Should we put on those thinking caps?

The regulation of Cognitive Enhancement Devices is a complex issue. The topic has been discussed in several articles but there are different ideas on how we should manage these new technologies.

Last year, the journal Brain Stimulation published both an interesting editorial opinion piece on recent developments in the world of online gaming, with a little help from transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), and a provocative response to that article in the very same issue. This exchange of opposing opinions on appropriate approaches to the governance of technologies for self-administered currents for cognitive enhancement is evidently of direct interest to the NERRI project. These papers were published in the summer of 2013 and already in the spring of 2014 some concrete ideas towards future governance of this field were published, as we will see below. The rapid, and sometimes unexpected, developments in this field also underline the importance of an approach to “Responsible Research and Innovation” under which technological developments should be aligned with societal needs, values, hopes and concerns.

The former article carries the title “Overclock Your Brain for Gaming? Ethical, Social and Health Care Risks”, and according to the authors, the seeds for the article were sown by an advert promoting a new device to improve performance at video games by self-administration, by means of a simple little headset, of imperceptible, transcranial current to the prefrontal cortex. For the authors, “This is an example of how market goals may overcome ethics by threatening users’ and gamers’ health and imposing high social risks”. The issue being that devices developed for medical use fall under an established European regulatory framework. What about devices developed for other purposes, such as serious gaming? Is that a health issue, e.g. increased risks of new forms of addiction? An issue of consumer rights? These are challenging questions for the future. The authors conclude with some stimulating thoughts about taking the human information processing metaphor too far simply because overclocking hardware leads to premature wear-out, but then “What about the brain?”. This relevant question has currently no answers, because studies investigating brain effects due to the prolonged daily use of these devices are lacking.

The response, “Ethics and Social Risks in Brain Stimulation” begins with a timely call for greater attention in the scientific community to the kinds of claims scientists themselves make about the implications of their research that, all too often, result in something of a hype. An interesting point indeed for those engaged in science communication processes. In any case, the main argument here is that reflecting upon ethical and social issues surrounding commercial exploitation at this early stage of research might just be something of a hype in itself - but in any case “Economics will find us out. Investors will not seriously back something that cannot be shown to work in the real world...”.

This exchange of opinions by experts in the field of neuromodulation rather neatly captures some of the “tensions” between a cautious, bordering on a caretaking approach, to regulating the path of technologies and a more laissez-faire approach that relies upon the mechanisms of a market driven approaches, at least when it comes to non medical devices. These tensions have been echoed in the series of interviews with stakeholders that members of the NERRI consortium have conducted in participating countries.

But these editorial opinion pieces were published last year and this is a field of rapid developments. In the meantime, apparently there is a growing number of people out there somewhere that actually do engage with this kind of technology and users share their experiences online. Clearly there is a market for devices for cognitive enhancement, including those of the home-made or do-it-yourself variety. That raises the issue of how such a consumer market could best be regulated or even if it needs to be regulated at all. A very first approach to formulating regulatory guidelines has now just been published under the captivating title Mind Machines: The Regulation of Cognitive Enhancement Devices. These are only tentative first steps but a new societal debate over devices for cognitive enhancement is clearly emerging - the NERRI project will closely monitor developments over the next two years.