Sunday, December 28, 2008

Star Article on Boosting Cognitive Functioning

Two weeks ago The Star published this excellent article on one of the most important issues facing humanity this century-- boosting our brain power through the development of new pharmaceuticals.

Pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement is an important issue for many reasons. Firstly, it challenges our complacency about aging and the unfair disadvantages it imposes on those who happen to have lived longer (like the 2 billion seniors who will be alive in 2050). Secondly, it also challenges the environmental-bias most people have to enhancing phenotypes like intelligence and memory. And thirdly, it reveals the challenges we face with regards to regulating risk. So I found this article very interesting (and balanced). Here is a sample:

Over the past 20 years, scientists have made great progress diagnosing and treating the brain. In another decade one of its most persistent and irritating problems – the forgetfulness that comes with age – may soon be fixed with little more than a daily pill.

But beyond alleviating absent-mindedness, drugs for "age-associated memory impairment," or AAMI, seem poised to alter our standards for cognitive well-being. Because drug treatment won't just be about disorders – it could be about making healthy people better than well.

....So Crook looked at memory loss across the age span. The results were striking. Our ability to remember names, for example, declines 60 per cent between the ages of 25 and 75. That's a lot of embarrassing party situations.

...."This is a condition that is encoded in such a way that it is not a psychiatric disorder," he says. "But it is a developmental condition that merits attention and treatment.

"I've debated these issues many, many times over the years, and it's become an easier argument than it used to be. People, typically neurologists, used to say, `But it's normal! But it's normal!' Well, yeah, so is the body ravaging bones for calcium in post-menopausal women! It's a normal thing, but we don't just sit there and let it happen."

...."My position is that cognitive enhancement offers the prospect of a number of potential benefits," Savulescu says, recalling the debate. "What we currently have at the moment is a situation where our cognitive capacities are essentially limited by our evolutionary history. ... Basically, we couldn't have evolved much larger brains and greater cognitive capacities than we have now.

Now, with "pharmacological interventions and ultimately with genetic and other more fundamental biological interventions," he says, "we will be able to surpass what nature has given us."

This article nicely illustrates why justice theorists ought to pay attention to scientific advances in fields like neuroscience. Rather than just assuming that access to environmental interventions like education and family are important, or that justice only requires us to remedy unjust social structures, the limits our evolutionary history impose on our enjoyment of goods like intelligence and memory are also important to address. And given the interconnection between intelligence and other societal goods (like efficiency), the development of safe and effective cognitive enhancers, much like the development of an "exercise" pill or "anti-aging pill", could prove to be one of the most important technological advances this century. So we must aspire to narrow the gap between science and theories of justice.