On 5th February 2016 the Centre for Ethics and Law in Biomedicine (CELAB) hosted a panel discussion with participants of the Neuro-Enhancement Responsible Research and Innovation (NERRI) project. The panel was made up of five international members of the project: Agnes Allansdóttir (Toscana Life Sciences), Imre Bárd (LSE), Rui Vieira da Cunha (University of Porto), Judit Sándor (CEU) and Márton Varju (CEU), and was well attended by CEU faculty and students.
Judit Sándor opened the discussion by asking panel members what they had learnt from their involvement in the NERRI project. Agnes Allansdóttir noted that at the start of the project in 2011 it was taken for granted that there was a market for neuro-enhancement. In fact there hasn’t been the expected development in technology. All panel members expressed a degree of skepticism about the potential for neuro-enhancement technology and suggested that the term ‘enhancement’ might be a misnomer, generating false expectations and unwarranted fears regarding their use.
Panel members agreed that one of the main outcomes of the project was, instead, to uncover the many different attitudes towards neuro-enhancing technologies held by various stakeholders. The project’s mobilization and mutual learning events (MML) indicated differing preferences for neuro-enhancements and differing understandings of what counts as a neuro-enhancement. For instance, students were less interested in gaining a competitive advantage in their studies via the use of cognitive enhancements than they were in recreational mood enhancements. Neuroscientists had a tendency to focus on nutritional enhancements rather than on cognitive enhancers such as Modafinal. There were also geographical differences: Anglo-Saxon countries are seemingly more ready to accept new neuro-enhancing technologies than central European countries.
The success of the project was in finding new ways of conducting a dialogue between these different stakeholders. The panel noted, however, that a lot of the information gathered about the varying interests and concerns of different stakeholders still needs to be analyzed. For partly this reason it is far too early to be considering policy recommendations. It would, for instance, be too ambitious to regulate neuro-enhancements if the term is so broad as to include mere changes in nutrition and diet. The panel thus claimed that the EU commission’s call for regulatory recommendations is somewhat premature.
Two key themes emerged from the broader debate with the audience. First, discussion focused on the relation between access to neuro-enhancement technology and various forms of inequality. Audience members reiterated a concern from one of the MML events that new technologies will in fact be unavailable to the most disadvantaged in society. There was also a concern that the use of such technologies would interfere with social approaches to alleviating discrimination. Panel members acknowledged that new technologies tend to favor those who are already at a social, genetic or regional advantage. Imre Bárd suggested, however, that the worry that neuro-enhancing technology will reinforce or worsen current inequalities is overstated. Firstly, new technologies could be used to compensate for inequalities. Second, enhancement technologies have a very minor influence on social inequality: the school one attends is a far greater influence on social status than access to enhancement.
A second key theme was whether individuals should be free to choose to use neuro-enhancements that give them a competitive edge. Audience members expressed concerns that this might coerce others into using neuroenhancements. Examples were typically taken from academia. There was some agreement from the panel that individual academics should not be prevented from using neuro-enhancements, but that such individuals should think carefully about the possible consequences of doing so. It was further noted that the ‘free choice’ to use a neuro-enhancement is unlikely to be adequately informed of undesirable side effects. On the other hand, it was suggested that these worries might be overstated and only really worth debating when more powerful technologies emerge.
At the meeting participants participated at the demonstration of a questionnaire, which will be distributed to each member country at the end of the project. It was followed with an opportunity to test some neuro-enhancement technologies.
The meeting ended with the visit of the opening ceremony of the exhibition of the works of patients at Szentgotthárd Mental Health Institution. This exhibition took place at Brut Gallery (Üllői út. 60.)
Photos: Kinga Lakner