Brave Neuro World
Using drugs to neuroenhance memory and mental stamina engenders new controversies -- and new words
Photo-illustration: Julien Pacaud/Colagene
In April 2009, the journal Nature published the results of a poll that asked people whether they were using beta blockers and drugs like Ritalin—not for their original medical purposes but to boost their brain power. Of the 1400 people from 60 countries who responded, one in five—an eyebrow-raising proportion—reported they had done so. About 80 percent said that healthy adults should be able to take such drugs for nonmedical purposes.
These surprising results touched off a flurry of off- and online harrumphing and tut-tutting, which one scientist dismissed as mere neurogossip. The mental, physical, legal, and ethical pros and cons have, of course, been well debated over the past year or so, but all this talk about brain boosting has also generated a tidy collection of new words and phrases (such as brain boosting). The use of pharmaceuticals to enhance memory, focus, and mental stamina in healthy brains is known generally as cognitive enhancement; the pharmaceuticals themselves are often called cognitive enhancers.
As you can imagine, the neuro- prefix gets quite a workout in these circles, with the equivalent terms being neuroenhancement and neuroenhancer, a word that rhymes with Neuromancer, the title of a seminal 1984 book by cyberpunk novelist William Gibson. The term neuro made the leap from prefix to adjective recently with the publication last month of The Neuro Revolution, coauthored by Zack Lynch, who also coined the phrase neurosociety.
In a letter to Nature published in December 2007 (under the terrific title ”Professor’s Little Helper,” a clever shout-out to ”Mother’s Little Helper,” the Rolling Stones’ paean to housewives on prescription drugs), the scientists Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir wrote, ”The drive for self-enhancement of cognition is likely to be as strong if not stronger than in the realms of ’enhancement’ of beauty and sexual function.” In other words, forget cosmetic surgery; the next fad is likely to be cosmetic neurology.
The ”off label” (that is, outside its original scope) use of a drug such as methylphenidate (aka Ritalin), which is normally prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (aka ADHD), is sometimes called brain customization, but these days it is more likely to be referred to as mind hacking. In this kind of neuroenhancing, the drugs are usually administered in the form of smart pills, and the effect they create has been called smart-in-a-pill. Mind hackers use these drugs, marketed euphemistically as ”study aids,” to increase their mental horsepower.
Some people want their brains neuroenhanced because they find themselves forgetting things or aren’t quite as sharp as they used to be. They don’t necessarily want supercognition; they just want their brains to be normal again. However, the neurodiversity movement is based on the belief that there is no such thing as ”normal” when it comes to the human mental landscape—the neurotypical person simply does not exist. People display a wide variety of neurological behaviors and abilities, and most of us exhibit some form of mental ”disorder” from time to time, albeit in nondebilitating—or subclinical—form: mild depression, temporary anxiety, and so on. We accept that the world is populated with people who are tall and small; big boned and bird boned; ecto-, meso-, and endomorphic; and, the theory goes, also diverse when it comes to neurological traits like forgetfulness. Are we so concerned with eternal youthfulness (perma-youth in the vernacular) that we need to turn to smart drugs to achieve at least the mental side of that goal?
Other naysayers reject these pharmacological tricks as cheating. They deride them as academic steroids and the practice as brain doping. Rather than welcome an ever more efficient and productive neurosociety, they wring their hands at the prospect of a stressed-out, always-on, 24/7 society. And neuroethicists worry that the goal of better brains, while worthy in itself, may create social disparities if only the well-off can afford nootropic (literally ”mind affecting”) drugs. Who’s right? I guess I’ll go have another espresso and think about it.