Editor’s note: Walter Glannon, an authority on cognitive enhancement, will be the next speaker in the Robert and Russell Moody Lecture Series, which explores consciousness and the life cycle of the brain. He talked with The Daily News about the use of drugs and other therapies to improve cognition.
Q. We seem to be on the verge of being able to enhance our cognitive abilities with the use of drugs and therapy. Do you think that’s wise?
A. Enhancing cognitive abilities can benefit us in many ways. By improving working memory and other cognitive functions, it can enable us to perform more cognitive tasks more efficiently and effectively. Whether it’s wise or not depends mainly on two things, one medical, the other social. First, the risks of long-term use of Ritalin or the wakefulness drug Modafinil on the body and brain are not known. Studies of short-term effects have shown that there are cognitive trade-offs with these drugs. They can improve some functions but impair others. Second, enhanced cognition could increase competition in schools, universities and the workplace and exacerbate what is already a high level of harmful psychosocial stress.
Q. What about a healthy college student who has no cognitive disorders who is tempted to take a drug — let’s just say Ritalin — to give him a competitive advantage. Is that fair? We have a complicated system to prevent athletes from using drugs that enhance performance.
A. It does seem unfair for a student with normal cognitive functions to take a cognition-enhancing drug to gain a competitive advantage over other students who do not take them. The difficult question is whether we can distinguish these drugs from other drugs, such as caffeine. Students find many ways of enhancing their cognitive capacities. Are cognition-enhancing drugs significantly different from other means of enhancing ourselves? Also, taking Ritalin or another drug alone will not guarantee a positive outcome. Other factors such as motivation and being conscientious are important as well.
Q. What about drugs for Alzheimer’s? Few of us would have any qualms about taking a drug to alleviate symptoms of that terrible disease. Do you see any ethical concerns?
A. Some people in the enhancement debate argue that there is no clear distinction between therapy and enhancement. It’s just a matter of degree relative to a “normal” level of functioning. But others argue that there is and should be a distinction between therapy and enhancement. Drugs for Alzheimer’s that improve memory are therapy, rather than enhancement, because they are for a disease in which memory falls below a normal level. Improving memory function to approximate a normal level is different from improving memory that is above this level. Drugs that improved memory in some Alzheimer’s patients may make them more aware of their condition, which could cause distress and thus harm them. But this is speculative. No studies to date have shown this effect.
Q. Perhaps the impetus behind the interest in performance enhancers is self-improvement, which doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Most of us invest years in getting an education. We all favor that kind of self-improvement. Do you see a clear line where our efforts at self-improvement go astray?
A. Many people argue that taking enhancers is part of self-improvement and thus not objectionable. The drugs are necessary for us to develop our natural physical and mental capacities to the fullest extent. But this raises the question of how much of what we do is really up to us, and how much of it is the result of things that are not intrinsic to our natural selves. It raises questions about autonomy and authenticity.