The UK NERRI team organized its first mutual learning event on the 13th of May, under the title “Brain Boosters”. Featuring three prominent scientists, Dr. Molly Crockett, Dr. Aldo Faisal, and Prof. David Nutt, the evening provided an opportunity to engage in a cozy discussion about the perks and perils of neuro-enhancement at an east London bar. The speakers’ expertise covered a broad range of topics that are relevant from the perspective of neuro-enhancement.
The evening was kicked off by Molly Crockett’s talk on the question whether we could create a “morality pill”. Evoking the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the presentation alluded to the old question of pills, drugs or potions influencing deep-seated character traits. Dr. Crockett discussed evidence from the latest research, which suggests that moral decision-making can indeed be shaped by various drugs. For example, the chemical oxytocin has been shown to play a role in furthering trust and empathy, which has led some to call it the “moral molecule”. However, as Dr. Crockett pointed out, oxytocin has a number of other effects and different experiments have demonstrated that it may increase in-group bias and gloating, which are probably not what we would call enhancements in morality. Similarly, in lab experiments the neurotransmitter serotonin has been shown to bias moral decision-making towards sociality, which might be a desired outcome in some circumstances but not in others. Although there is still a great deal to learn about the neural mechanisms of decision-making, it seems clear from the evidence that moral judgment can indeed be influenced by drugs in various ways. However, the more profound question remains unchanged since philosophers first started contemplating right and wrong: what do we consider to be moral in the first place? It is only in light of this question that the relationship between chemicals and moral judgment becomes meaningful.
Moving on from the world of moral enhancement, the second speaker at Brain Boosters, Dr. Aldo Faisal focused his presentation on neurotechnologies. Highlighting the blurry boundaries between restoring some lost function, enhancing an existing one, and enabling entirely new capacities, Dr. Faisal presented some fascinating examples: exoskeletons that confer superhuman strength on their wearers, and bionic implants that in the foreseeable future may allow humans to perceive sight and sound in ranges beyond the scope of our biological organs. Currently, there is a great deal of interest in brain-computer interfaces, which range from invasive solutions that assist paralyzed patients and allow them to control devices and robotic arms; all the way to fast, cheap and non-invasive technologies like eye-gaze controlled computers. The latter approach, pursued by Faisal himself is of particular relevance, because although the technology of reading out and interpreting neuronal activity is progressing exponentially, we are still over 100 years away from being able to record from all the neurons in the cortex. This means that we might be a bit farther away from uploading our consciousness into artificial systems than some transhumanists among us might expect. Pointing to more proximal ethical questions, Dr. Faisal emphasized the importance of making neuroenhancement technologies accessible, reversible and their use free from coercion and discrimination, thus underlining the importance of continued societal dialogue and engagement with the topic.
Finally, Prof. David Nutt offered his thoughts on neuro-enhancement, primarily from the perspective of therapeutic research for psychiatric and developmental disorders. The most well-known examples of therapeutic agents being used off-label as enhancers are methylphenidate and Adderall, which are intended for the treatment of ADHD, and Modafinil for the treatment of narcolepsy. However, while they may be useful in keeping healthy people awake and attentive for longer, it is still unclear how much of a neuro-enhancing effect these drugs actually have. At this point, one could enter into a discussion about whether compensating for the deterioration of cognitive performance due to fatigue should be classed as neuro-enhancement. However, there are other drugs on the horizon that may have more interesting effects. In particular, Prof. Nutt spoke about a class of drugs belonging to the group of alpha5 GABA inverse agonists. GABA is an amino acid, which plays an important inhibitory role in neurotransmission. Therefore, drugs that act on GABA receptors in the brain have a sedative, anxiolytic effect. Inverse agonist drugs produce the opposite effect than agonists, in this case they have an arousing effect. Alpha5 is a particular receptor type found in specific areas of the brain. Activity at different receptor types is associated with different functions, and alpha5 seems to play a role in memory. It has been shown that this class of drugs is effective in reversing the memory impairment caused by consuming a large amount of alcohol, and even normalizing the memory deficiencies of Down’s syndrome in animal models. As Prof. Nutt pointed out the use of neuro-enhancers in the treatment of developmental disorders raises difficult questions about the normalizing effects of such interventions, the nature of consent, and the scope of parental and societal decisions.
As it emerges from this brief summary, presenters at the Brain Boosters event gave an overview of different angles on neuro-enhancement and showed the diversity of issues and questions that emerge. The ensuing discussion with an audience of around 100 guests continued late into the evening and was very lively. Drawing on the success of this first UK event we might develop this format into a series, where we address in-depth the use neuro-enhancement in particular contexts. In other words: stay tuned for more from the UK NERRI Team!
Picture credits: TEDxBristol http://goo.gl/KWqP7a