Doctoral students discussing Cognitive and Human Enhancement

During the moth of July 2014, a dozen of GABBA PhD students spent an entire week discussing different questions and topics about Human and Cognitive Enhancement with researchers form very different areas (neuroscience, philosophy, law, psychiatry and psychology).

It was the first time the Graduate program in Areas of Basic and Applied Biology (GABBA, a prestigious Doctoral Program at the University of Porto that combines the resources and experience of different Faculties Laboratories) devoted a course to such novel subject and judging by the students’ interest, it was a very successful event.

On the first day of the course, organized by João Bettencourt Relvas, neuroscientist and NERRI member, after a short introduction to the topic by the former, GABBA students were presented with a talk by Alexandre Quintanilha, another NERRI member, on the most relevant and pressing aspects of human and cognitive enhancement. On that same day, Fátima Vieira, professor and researcher in Utopian Studies and English and American Literature from the Faculty of Arts of the University of Porto, presented a talk on “Utopia and Science”, which stretched from historical manifestation of utopian visions to the philosophical questioning of its status and even its usefulness in societal change (and, of course, human enhancement-related utopias, many of which originating in science fiction).

On the second day, Sofia Miguens, philosophy professor and researcher in philosophy of mind and language, epistemology and cognitive science (also from the Faculty of Arts) introduced the students to fundamental concepts, arguments and authors in philosophy of mind, like consciousness, the Chinese Room thought experiment and Daniel Dennett, for instance. Rui Vieira da Cunha, NERRI member, followed suite on the philosophical aspects of human enhancement, focusing on its metaphysical and moral ramifications (such as the problems of personhood and personal identity, the purpose and fairness of enhancement, etc.).

Moving from philosophical and moral aspects, the students’ third day was taken by a talk from professor and researcher at the Faculty of Law of the University of Porto, Luisa Neto, a legal scholar interested in constitutional law and bio-law, particularly in the status of the human body in legal regulations. How much can one legally change one’s own body, which kind of interventions are legally acceptable and for which reason, where do we draw the line between legally permissible but morally reproachable, were all questions that enticed GABBA students.

On the fourth day, the students had their hands full. First, João Marques Teixeira, psychology professor and researcher from the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto, reviewed the state of the art in what regards neurofeedback, to which he was followed by João dos Santos Relvas, psychiatrist from the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Coimbra, which performed the same exercise regarding Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and Deep Brain Stimulation. To top it off, NERRI member and neurobiology expert Teresa Summavielle presented her talk on performance drugs. By the end of the day, GABBA students were much more versed in all those topics and able to, for instance, ponder the vantages and disadvantages of different techniques like Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), Magnetic convulsive therapy (MCT), Focal electric convulsive therapy (FECT), Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), Deep brain stimulation (DBS), compare Neurofeedback methodologies or even differentiate drugs like piracetam, modafinil, L-tryptophan or vinpocetine regarding their different effects on the brain.

On the fifth and final day, GABBA students summed up, reviewed and appraised all the issues raised throughout the week, presented their take on the suggested course literature and expressed their views on human and cognitive enhancement with course organizer João Bettencourt Relvas and Rui Vieira da Cunha, in what proved to be a very fruitful event. It is safe to say that this course on Human and Cognitive Enhancement has magnificently embodied GABBA’s ideal of “transversal” higher education in modern European universities and effectively put it to practice involving researchers and professors from very different disciplines and institutions.