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Brave Neuro World

Using drugs to neuroenhance memory and mental stamina engenders new controversies -- and new words

3 min read
We live in an information society. What’s the next form of human society? The neuro-society.
--Zack Lynch & Byron Laursen, The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World

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.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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