Bioethics Blogs

A Pill for Compassion or Misunderstood Science

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

For at least a decade, studies have shown that empathy and compassion decline in medical students. The response is often more curricula dedicated to ethics, humanities, communication skills, and patient contact. But what if the answer was simply medicating the students.

An article in Time magazine reported that a study from researchers at the University of California Berkeley and University of California San Francisco have found “that by manipulating a brain chemical, people can become more compassionate and act in prosocial ways to equalize differences.”

Compassion is “a sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress with a desire to alleviate it.” According to the article, the study of 35 subjects found that when taking a drug a person’s desire to alleviate inequity increased. The subjects were randomized into two groups—one received tolcapone, a Parkinson’s drug, and the others did not. In short, the drug tends to increase the amount of dopamine in the brain. A shortage of this chemical causes Parkinson’s disease. However, levels of dopamine were not measured.

A study of compassion?

Subjects were given tokens that were worth a variable amount of money. Tokens given away might be worth more or less than tokens kept for oneself. The drug correlated with people making more egalitarian in distributing tokens. Subjects became averse to inequity whether it is people having too little or too much. The authors concluded that their model provided a potential tool for understanding neuropsychiatric disorders.

Is this the same as compassion? The term compassion never appears in the article.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.