Bioethics Blogs

Federal Recommendations on Use of Cognitive Enhancers

The idea that we can get better grades at school and advance our careers by taking drugs that improve concentration and other brain functions is at once controversial and tempting. Is this cheating, or is it in the same realm as drinking coffee to increase alertness? Bioethicists, medical professionals, and the general public are divided on this question.

What’s not contested is that teenagers and adults are using prescription medications such as Ritalin for nonmedical purposes in an attempt to enhance normal cognitive functioning. As an article in yesterday’s New York Times put it, “these drugs are used not to get high, but hired.” People are getting the drugs from doctors, or from patients (such as classmates) with prescriptions for neurological conditions who are willing to sell or share their pills.

Against this Wild West backdrop, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI) has taken a significant step by issuing recommendations on the ethical use of medications and other means of “neural modification,” the term PCSBI uses to include drugs and interventions such as deep brain stimulation, which might either treat neurological disorders or augment normal brain function. The recommendations are part of its final report, Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics and Society.

“No comprehensive or agreed-upon guidance or best-practices document is available to advise stakeholders (including clinicians, employers, parents, educators, and patients, among others) about potential benefits and risks inherent in using a neural modification intervention,” the PSCBI’s report says. “Educators, parents, clinicians, and employers in highly competitive fields would benefit from having expert, evidence-based advice when faced with student or employee use of neural modification interventions.”

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.