A Super Brain with drugs and machines: the debate in Italy

The Italian NERRI team organized an interview with the national newspaper “L’Espresso”

The journalist Gloria Riva interviewed Agnes Allansdottir (TLS) who explained the aims and the ongoing efforts of the NERRI project. "The analysis of the material  is not yet complete, but we can make some remarks", she said. For examples, Italian society clearly worries about people of being forced by their employer to use technological devices or drugs with the aim of being more efficient. In some professions the temptation to use pharmaceuticals, that allegedly increase the brain’s abilities to focus might sometimes be very real and pressing.  Drivers, shift workers, surgeons working 18 hours in a row, and many others are examples that arouse apprehension.  A common concern is over the possibility of thought control as new technologies for health are developed. Just as an example, the start up company Liquid Web based in Siena has created the award winning technology “Brain Control”, a drone which can measure the brain electrical activity and move accordingly, to help people affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and multiple sclerosis.  Many technologies have been realized to counteract  physical or mental deficits and, later, worked by healthy people to increase their skills, as the neuro stimulator Foc.us, created to help people with attention deficit. Researchers at the University of Oxford and Professor Simone Rossi from University of Siena are trying to measure its effectiveness. However, as Agnes Allansdottir underlined, we don’t know its long-term effects and we don’t know if it is safe or not. The issues surrounding neuro-enhancement are unclear for the European public but the public, not least health conscious nations such as Italy and France want to be better informed. In this regard, NERRI project has the aim to facilitate a societal  dialogue on neuro-enhancement and on that basis to develop and to put forward policy recommendations for the governance of neuro-enhancement technologies. The article also honed in on research on the use of neuro-enhancers by Italian students. In Italy Gian Maria Galeazzi and Marcella Pighi (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia), who collaborate with  NERRI, conducted the survey "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 over 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 fact that medical students do not use smart drugs on a massive scale does not mean that Italian society is somehow immune from these issues," says Agnes Allansdottir. Galezzi’s research shows that when students were asked "Would you use a legal drug that improves cognitive performance without side effects?" 60,3 % answered yes. Many of them would like to use cognitive enhancers, but they are still fear of side effects. The societal debate over neuro-enhancement is slowly emerging in Italy as in many other European countries and the task of the NERRI consortium is to monitor developments.


The article also carried a separate interview with Laura Boella, a Moral Philosopher at the University of Milan, who specialises in analysis post Human Scenarios and is convinced that ethics cannot ignore the new possibilities of improving human capacities.


“Going beyond biological limits cannot be a push towards the standardisation of  social models of performance. Its human meaning resides in being a choice, related to the idea of humanity which we express with our actions and thoughts. I think that this is a decisive opportunity to sharpen our moral sensibilities. This platform for discussion opened by the European Commission seems to me to be timely and urgent”.


Why worry?

“When discussing cognitive enhancement, a model of humanity concentrated on competition and the principle of performance. Many questions remain open, for example whether enhancement aims at developing our authenticity or the normalisation of social behaviour. To give you an example, oxytocin, that is widely discussed, is a hormone secreted by the hypothalamus that regulates maternal and pro-social behaviour and serves to increase mutual trust. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if in order to resolve the problems of a society concentrated on individualism we should appeal to moral enhancement based on oxytocin, If that is the case, then underlines the need for further knowledge and the importance of removing the veil of hypocrisy that shrouds these themes. 


Traditionally exercise, training and effort as constitutive elements of the moral imperative and the tendency of each individual to improve him or herself. Do you think this is still valid?

These are moral convictions that we can no longer take for granted. On the contrary, they need to be reinforced and motivated again. Some on the list would be is there need for suffering to become better? A pill can be regarded as a non coercive method to spend a night studying books? Is there a difference between “cheating” (passing an exam by exploiting a drug) and becoming better? Can improving performance become an obligation (for a surgeon, for a pilot)? And on the subject of equality, should the national health systems pay this pharmaceuticals for all? There are questions that ethics needs to address and answer. The NERRI project is therefore most welcome”.