The British Medical Association has just released a report on the ethics of using medical technology to increase cognitive function and optimise the brain. Although the report looks to possible futures, many of them are already upon us.
The report is an interesting sign that cognitive enhancement, using largely physical interventions such as drugs and implants, is now a topic important enough to trouble the UK’s professional medical association.
Many of the ethical concerns centre around a potential future where brain enhancing interventions are largely available to the wealthy, leading to a ‘brain gap’ where the less well off will have relatively poorer mental functioning because they can’t access the same cognitive benefits.
However, this is exactly the situation we already have.
Probably the single best cognitive enhancer available to the human race at the moment is a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.
Poor health goes hand in hand with poverty, meaning those who have less money are likely to have brains that don’t function at their optimum because of increased stress, poor nutrition and increased susceptibility to damage and disease.
Martha Farah’s research group has been specifically researching the links between the neuropsychological development of children and poverty, and have found that children from poorer social groups have markedly poorer mental and neurological functioning.
It is possible that a drug or implant will be discovered in the future that will extend our abilities by an order of magnitude, but more likely the improvement will be much more modest. For example, an improvement of 10% would be considered to be clinically important.
So while it’s essential to consider the ethical implications of how specific cognitive technologies will affect us, the inequality-driven ‘brain gap’ is already here.
One ethical issue less commonly debated is whether we are justified in spending billions developing high-tech cognitive enhancers for a relatively small section of the population rather than support the widespread improvement in nutrition and lifestyle which we know has a strong, reliable and life-long effect.
Link to BMA report ‘Boosting your brainpower: Ethical aspects of cognitive enhancements’.