Research in Italy about Neuro-Enhancement: a meeting in Rome inside a museum

The NERRI Italian teams organized the fourth Italian mobilization and mutual learning activity choosing as location the MAXXI Museum (National Museum of XXI Century Arts) in Rome.

On Saturday, 18 October 2014, the NERRI Italian teams organized a second round table inside the beautiful framework of the MAXXI Museum in Rome. After a first meeting on June 5 where the aim was debating the issue of neuro-enhancement in terms of scientific, social and ethical aspects, stimulating dialogue with the public; this second meeting drew a picture of the neuro-enhancement research developments. Comparing the research of Italian experts in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychotherapy and using the Italian studies as an example, SISSA University presented different opinions on the medical administration of neuro-enhancement in children, adolescents and adults. The opinions of the Italian experts were compared with the researches and the different approaches of the other European countries. After a brief presentation of the NERRI project done by Vincent Torre (International School for Advanced Studies, Trieste), who moderated the event, Luca Pani (Specialist in Psychiatry and Director of the Italian Medicines Agency, AIFA) talked about “The psiconautica excesses, between myths and reality”, the use of drugs, mystical experiences and ancient techniques, such as deep brain meditation, as possible neuro-enhancers. His speech focused on the classification of these legal substances in many countries, which are not known, however, the long-term effects on the brain for the lack of studies in this area. The second contribution by Stefano Vicari (Neurologist and Neuropsychologist, Head of the Unit of Children Neuropsychiatry IRCCS “Bambin Gesù” Hospital, Rome) focused on “Neuro-Enhancement and mental health in children and adolescents”. He talked about the problem that in Italy the drug trials are allowed on people aged 18 to 65 years, so the pharmacological therapies used for children and their effects are not studied and tested properly. After the video projection of the history "When Cherry spoke", part of the series “Unrest” by Sandro Vanadia (RAI Cultura production), written by Stefano Vicari, Giuseppe Ducci (Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist, Director of the UOC Psychiatric Diagnosis and Treatment of ASL E DSM in Rome (S. Filippo Neri Hospital) talked about “Opportunities and limits of the use of Neuro-Enhancement in adults”. Ducci focused on neuroenhancers use in healthy persons who do not have any mental illness and in patients suffering from neurological disorders (ADHD, Alzheimer disease, narcolepsy). Along with cognitive functioning, NE have also attempted to help people with lack of social skills and empathy. Such NE drugs try to increase oxytocin and decrease cortisol levels helping people better their communication and social interaction skills. Currently, there is not enough information to conclude that neuroenhancement drugs have an enhancing effect on healthy individuals. Determining the correct dosage is crucial as too little or too much of the drug may have no or even adverse effects. Guidelines for the regulation of these drugs need to be established before the abuse of such drugs goes beyond regulatory control. Neuroenhancement drugs are also intended for treating patients suffering from neurological disorders (ADHD, Alzheimer disease, narcolepsy), but recent years have seen an increasing number of healthy individuals requesting neuroenhancement drug prescriptions. Many common nootropics however, such Asracetam, Vinpocetine, Phosphatidylserine, are intended to increase the cognitive performance of healthy individuals and are illegal. During the second part of the meeting, Gian Maria Galeazzi (Associated Professor of Psychiatry, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia) talked about “College students and use and attitudes to the use of  cognitive enhancers”, showing preliminary results about a survey distributed to 433 medical students of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. More than 70% of students reported use of substances to improve cognition in the last 30 days. Coffee and tea were the most used, followed by vitamin B supplements, caffeinated sodas, and tobacco in the same timeframe. Only about 1% reported psychostimulants lifetime, and the majority mentioned concerns about safety and side effects of these substances as main reasons not to use. Use of cognitive enhancers as a group of substances in the last 30 days slightly correlated with alcohol and cannabis use. The great majority of students thought that they would use a safe and effective cognitive enhancer, if this were available. The last intervention was “The psychodiagnosis in childhood: a sensitive issue” by Anna Mascellani (Psychologist, Family Therapist, Deputy Director of the Academy of Family Psychotherapy, Rome). Mascellani, with her different point of view, focused on the concept of “family as alternative neuro-enhancer”. At the end of the round table time was left to the audience to ask questions and exchange ideas, creating the perfect opportunity to foster the debate.