Sunday, October 18, 2009

Nature News Feature on Cognitive Enhancement

The latest issue of Nature has this interesting "News Feature" story on the current state of neuroscience and the goal of enhanced cognition. Here is a sample:

Researchers have now created or identified at least 33 mutant mouse strains that, like Doogie, have enhanced cognitive abilities. The animals tend to learn faster, remember events longer and solve complex mazes better than ordinary mice. And because the molecular pathways used in the brain to form long-term memories are almost identical in humans and rodents, the hope is that the work will inform research into treatments for a wide variety of learning and memory problems, from dyslexia to dementia.

Much of the work involves making an adult brain behave more like a younger, more flexible version of itself by increasing the organ's plasticity. This, in turn, means that some problems, long believed to have been made permanent during development, might actually be reversed.

....Many scientists are concerned that the animal models of enhanced cognition might obscure subtle side effects, which can't be studied in rodents or primates. Farah is currently looking at the trade-off between enhanced attention — she gives human subjects a mild amphetamine — and performance on creative tasks. Other researchers have used computer models to show that memory is actually optimized by slight imperfections, as they allow one to see connections between different but related events9. "The brain seems to have made a compromise in that having a more accurate memory interferes with the ability to generalize," Farah says. "You need a little noise in order to be able to think abstractly, to get beyond the concrete and literal."

....Although Silva recognizes the risks of enhancement, he remains hopeful that the performance of the normal human brain can be improved by neuroscience. "We're getting to a point where we almost need these enhancements," he says. "We don't have enough attention, we don't have enough memory, we don't have enough awake hours. There's clearly a demand to optimize the human brain given what it needs to do in the information age."