Forum Co-Sponsored by AAAS Explores Science and Ethics of Brain Enhancement
Image credit: Marc Raichle of Washington University
A glass of lemonade spiked with glucose, which enhances memory, may help both elderly people experiencing age-related memory loss and college students cramming for an exam. Is one use more acceptable than the other, and if so, who decides?
Neuroscientists, ethicists and religious thinkers mulled over these and related questions at a conference entitled "Our Brains and Us: Neuroethics, Responsibility and the Self," held last week at MIT and sponsored by AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion; MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT; and the Boston Theological Institute.
"This is not futuristic. These treatments are here, although they may not be ready for the general population," said Paul Gold of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Gold described his research showing that increased blood glucose improved memory performance in the elderly and in college students, as well as in patients with brain injury. These findings raise important questions about who gets access and how such treatments would affect disparities among socioeconomic groups, Gold said.
Several participants noted that the idea of biological brain "enhancement"as opposed to medical treatmentis often considered undesirable for society. But, the line between the two types of interventions can be difficult to draw. For example, Gold asked, how different are biological enhancers from social enhancers such as preparatory courses for college-admissions tests, which are already available to those who can afford them?
Speaking from a Christian perspective, Brent Waters of the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary agreed that therapy was not always good and enhancement always bad. But, he noted that enhancement is "rarely a free ride" and cautioned that the long-term effects of brain enhancements are still unknown.
"Our goal after all is not to make better brains," he said, "but to improve quality of human life and lives."
Adrenaline also enhances memory formation, reported Roger Pitman of Harvard Medical School. Many of us remember what we were doing on the morning of 11 September 2001, he said, but few of us remember the morning of 10 September.
Pitman's research on adrenalin has implications for understanding post-traumatic stress disorder, and he suggested that it might be possible to use adrenalin-blocking injections during a stressful event to intervene in the disorder. He questioned, however, whether this method would be accepted as ethical.
Interfering with another person's memory has other serious implications as well. Karl Manheim of Loyola Law School at Loyola Marymount University described a new technique known as "brain fingerprinting," in which a device measures brain-wave responses to certain words and other stimuli. The device appears to detect whether the test subject recognizes the stimuli, implying that information is stored in his or her memory.
This technology has been used in some court trials, but some important questions remain unanswered. For example, how should researchers account for the possibility of false, repressed or forgotten memories? Or the effects of drugs? Memory is also vulnerable to suggestion; it's relatively easy to create incorrect but confidently held memories, according to Manheim.
The possibility that this technology might be used on someone without his or her consent or perhaps even remotely in secret is "scary," Manheim said.
Humans don't necessarily need complex technologies to manipulate each other's memories. Developmental psychologist Michelle Leichtman of the University of New Hampshire has found that children's memories are particularly malleable. She showed that the type of information parents elicit from their children right after an event can shape how the child remembers the event several weeks later.
Adult memories of childhood events also differ across cultures, Leichtman reported.
"When we create children's environments we help create their memory reports and their memories," she said.
From "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" to "Men in Black," the possibility of manipulating others' memories has provoked popular imagination. The panelists agreed that, as the means to do this become increasingly within reach, we as a society must decide which of these approaches are consistent with our values and which are not.
"The conference sought to provide in a public setting an introduction to the range of developments in the neurosciences and related technologies that that are going to have significant personal and public impact, and to provide an opportunity to consider the broad ethical and religious importance of these developments," said Jim Miller, senior program associate for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.
"Hopefully the broadening of perspectives that took place at the meeting will continue to fuel dialogue between these diverse groups," said Connie Bertka, the DoSER program director.
27 April 2005