"The enhancement of normal neurocognitive enhancement by pharmacological means is already a fact of life for many people," states a recent report in this month's Nature Reviews Neuroscience titled, "Neurocognitive Enhancement: what can we do and what should we do?" (subscription required)
As Judy Illes, one of authors explained to ABC news, "the idea is to get the neuroscientific community to get out ahead of the potential ethical issues and establish guidelines that will facilitate ongoing research. Part of their goal is to avoid public relations blunders that could hamper progress doing to them what fear over potential human cloning has done to geneticists."
The report highlights four primary issues that the neuroscience community must be thinking about which are quickly summarized here:
Safety: The use of neurocognitive enhancers that individuals are currently using "involves intervening in a far more complex system, and we are therefore at greater risk of unanticipated problems."
Coercion: "What if keeping one's job or remaining in one's school depends on practicing neurocognitive enhancement?...Of course coercion need not be explicit. Merely competing against enhanced co-workers or students exerts an incentive to use..." At the same time, "the straightforward legislative approach of outlawing or restricting the use of neurocognitive enhancement...is also coercive."
Distributed Justice: "It is likely that the distribution of neurocognitive enhancers will not be fairly distributed."
Personhood and intangible values: We run the risk of medicalizing regular human behavior. "When we improve our productivity by taking a pill, we might also be undermining the value and dignity of hard work, medicalizing human effort and pathologizing a normal attention span."
Clearly these issues are real. Today only 5-6% of the general population having been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorders, while one recent report suggests that almost 16% of high school and college students are currently using some form of "attention-focusing" pharmaceutical. And it is thoughtful reports like this one that are needed to sort out the complex issues that are emerging as new neurotechnologies emerge in the years to come.