Brain boosting device creates ethical headache

27 January 2012

A device that can boost brain function not only improves impaired cognition and motor skills, it can also enhance the abilities of the healthy, including maths skills, language ability, memory and problem solving.

Until now, transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) has been quite successful in treating psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as a tool for motor rehabilitation in stroke patients.

Recent research shows that TDCS can be also used to enhance healthy people’s mental capacities. This has prompted Oxford neuroscientists to team up with leading ethicists Professor Julian Savulescu, Dr Nicholas Shea and Professor Neil Levy from the Institute for Science and Ethics to consider the issues the new technology could raise. The researchers outline the issues in a short paper in the journal Current Biology.

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 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.

Not only is the technique low cost and easy to use, it is painless, and all indications at the moment are that it is safe, and the effects can last long term.

Leading researcher Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, commented; "I can see a time when people plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano," he says.

"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."

Julian says: "At this stage, we need more research to understand better the risks and benefits, in specific populations, in real life. Any regulation should prevent misuse and abuse, but facilitate good research. This kind of technology could be as important as the internet and computing. Those are external cognitive enhancements. This is basic fundamental cognitive enhancement."

For further details read Jonathan Wood’s blog for the University of Oxford here. Or go here for more on Professor Savulescu's Practical Ethics blog.