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The Ethics of Designer Brains
Paul Root Wolpe   Dec 1, 2011   Big Think  

Paul Root Wolpe, senior bioethicist at NASA and a pioneer in the field of neuroethics, recently spoke to BigThink about his concerns about a neuroenhanced future:

Peering into his children’s and grandchildren’s future, he sees an America that rewards competitiveness and productivity over relationship-building, and suspects that future generations will face intense pressure to enhance their minds and bodies in unhealthy ways.

There’s nothing new, Wolpe says, about humans chemically altering their brains:

Paul Root Wolpe: It’s not whether.  We always have done it; we always will do it. Human Beings have been manipulating their brains in that manner since they first fermented grapes or discovered hallucinogenic mushrooms, or whatever was the very first time people realized that they could ingest something and change their brain’s functioning. 

  But now that we can do it better, more powerfully, more accurately and with fewer side effects, the temptation to do it dramatically and often will increase.  So the question now becomes, what are the proper limits? What is the proper nature of that change?
   
  Up until now, it’s been a bit of a moot question because the drugs that we had had side effects that made them undesirable.  So if you take amphetamines to try to increase your attention, you’re going to have jitters, sleep disturbances and other things like that.  Now you have something like Modafinil, a much more benign drug that can, in many people, enhance attention without any of those systemic side effects.  And now we really have to begin to ask ourselves some interesting questions. 

  They did some studies, for example, with pilots.  Gave some of them, not Modafinil, but a similar type drug and some they didn’t and then they threw emergencies at them in flight simulators.  And what they discovered is that the pilots that were on attention enhancing drugs responded faster and more accurately to those emergencies. 

  So now we’re not just talking about, should I take it when I want to pay attention, maybe we should make people take it who have – surgeons and pilots and other people – who have other people’s lives in their hands.  Maybe my surgeon on Modafinil will be much more able to focus on what he’s doing than my surgeon off of Modafinil.

What’s the Significance?
When faced with these complex ethical questions, it is tempting to take sides either for or against biotechnology. Utopian proponents will argue that biotech will end human suffering. Detractors will label it “unnatural” (many of them in blog posts on the equally unnatural internet).

But the reality, as always, is somewhere in the middle.




COMMENTS
It would be necessary to understand the long term costs of having people on modafinil to generate alertness. Are we going to do damage to brain tissue? Are there other behavioural side effects? If the drug is fast enough acting you could have an "In emergency break glass" type scenario that would just stimulate thought processes when needed.

I agree we will end up in the middle.

Did you see the study on speeding learning through micro stimulation of the brain with electric current?
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=amping-up-brain-function&WT;.mc_id=SA_WR_20111201
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