Expert workshop on cognitive enhancement device regulation: Are there ‘two worlds’ of devices?

Last week, we held an expert workshop with key stakeholders to discuss our recent Oxford Martin School policy paper. Our policy paper put forward proposals for how we thought cognitive enhancement devices such as brain stimulators should be regulated. At present, if these sorts of devices do not make medical treatment claims (but instead claim to make you smarter, more creative or a better gamer, say) then they are only subject to basic product safety requirements. In our paper we suggested that cognitive enhancement devices should be regulated in the same way as medical devices and discussed how this could be implemented. Indeed, the devices that are being sold for enhancement of cognitive functions use the very same principles as devices approved by medical device regulators for research into the treatment of cognitive impairment or dysfunction associated with stroke, Parkinson’s disease and depression (amongst other conditions). Being the same sorts of devices, acting via similar mechanisms and posing the same sorts of risks, there seemed to be a strong argument for regulation of some form and an equally strong argument for adopting the same regulatory approach for both medical and enhancement devices.

Having published our paper, we were very keen to hear what people more closely involved in making policy and drafting legislation thought of our proposals. Individuals from the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the EU New and Emerging Technologies Working Group, a medical devices company, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and experts on responsible innovation and on brain stimulation joined us. Overall, the response to our recommendations was positive: all participants agreed that some regulatory action should be taken. There was a general consensus that this regulation should protect consumers but not curtail their freedom to use devices, that manufacturers should not be over-burdened by unnecessary regulatory requirements, and that innovation should not be stifled. Continue reading

Moral Enhancement and Violence

In recent years, I’ve written a lot on moral enhancement, including moral bioenhancement (e.g., here, here and here), and argued that we should not reject its potential benefits out of hand. One common objection has been to say something along the lines of “sure, this would be good in theory, but the science behind it is so far off that you may as well be talking about the number of angels on a pinhead”.

But recent research suggests our moral behavior is already improving in some respects. In the UK, admissions to hospital due to violent crime fell by 12% . And in the US, a recent survey revealed a decline in violence experienced by children over the past decade, particularly assault and sexual violence.  This is also a major theme of Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature.” Pinker documents the widespread reduction in violence over centuries.

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The advantages and disadvantages of stigmatizing smoking

A new study among students, found that those who smoked cannabis performed better academically than their tobacco smoking, stigmatized peers. The study has been collecting data among students (8,331 in total) in grade 7,9 and 11 for 30 years, and noticed the following trends. While the use of tobacco around the 90ties decreased, the use of cannabis increased. While the use of tobacco became increasingly associated with a slow and painful death due to cancer, the cry for legalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes (for example to treats side effects of cancer treatment) gave cannabis a more positive image. The study emphasizes that performing worse academically has nothing to do with the substance tobacco itself. Although it is well known that cannabis can effect one’s memory, no such effect is known about tobacco. The fact that tobacco users perform worse than cannabis users has all to do with changing social norms and the marginalizing of tobacco smokers. The study seems to suggest that it is a double effect: marginalized students will choose to smoke tobacco rather than cannabis, but this will marginalize them further. Students who use marijuana are more like the general population, so perform better academically than the marginalized group. Instead of zooming in on the effects of marginalization of tobacco smokers, the study chooses to warn again the normalization of cannabis use, which, according to the study, is a very dangerous substance, in many aspects as dangerous as tobacco. Non-users of tobacco or cannabis still perform better than cannabis users. The study wants to make a case against the legalization of cannabis.
Zinberg famously distinguished three aspects that determined the effect of a substance: the properties of the substance itself, the characteristics of the person taking them, and the social setting wherein the substance is taken. This study nicely illustrates the importance of setting, or social norms around substance use. It shows that setting determines more of the negative effects of the substance than the properties of the substance itself, and how hard it is to determine the negative effects of a substance separated from the social context. It shows that the attractiveness of certain substances is more determined by their social status than by their properties. Many studies have also shown that the effect of a substance in a vulnerable population is different than in a general population. The famous veteran study of Robins showed that Vietnam veterans who became dependent on heroin in Vietnam, had no problems giving up their habits once returned to the United States. The general population mostly succeeds better in the recreational or temporarily use of a substance, because they have more incentives to control their use, and less other problems to self-medicate for. Continue reading

“Whoa though, does it ever burn” – Why the consumer market for brain stimulation devices will be a good thing, as long as it is regulated

In many places around the world, there are people connecting electrodes to their heads to electrically stimulate their brains. Their intentions are often to boost various aspect of mental performance for skill development, gaming or just to see what happens. With the emergence of a more accessible market for glossy, well-branded brain stimulation devices it is likely that more and more people will consider trying them out.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a brain stimulation technique which involves passing a small electrical current between two or more electrodes positioned on the left and right side of the scalp. The current excites the neurons, increasing their spontaneous activity. Although the first whole-unit devices are being marketed primarily for gamers, there is a well-established DIY tDCS community, members of which have been using the principles of tDCS to experiment with home-built devices which they use for purposes ranging from self-treatment of depression to improvement of memory, alertness, motor skills and reaction times.

