09 December 2008

How compliant do we want our children to be?

Deep tip of the hat to Laura for sharing this seminal paper, due to appear in Nature on Dec 11.

Greely, Shakain, Harris, Kessler, Gazzaniga, Campbel & Farah (2008) Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature.

I'm obviously thrilled to see a paper like this in such a high-impact journal and with such distinguished authors. Few things seem as capable of speeding up scientific development and the spread of a modern, progressive mind-set as does the prospect of widespread brain enhancement. But I want us to acknowledge how enormous this transition will be. Many social norms will not survive the change and many others will need to be updated.

One issue I'm baffled by is how we will think about the use of drugs to make school-children more attentive and compliant. The authors in the current paper call for policy to prevent coercive use of cognitive enhancers in children. But at the end of the day the fact is that teachers are already doing everything they can (often unsuccessfully) to focus the attention of their pupils. A drug that enhances attention seems like a natural next step. Would it damage creative thinking in children if they went through school on Adderall? I guess that's one of the topics the authors call for more research on, but it's also a social or existential issue: how compliant do we want our children to be? I was a hell-raiser in school; I would have been VERY different on Adderall and would be a different person now. But maybe this is just our first shaky step into a new era of responsibe, neuroscientific design of children; maybe the next generations of Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil will be designed specifically to enhance creative thinking and brain growth (BDNF anyone?).

Anyway, it's a great paper, I strongly recomended it.
"The new methods of cognitive enhancement are 'disruptive technologies' that could have a profound effect on human life in the twenty-first century. A laissez-faire approach to these methods will leave us at the mercy of powerful market forces that are bound to be unleashed by the promise of increased productivity and competitive advantage. The concerns about safety, freedom and fairness, just reviewed, may well seem less important than the attractions of enhancement, for sellers and users alike...

We call for a programme of research into the use and impacts of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals...

We call for physicians, educators, regulators and others to collaborate in developing policies that address the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals...

We call for information to be broadly disseminated concerning the risks, benefits and alternatives to pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement...

We call for careful and limited legislative action to channel cognitive-enhancement technologies into useful paths..."

The basic amphetamine (Adderall) molecule. Click to interact (requires Java).
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