Reading into the Science: The Neuroscience and Ethics of Enhancement
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I was always an average student: I was good, just not good enough. I often wondered what my life and grades would be like if I’d had a better memory or learned faster. I remember several exams throughout my high school career where I just could not recall what certain rote memorization facts or specific details were, and now in college, I realize that if I could somehow learn faster, how much time would I save and be able to study even more? Would a better memory have led me to do better on my exams in high school, and would my faster ability to learn new information have increased my GPA?
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It is also here that enhancement is used, whether it’s enhancement via chemical means (notably the neurotransmitters: acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin) or enhancement via technological means (TMS, DBS, tDCS, etc.). From studies in humans and animals, it is well known that the hippocampus is crucial for the formation of new long term memories, but since the hippocampus is deep within the brain, electrically stimulating it becomes tricky. This is where stimulation of the entorhinal cortex becomes key, as it is heavily connected to the hippocampus. Both transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and deep brain stimulation (DBS) are techniques which target specific regions of the brain, as opposed to the chemical equivalent (i.e. drugs) that are not localizable. A revolutionary study done in 2012 by Suthana et al., aimed to test whether DBS of the hippocampus or entorhinal cortex altered memory performance on spatial memory tasks. They found that “entorhinal stimulation applied while the subjects learned locations of landmarks enhanced their subsequent memory of these locations,” though direct hippocampal stimulation did not yield similar results. Moreover, in past studies, TMS has been shown to improve performance on different tasks, but a 2014 study found that repeated TMS over the span of one week could be used to improve memory for events at least 24 hours after the stimulation is given, specifically when tested with “memory tests consisting of a set of arbitrary associations between faces and words that they were asked to learn and remember.” This study is particularly noteworthy because it was done on healthy volunteers with “normal” memory, and essentially those in whom you wouldn’t expect to see marked improvement since their brains are already ‘functioning at their normal capacities.’
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Nevertheless, physicians are not the only ones divided on this issue; the general public seems to be even more so. A proponent of enhancement and author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, Ronald Bailey, argues that disease is a state of dis-ease. He further states, “if patients are unsatisfied with some aspect of their lives and doctors can help them with very few risks, then why shouldn’t they do so?” However, Deane Alban, researcher, writer, and manager of BeBrainFit.com offers a contrasting opinion. She writes,
“Smart drugs have side effects, are almost always obtained quasi-legally, and may not even work. You have only one brain. You can artificially stimulate it now for perceived short-term benefits. Or you can nourish and protect it so that it stays sharp for a lifetime. The decision is a no-brainer.”
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