choice but a socially and legally enforced responsibility? In the final instalment of Biology and Blame, Nicole A Vincent and Emma A. Jane explore the risks of normalising this emerging trend.

In Australia and all around the world, students, academics and professionals of various stripes are increasingly experimenting with new cognitive enhancement technologies to boost their memory, attention, reflexes, clarity of thought and ability to function well with little sleep.

In many cases, this involves the repurposing of medications that have previously been used to help the sick become “normal”, rather than to boost the well into some sort of superhuman sphere. These include controlled drugs such as Ritalin (a central nervous system stimulant usually prescribed for hyperactivity and impulse control), modafinil (a medication used for increasing wakefulness in patients with conditions such as narcolepsy) and donepezil (used to treat dementia).

Interest is also growing in transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) devices, which stimulate the brain using electricity drawn from nine-volt batteries. These largely unregulated and under-tested devices are said to sort out everything from depression to poor sports performance. But there are concerns that the DIY use of such “electroceuticals” may result in at-home users zapping their brains in ways that harm rather than help.

Because these techniques and technologies are new – or at least are being put to novel use – the issues that tend to get most attention in academia and in the media relate to their effectiveness and safety.

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