Is there any difference between drinking coffee to pep yourself up and taking a drug like Modafinil, which has been shown to increase alertness, planning and memory? There could be side effects and if everyone else in your office or class was popping Modafinil then perhaps you'd feel pressure to take it too. Is there anything wrong with that? Is such a scenario inevitable?
Drugs like Ritalin are already used routinely to help children with ADHD, and cholinesterase inhibitors are used to help people with Alzheimer's disease. Now in an open-access commentary for Nature magazine published today, psychologists Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir of the MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in Cambridge, say they are aware many of their healthy colleagues are taking Modafinil to fight jet lag or enhance their productivity. There are also reports of the drug being used by ever greater numbers of healthy university students.
Sahkian and Morein-Zamir are calling on society to start discussing the implications of cognitive enhancers now and Nature is hosting a forum on the topic where experts and readers can discuss the ethical issues raised. In particular Sahkian and Morein-Zamir say regulation needs to catch up with the science: "Rather than individuals purchasing substances over the internet, we believe it would be better to ensure supervised access to safe and effective cognitive-enhancing drugs, particularly given dangerous drug-drug interactions."
This latest endeavour comes just weeks after a British Medical Association discussion paper raised many of the same issues, in some cases going further, to discuss the ethics of using transcranial magnetic stimulation, deep brain stimulation and genetic manipulation for the purposes of cognitive enhancement.
Indeed there have been several signs over the last few years of a powerful sense among the scientific and medical community that progress is racing so fast in psychology and the neurosciences that the public urgently needs to be kept up-to-date and intimately involved in the decisions that will surely shape all our futures.
Two years ago, the UK Government's Foresight programme published a report "Drug Futures 2025" that claimed "We are on the verge of a revolution in the specificity and function of the psychoactive substances available to us". We should take action now, the report said, in anticipation of the impact these advances will have on three key areas: mental health treatment; addiction and recreational drug use; and the use of a new breed of drug called cognitive enhancers.
Also, from 2004 through to this year, a European-wide project "Meeting of Minds" consulted 126 citizens from nine countries, allowing them to discuss the implications of brain science developments with leading experts.
Neuroscientific progress may be moving at shuttle-speed but fortunately it is easier than ever to keep abreast of new developments in psychology and the neurosciences - there's the Research Digest of course, but for a list of many other psychology/neuro blogs, take a look at the blog roll in the left-hand column of the Research Digest blog homepage.
Link to Nature commentary "Professor's little helper" on the use of cognitive enhancers (open access).
Link to Nature forum on the use of cognitive enhancers.
Link to BMA discussion paper on cognitive enhancements.
Link to Government Foresight report.
Link to Meeting of Minds.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.