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Experts Urge Wider Use Of Brain-Boosting Drugs

Publication Date: 
December 07, 2008
San Francisco Chronicle
Bernadette Tansey

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a Nature Magazine article by Professor Henry T. "Hank" Greely and others that support the use of brain-boosting drugs. Greely is quoted:

Three job candidates sit in a quiet room, straining over a tough exam. But one of them has taken a memory-enhancing drug the other two couldn't afford. Is the test fair?

In another futuristic scenario, a drug can help airline pilots keep focused during a long flight, though it causes some side effects. May an airline require pilots to take the drug?

Get ready to confront such questions in daily life, a group of scientists and policy experts urge in a thought-provoking commentary published online Sunday by the journal Nature.


"We call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs," said the writers, who include Stanford law Professor Henry Greely and neuropsychology Professor Barbara Sahakian at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. "From assembly line workers to surgeons, many different kinds of employee may benefit from enhancement and want access to it, yet they may also need protection from the pressure to enhance."


Greely, who has been tracking policy issues in neuroscience for six years, said the article is not a clarion call for widespread use of brain-boosting drugs, free of legal controls. Instead, the authors wanted to debunk arguments that drug enhancement is immoral per se, compared to other means of strengthening mental performance, such as a double espresso or an expensive tutor. "Society shouldn't reject them just because they're pharmaceutical enhancements," he said in an interview.


Greely said the moral repugnance that is often focused on steroid use in sports should not be grafted onto cognitive enhancement drugs. "Better-working brains produce things of more lasting value than longer home runs," he said.

However, Greely and his co-authors acknowledged that drug safety is a paramount concern. Too little is known about the benefits and risks for healthy people taking medicines approved to treat mental impairments, they said. The authors called for more research so that doctors and patients can balance the gains and the harms. Risks that would be tolerated to treat a severe illness might be unacceptable for a healthy young person, the authors noted.

No new wave of high-efficacy cognitive enhancement drugs has yet emerged for healthy individuals, Greely said. But society needs to prepare itself for the intricate ethical issues that would accompany such advances, he said. Doctors, educators, labor experts, employers and legislators should be thinking about it, he and his co-authors said.


But even direct coercion may be justified in cases where society would benefit from increased safety, the authors said. For example, Greely said, some societies might decide that the personal freedoms of soldiers would be outweighed by military requirements.