Until now, non-clinical tDCS has been the preserve of those willing to invest time and nerve into researching which components to buy, how to attach wires to batteries and electrodes to wires, and how best to avoid burnt scalps, headaches, visual disturbances and even passing out. The tDCS Reddit forum currently has 3,763 subscribed readers who swap stories about best techniques, bad experiences and apparent successes. Many seem to be relying on other posters to answer technical questions and to seek reassurance about which side effects are ‘normal’. Worryingly, the answers they receive are often conflicting. Continue reading

Academia, philosophy, and ‘race’

It was recently brought to public attention that of the UK’s 18,510 university professors, only 85 are of black origin (Black African/Black Caribbean/Black ‘other’), a soberingly disproportionate figure. Some people may want to explain this incongruence by saying that it is proportionate, or makes sense, when you consider the amount of black people entering and remaining within higher education. However, rather than the problem being solved with this explanation, it re-emerges in questions surrounding the reasons as to why this may be the case. If there are a disproportionately low number of black students entering (and remaining in) higher education, this itself needs to be questioned, with discussions had on financial situations, state education, implicit biases, and other social and economic barriers that may be disproportionately affecting certain sections of the population. In this blog post I will explore these factors, as well as suggesting that discussions on ‘intelligence’ genes within bioethics may serve to perpetuate a hostile and exclusionary environment.

The situation for black academics appears to be more acute in academic philosophy. There are only 5 black philosophers employed in UK universities, with just two of these being employed in philosophy departments (both at UCL), and the other 3 in classics, humanities and ‘theology, philosophy and religious studies’ departments. Philosophy is also notorious for its lack of female representation. Statistics show the number of women gradually reducing at each stage of academia – although 46% of philosophy undergraduates are female, this drops to 31% of philosophy PhD students, and is at its lowest with only 24% of full time staff being women.

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The future of punishment: a clarification

By Rebecca Roache

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I’m working on a paper entitled ‘Cyborg justice: punishment in the age of transformative technology’ with my colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen. In it, we consider how punishment practices might change as technology advances, and what ethical issues might arise. The paper grew out of a blog post I wrote last year at Practical Ethics, a version of which was published as an article in Slate. A few months ago, Ross Andersen from the brilliant online magazine Aeon interviewed Anders, Hannah, and me, and the interview was published earlier this month. Versions of the story quickly appeared in various sources, beginning with a predictably inept effort in the Daily Mail, and followed by articles in The TelegraphHuffington PostGawkerBoing Boing, and elsewhere. The interview also sparked debate in the blogosphere, including posts by Daily NousPolaris KoiThe Good Men ProjectFilip SpagnoliBrian LeiterRogue PriestLuke Davies, and Ari Kohen, and comments and questions on Twitter and on my website. I’ve also received, by email, many comments, questions, and requests for further interviews and media appearances. These arrived at a time when I was travelling and lacked regular email access, and I’m yet to get around to replying to most of them. Apologies if you’re one of the people waiting for a reply.
I’m very happy to have started a debate on this topic, although less happy to have received a lot of negative attention based on a misunderstanding of my views on punishment and my reasons for being interested in this topic. I respond to the most common questions and concerns below. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s something important that I haven’t covered. Continue reading

Brain training in schools?

Neurofeedback works like this: you are hooked up to instruments that measure your brain activity (usually via electroencephalography or functional magnetic resonance imaging) and feed it back to you via auditory or visual feedback. The feedback represents the brain activity, and gives you a chance to modulate it, much as you might modulate the movements of your hand given visual or haptic feedback about its activity. What is interesting about the use of neurofeedback is it appears to train people to exercise some control over brain activity related to cognitive and mood-related processes. In other words, neurofeedback might potentially allow agents to modify the activity in their brains such that mood, attentional capacity, and other mental functions improve. Continue reading

Reconsidering the Ethics of Enhanced Punishment

Last summer, on this blog, Rebecca Roache suggested several ways in which technology could enhance retributive punishment—that is, could make punishment more severe—without “resorting to inhumane methods or substantially overhauling the current UK legal system.” Her approbation of this type of technological development has recently been reported in the Daily Mail, and reaffirmed in an interview for Aeon Magazine.

Roache’s original post was, at least, a response to the sentencing of the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka, who was four when he died as a result of a mixture of violence and neglect perpetrated by his parents. They each received the maximum sentence possible in the UK, a minimum of thirty years in prison before the possibility of parole is discussed (and even then they might not get it). This sentence, Roache wrote, was “laughably inadequate.” Continue reading

Shopping on Drugs

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I noticed recently that I have an entirely irrational shopping habit.  I wanted to buy a packet of crisps, but when I went to pick up my favourite make, it was on special offer.  Buy two, get one free.  Well, I’m not stupid: I wasn’t going to fall for that old trick.  I didn’t want two packets (let alone three).  But the offer made me think that if I just bought the one packet, I would be paying over the odds – since purchasing a second packet would lower the average cost of each crisp by a third.  So, because there was a special offer on two, I didn’t buy one.   Continue reading

“One cup of joe and your brain is ready to go”? – Caffeine as memory enhancer

The first systematic study investigating the effects of caffeine on human performance – sponsored by Coca-Cola – has been published about 100 years ago. Since then, thousands of other studies have been looking at if and in which ways caffeine improves cognitive performance. This question is still debated in science, but there is general consensus that caffeine can be seen as an enhancer for specific functions like mood, attention, concentration and reaction time. These enhancement effects have been shown in studies with the general set-up that participants first took caffeine and then did a performance task. This matches our everyday representation of “wise” caffeine use: if I wanted to enhance my performance with caffeine, I’d take it immediately before the “critical situation”, for example an exam.

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