S. P. In the last years there’s been an increase of studies about neuroscience and media have focused on this field. You surely know neuro-enhancement. I would like to ask if neuro-enhancers are a salient topic and may interest the society?
G.D. During the last 10 years the neuroscience research has dropped many beliefs, many clichés and the neuro-enhancement issue now goes beyond the scientific competences. Currently, many researches are focused on brain trophism and on brain development or on what could affect the brain development. Today we know much more about brain damages caused by drugs, in particular cannabis which has been wrongly considered a soft drug, but it seems to be the main cause of serious disorders such as schizophrenia. Projects as NERRI improve the dialogue on neuro-enhancement and improve the knowledge about brain engaging the wider public, because there are many generalized behaviors. If we consider the use of cannabis and alcohol, 80% of people under 25 years are involved. This is an element of decisive importance: we have to improve knowledge about brain development awakening everyone.
S.P. Which is the status of neuroscience research in Italy?
G.D. Neuroscience research is quite advanced in Italy. The Research Consortium, made by Montalcini group, Saint Lucia Foundation and CNR, is one of the most advanced and it could focuse his research on neuro-enhancement too. In my opinion there are two things to do. First, we have to encourage research consortia, able to put together clinical facilities with research facilities, not confining research in specialized institutions, but putting research programs in daily clinical activity. Secondly, we need qualified people as translators and popularizers, able to talk about these issues on newspapers, television and other media.
S.P In your opinion as an expert, what are the main factors that might either hinder or facilitate developments in this field in Italy?
G.D. Italian people have many difficulties to tackle these kind of issues. Italy is the birthplace of Galileo but it is one of the most anti-scientific country too, because there isn’t an exact idea about what the scientific method is. In Italy we still rely more on beliefs than on knowledge. Two cases may prove it, one old and one contemporary: the Di Bella case and the “Stamina” case. Unscientific methods are often endorsed by politicians, and this is a big obstacle because if we want correct informations and wider public involvement, we don’t need to base informations on opinions, but on scientific results. I want to premise that I work every day with talented and trained cognitive and experimental psychologists, but in Italy there is also a sort of low-level psychologism. I think we need high level researchers and we need also to ensure the growing of these scientific avant-gardes.
S.P. In your opinion how mach the Italian society is prepared on issue as neuro-enhancement and if you have an idea about what people (patients, not specialized people) think of neuro-enhancement?
G.D. No, I think a lot of people are not prepared. We work on patients psychoeducation which also includes aspects of mental functioning, neuroscience etc. It is a very difficult job because there is a great lack of knowledge about these issues. It's like when we study history at high school. Generally we use to start from prehistory, studying everything very well, then for lack of time we stop at the Second World War and so we’ve lost the last sixty years of history which allow us to better understand what is happening today in Italy and in the world. This happen also for the human anatomy: in Italian high school, we use to study the musculoskeletal system, etc., but not so well the brain. The problem is that the knowledge about these issues is very complex and this is the reason why we have great difficulty in providing the appropriate information at school and then to develop updated skills.
S.P. Which could be potential benefits and risks of neuro-enhancers, especially in pharmacological field as the use of Ritalin?
G.D. You asked me first a general question and then a specific one. I try to make a premise: during recent years one of the biggest neuroscience result is to have overcome the dichotomy psychological/biological. We must consider neuro-enhancement into the overcoming of this dichotomy. An attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity grave should be treated with a dopaminergic drug. The drugs always produce side effects. We need to have the best therapeutic effects with few side effects. In Italy, the country where most antibiotics are prescribed to children even inappropriately, is incomprehensible the idea that a child should not take neuro-enhancers. In Italy, associations in defense of children rise up against the prescription of Ritalin to children with ADHD. The most important thing is having a correct diagnosis. There are situations in which you have to prescribe Ritalin and there are others situations in which you can act with psychoeducational and psychological therapies. In the same way, not all coughs should be treated with antibiotics.
S.P. In your opinion neuro-enhancement may be a risk for whom? For the individual, for society?
G.D. t think that we have to build a culture of trophism improvement because there isn’t a real risk but only advantage.
S.P. How will be perceived neuro-enhancement in the society in 20 years from now?
G.D. I hope in a new lay vision based more on knowledge and less on beliefs, free from marketing stategies of big pharmaceutical industry and in the improvement of agency as "Cochrane Collaboration".
The second part of the interview will be published in the next NERRI newsletter.