The Ethics of Neuroenhancement

A recent issue of the New Yorker featured a wide-ranging and engagingly written review of the current controversy over the ethics of neuroenhancement. Neuroenhancement refers to the growing trend of off-label use of psychiatric drugs by men and women of all ages and backgrounds for the purpose of boosting their brain power and ability to get things done. In an anonymous survey of scientists and academics that appeared in the journal Nature in 2007, about one in every five of respondents reported off-label use of Ritalin, Adderall, or the anti-narcoleptic drug Provigil (known generically as modafinil) to increase their productivity and focus. The New Yorker article, written by Margaret Talbot, is one of the most comprehensive reports on this trend to appear in a major news publication, and I strongly encourage readers with interest in this subject to read the original article in full.
Prior to reading Talbot’s article, I was unaware of the possibility that neuroenhancers are most often used to overcome cognitive or motivational deficits, but the more I think about it the more sense it seems to make. Support for this claim can be found in the New Yorker article, which argues that most neuroenhancers in college are underachievers (note, however, that this is based mainly on anecdotal evidence). So it may be true that students who take Adderall in college are gaining an unfair advantage, but this advantage may only be relative to other underachievers. Specifically, non-enhancing underachievers may receive sub-normal grades while those who take neuroenhancers may obtain grades that are closer to average. Further, recent empirical findings suggest that drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin may benefit less cognitively sharp people to a greater extent than they benefit more intelligent folks.

One interviewee in the New Yorker article raises the specter of parents who might force their children to take neuroenhancers so as to increase their competitive advantage in the academic arena and therefore their ability to get into the best colleges. This is a valid and important concern, but there is a world of difference between parents forcing their children to take neuroenhancers for non-clinical purposes and adults choosing to do so of their own free will. In any case, such abuses are already possible, as parents may push for psychiatrists to diagnose their children with ADHD so that a prescription for a neuroenhancer may be obtained.

As technology and culture continue to co-evolve in the new millennium, the public debate over the benefits and drawbacks of neuroenhancement will likely become increasingly central to how we view ourselves as individuals and as a society. Neuroenhancement offers the potential for tremendous increases in productivity across occupational and professional domains, but it also raises questions about our core ethical values and what it means to be truly meritocratic. The jury is still out on many of these questions. What do you think?