Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation: Fundamental enhancement for humanity?
The idea of a simple, cheap and widely available device that could boost brain function sounds too good to be true.
Yet promising results in the lab with emerging ‘brain stimulation’ techniques, though still very preliminary, have prompted Oxford neuroscientists to team up with leading ethicists at the University to consider the issues the new technology could raise.
Recent research in Oxford and elsewhere has shown that one type of brain stimulation in particular, called transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS, can be used to improve language and maths abilities, memory, problem solving, attention, even movement.
Critically, this is not just helping to restore function in those with impaired abilities. TDCS can be used to enhance healthy people’s mental capacities. Indeed, most of the research so far has been carried out in healthy adults.
This research cuts to core of humanity: the capacity to learn. The capacity to learn varies across people, across ages and with illness. Enhancing the capacity to learn of children and adults, with impairments and without. The ability to learn is a basic human good. This kind of technology enables people to get more out of the work they put into learning something.
This is a first step down the path of maximizing human potential. It is a very exciting development. 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. We should aim to do better than we have with the development of pharmaceuticals. We should learn from our mistakes over the last forty years.
Of course, as with any powerful technology, not only is there the possibility of great benefit, there is potential for misuse and abuse. This has been used in other experiments to improve ability to lie.
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 good be as important as the internet and computing. Those are external cognitive enhancements. This is basic fundamental cognitive enhancement.
This technology overcomes some standard objections to enhancement. It is not a set of cheat notes. You require effort and hard work to learn. It is just that you get more out of your effort.
And because it is cheap, low tech, easily affordable, it could be widely available. This addresses the objection that it will introduce inequality and unfairness. It could be available and should be available to all, if it is safe and effective.
What is the ethical way forward? More research before deployment. It is promising but not proven at this stage.
The issues were discussed this morning on the Today Programme , where Barbara Sahakian said that it should not be tested on young children because the risk/benefit profile was too high. I disagree. As we say in the paper, it may have different effects in normal young children to those with impairments. So we can’t extrapolate safety or efficacy from studies in impaired children or adults. We simply won’t be able to predict whether it is beneficial in normal kids without doing the experiments. Since the normal variation in ability to learn is so significant, studies are at least warranted on kids at the lower end of the learning curve. These won’t have disease or disorder but they may be relatively disabled by their lower capacity to learn. That is where I would start: kids who are at the lower end. See my blog on Lethal Ethics for elaboration of this kind of point.
This is liable to the objection that lower functioning children are being used as guinea pigs. If we find it is safe, it could be rolled out to higher functioning children. I have some sympathy with this egalitarian concern. Perhaps those who stand to benefit and use it should participate in the research. If we envisage it as a general educational aid, it is reasonable in one way that all groups of children contribute to the research.
For a full discussion see Cell Biology Article