The idea of a simple, cheap and widely available device that could boost brain function sounds too good to be true.
Yet promising results in the lab with emerging ‘brain stimulation’ techniques, though still very preliminary, have prompted Oxford neuroscientists to team up with leading ethicists at the University to consider the issues the new technology could raise. They spoke to Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.
Recent research in Oxford and elsewhere has shown that one type of brain stimulation in particular, called transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS, can be used to improve language and maths abilities, memory, problem solving, attention, even movement.
Critically, this is not just helping to restore function in those with impaired abilities. TDCS can be used to enhance healthy people’s mental capacities. Indeed, most of the research so far has been carried out in healthy adults.
TDCS uses electrodes placed on the outside of the head to pass tiny currents across regions of the brain for 20 minutes or so. The currents of 1–2 mA make it easier for neurons in these brain regions to fire. It is thought that this enhances the making and strengthening of connections involved in learning and memory.
The technique is painless, all indications at the moment are that it is safe, and the effects can last over the long term.
Ritalin does not work in exactly the same way though it is thought that by increasing brain levels of dopamine and norepinephrine ( especially the latter) the effect is to boost brain process much in the way amphetamines or cocaine do. Just because transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS is not ingested does not mean the effects on nerve cells are any less powerful or safer – the human body being one big electro-chemical vat – or as Sarah Silver says, you’re just molecules honey. Some of the most effective science fiction from my point of view are like the movie Limitless. They took what we know about the mood enhancing effects of cocaine and the enhanced concentration effects of Ritalin or methylphenidate ( which is also approved to treat cognitive dysfunctions) and imagined a future drug that improved on those enhancements with added intelligence. The ethics of Ritalin and TDCS are still up for debate, but there is no putting these genies back in the bottle. It is more likely that the major parts of the debate will be whether the average person will have to get treatments from a licensed professional or you’re be able to order your own TDCS from Amazon. Or whether it is appropriate for children.
‘We ask: should we use brain stimulation to enhance cognition, and what are the risks?’ explains Roi. ‘Our aim was to look at whether it gives rise to new ethical issues, issues that will increasingly need to be thought about in our field but also by policymakers and the public.’
‘This research cuts to core of humanity: the capacity to learn,’ says Professor Julian Savulescu. ‘The capacity to learn varies across people, across ages and with illness. This kind of technology enables people to get more out of the work they put into learning something.’
He adds: ‘This is a first step down the path of maximizing human potential. It is a very exciting development but we need to control the release of the genie. Although this looks like a simple external device, it acts by affecting the brain. That could have very good effects, but unpredictable side effects.’
One of the most obvious uses of brain stimulation techniques is in children as an educational or learning aid. The researchers believe that their use in children would be warranted, and that we should begin research to understand how TDCS might be used in children.
Roi notes that: ‘Parents will often send their child to piano lessons or to football lessons, wanting them to do well.’ He considers that providing people with ways of fulfilling their potential is not a bad thing.
The researchers consider whether brain stimulation could be thought of as cheating, with the idea that we can get extra cognitive abilities for no effort. Here they offer a resounding ‘No’.
The technique seems to boost the learning process in conjunction with standard education or training. There is no free ride here – people still need to work at learning a new skill or language themselves. ‘It won’t be possible to go to sleep at night with the electrodes on, wake up the next day and pass all your exams,’ says Roi.
The professors note that the device should be cheap to produce that available to pretty much everyone. Like an iPod. Let’s assume students will be using TDSC and that it will be available to everyone. memory enhancement alone will boost scores in history and chemistry courses where memorizing some core data and concepts are essential to the tests. What if some students abject to suing the enhancements on ethical grounds , they’re organic intelligence crowd. Or some younger students have parents who fell the same way. It will not take long for testing scores to skew toward a new Bell curve. The students who do not use any electrical or chemical enhancements will start off perhaps equal based on test preparation alone. In the long term, as tests are adjusted to the new curve, the organic crowd will, on average, fall behind. Such a huge shift in the paradigm of averages will exert tremendous pressure to adapt enhanced math and language abilities, and memory, problem solving, attention levels as the new norm.
Happy birthday Franklin D. Roosevelt 32nd President of the United States
Loved the whole Social Security, Civilian Conservation Corps, bringing down the Tammany thugs, winning two world wars, the use of Keynesian economics, victory gardens, Eleanor, the Fair Labor Standards Act and lots of other stuff. The internment camps not so much.
Not usually my venue, but some very good graphic art here – Fashion Week posters. Why they have so many classic art posters at this event remains a mystery to me.
neo-realism and post war italian cinema from the link above.
Climate Deniers Hit New Low With Vicious Attacks on Scientists. Maybe this time will be different, but judging from the general drift of history, thugs lose. They have given up any claim to the moral high-ground. Of course they lost that when they started a concerted campaign of lies and distortions. Having gone that route maybe they figured why not roll around in the gutter.
Radical Nature – Sustainable Architecture