The first Portuguese NERRI mutual learning exercise was a science café at a very special place — the National Parliament

Involving politicians, pharmaceutical professionals, teachers and students in the debate regarding Neuro-Enhancement is challenging. The Ciência Viva team organized a Science Café inside the Portuguese Parliament to discuss the issues related to this controversial topic.

On the evening of 12 March the solemnity of the Portuguese Parliament library was disturbed with an unusual setting. Right at the entrance a stand showed goat and mouse brains in vats. In the reading room eight big round tables were set, covered with mats in which one could read obviously difficult questions about intervening in the human brain. Scattered on the tables were flasks with pills and gadgets, featuring basic information about their action, side effects, safety warnings, and government subsidies. Not that these substances and gadgets would really work — the flasks contained candies and mock brain stimulation devices to prompt the debate for the first Portuguese NERRI mutual learning exercise.

The event, “Tinkering with the Brain”, organized by Ciência Viva, brought together 65 participants, including researchers from the natural and social sciences, philosophers and ethicists, health and pharmaceutical professionals, teachers and students, representatives of patient associations and members of the parliament, journalists and science communicators, to discuss the possibilities and limits of neuro-enhancement. Some of the participants represented potential users of NE; others are working with NE technologies; a few look for NE as a topic of reflection and research. For now we can but sketch the main threads of the ensuing debate, and wonder if these threads will be common in other MLEs. 

Several of the participants were reluctant to treat neuro-enhancement as a new, distinct practice. Enhancing the human brain is as old as humanity itself. Over the course of history, in different societies, enhancement has been discussed in myths, religion and philosophy, and sought after through herbal and chemical substances, physical exercise, mind training, food or sleep regimens.

Many of the participants mentioned education as an obvious and well tested technology for cognitive enhancement; as many showed concern for the social risks of ignoring this long history and looking for easy routes to human amelioration in drugs or gadgets. Shouldn’t this be, first and foremost, the role of – and a responsibility for – families and society as a whole?

The difference between enhancement and treatment was also questioned. Isn’t medical care always enhancing – that is, improving the current condition of someone? In this sense, NE is already routinely done, even if it doesn’t always meets patients’ expectations and needs. Shouldn’t we continue working on “normal” therapeutic technologies that are so needed to enhance people’s lives? 

How can the public decide over something that is so ambivalent? For several participants, this should be the most important concern about NE. People need clear scientific information to make real informed decisions, and the role of science communication in this respect was emphasized. Health care providers in particular should elucidate the public to help it distinguishing gadgets from technologies with real effects; identifying unrealistic optimism among scientists and doctors, or sensationalism in the media; and being able to choose when to use or not use NE.