Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Pervitin instead of coffee? Change in attitudes to cognitive enhancement in the 50’s and 60’s in Brazil  


Written by Marcelo de Araujo

State University of Rio de Janeiro

CNPq – The Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development

How does our attitude to drugs in general shape our reaction to “smart drugs” in particular? Ruairidh Battleday and Anna-Katharine Brem have recently published a systematic review of 24 studies on the effect of modafinil on healthy individuals. They concluded that “modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical ‘nootropic’ agent.”[1] This publication has rekindled the debate on the ethics of “smart drugs”. Of course further studies are necessary for a better assessment of the safety and efficacy of modafinil. But if modafinil, or some other drug, proves safe and effective in the future, are there reasons to oppose its widespread use in society?

There has been some concern that, in the future, cognitive enhancement may contribute to social inequality; that it will undermine effort; that employers may want to compel employees to enhance themselves; and that individuals who would not feel inclined to enhance themselves in the first place will have to bear the social pressure to think otherwise if they are to keep up with the constraints of the job market. These questions have been addressed by many ethicists – both for and against cognitive enhancement. But instead of speculating about the societal implications of cognitive enhancement in the future, we may as well examine how people dealt with cognitive enhancement in the recent past.

If you are over 75 years old in Brazil chances are that you bought a cognitive enhancer called Pervitin at a local drugstore in the 50’s and early 60’s.

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.