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Surprising Science

The Ethics of Designer Brains

Our power to manipulate our brains and genes is increasing dramatically – and it raises serious ethical questions.

Our values as a society will determine which psychopharmaceuticals and (down the road) which genetic enhancement technologies we choose to develop and how we use them.

That’s what concerns Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, senior Bioethicist at NASA and a pioneer in the field of neuroethics. Peering into his children’s and grandchildren’s future, he sees an America that rewards competitiveness and productivity over relationship-building, and suspects that future generations will face intense pressure to enhance their minds and bodies in unhealthy ways. 

The politics of technophilia vs technophobia aside, our power to manipulate our brains and genes is increasing dramatically – and it raises serious ethical questions.

What’s the Big Idea? 

Ritalin and Adderall – intended to treat attention deficit disorders –  are widely (if illegally) used on college campuses as concentration-boosting study aids. A “memory pill” aimed at Alzheimers patients is in the later stages of development. Once released onto market, it will certainly find its way into the mouths of high school students cramming for finals. And Modafinil – originally prescribed for narcolepsy – is now being advertised as a way to “cut through the fog of ES (Excessive Sleepiness).” *

Grappling with thorny ethical issues is Dr. Paul Rool Wolpe’s job. At NASA, he formulates policy on questions like under what circumstances a Mars landing party should leave a wounded crewmember behind. There’s nothing new, Wolpe says, about humans chemically altering their brains: 

Paul Root Wolpe: It’s not whether.  We always have done it; we always will do it. Human Beings have been manipulating their brains in that manner since they first fermented grapes or discovered hallucinogenic mushrooms, or whatever was the very first time people realized that they could ingest something and change their brain’s functioning.  

But now that we can do it better, more powerfully, more accurately and with fewer side effects, the temptation to do it dramatically and often will increase.  So the question now becomes, what are the proper limits? What is the proper nature of that change?

Up until now, it’s been a bit of a moot question because the drugs that we had had side effects that made them undesirable.  So if you take amphetamines to try to increase your attention, you’re going to have jitters, sleep disturbances and other things like that.  Now you have something like Modafinil, a much more benign drug that can, in many people, enhance attention without any of those systemic side effects.  And now we really have to begin to ask ourselves some interesting questions.   
They did some studies, for example, with pilots.  Gave some of them, not Modafinil, but a similar type drug and some they didn’t and then they threw emergencies at them in flight simulators.  And what they discovered is that the pilots that were on attention enhancing drugs responded faster and more accurately to those emergencies.  

So now we’re not just talking about, should I take it when I want to pay attention, maybe we should make people take it who have – surgeons and pilots and other people – who have other people’s lives in their hands.  Maybe my surgeon on Modafinil will be much more able to focus on what he’s doing than my surgeon off of Modafinil.  

What’s the Significance? 
When faced with these complex ethical questions, it is tempting to take sides either for or against biotechnology. Utopian proponents will argue that biotech will end human suffering. Detractors will label it “unnatural” (many of them in blog posts on the equally unnatural internet).
But the reality, as always, is somewhere in the middle. These technologies are coming. Some are already here. And real people will make real decisions about which ones to develop and how and whether to release them to market. There will be profiteering motives and black market abuses. There will also be public discussion in the press, on the web, and in the streets that will have real effects on government policy. Pharmaceutical companies have powerful, well-heeled lobbies. But Occupy Wall Street has recently demonstrated the power of the people to organize into a formidable political force. 
In other words, major decisions about how we want to reshape our brains and our entire species are upon us, and their outcome depends on our energy or apathy in addressing them. 
This post is part of the series Re-Envision, sponsored by Toyota

*Meanwhile, the official-sounding but definitely third-party site describes the drug thus:   “…modafinil (‘Provigil’, ‘Alertec’, ‘Vigicer’, ‘Modalert’, etc) is a memory-improving and mood-brightening psychostimulant. It enhances wakefulness, attention capacity and vigilance, but its pharmacological profile is notably different from the amphetamines, methylphenidate (Ritalin) or cocaine. Modafinil is less likely to cause jitteriness, anxiety, or excess locomotor activity – or lead to a hypersomnolent ‘rebound effect’ – than traditional stimulants. Subjectively, it feels smoother and cleaner than the amphetamines too. It may even be anxiolytic.”


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