IBMC.INEB Public Debate - On the way to Human Enhancement

A public debate entitled “On the way to human enhancement” took place last June 12th, at the Manuel António da Mota Foundation’s headquarters inside the renovated Bom Sucesso Market, as the opening debate in a cycle of public events intended to celebrate INEB’s 25th anniversary and all its contributions in the field of biomedical engineering.

Professor Alexandre Quintanilha, as former director of INEB and IBMC.INEB Associated Laboratory, took the role of debate chairman inviting neurosurgeon Rui Vaz and stem cell researcher and M.D. João Ramalho Santos. After a brief contextualizing of the issue of human enhancement by Professor Alexandre Quintanilha, the debate took off with an original format: guests were faced with 6 silver boxes containing miscellaneous surprise elements, unknown to the chairman and guests alike, all of them related to human enhancement and with the sole purpose of enticing the debate among the participants. They were, if you will, little Pandora’s boxes teaming with questions, news clippings, photographs and so forth, whose content was randomly revealed to the guests and to the audience simultaneously through a projector.

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The guests then examined the content of the box, explaining its relation to the theme of human enhancement and using their expertise to talk about it more extensively. Some of the topics discussed included, for instance, “the cyborg man” and to what extent can we expect such developments in the future, the effect of certain drugs, such as Ritalin, on the human brain as an enhancer and as a therapeutical instrument and, consequently, the thin line that separates therapy from neuro-enhancement. Neurosurgeon Rui Vaz talked about a technique able to modify brain circuits through electric chocks in particular brain regions, and its potential use in psychiatric conditions. Medically Assisted Reproduction was also discussed (one of the “Pandora boxes” included an article from a Portuguese general interest magazine, “Visão”, on the topic) and João Ramalho Santos explained the procedure and the ethical questions it raises.

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Before the end of the debate, the discussion was opened for the public to question and intervene, with everyone ultimately recognizing that there are still too many unknowns and that we are still dwelling in the Dark Ages regarding our knowledge of the functioning of the brain.