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Ethical Questions Surround “Electrical Thinking Cap” That Improves Mental Functions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Child using transcranial direct current stimulation

What if a drug could improve learning and cognition and had no untoward medical consequences? Wouldn’t it be justified to make it widely available? A group of scientists concluded three years ago that it would be.

No such drug exists, but the question arises anew because of a brain-stimulation technique that appears on paper to fit the bill. The technology, transcranial direct-current stimulation, involves applying weak electrical currents to the scalp through electrodes. It appears to alter brain activity in a long-lasting way that can enhance cognition.

Electrical therapies for the nervous system have a lengthy history. In about 45 AD, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus helped relieve pain by applying electric fish to a patient’s skin. Simple electric stimulation to the scalp appears to have myriad effects, possibly improving motor skills, vision, decision-making, problem-solving attention and mathematical reasoning in healthy individuals.

“Where can I get one?” you might ask. Take your choice. You might buy one for less than $1,000. Or you could make your own: it’s really just a 9-volt battery with a few electrodes, seemingly the perfect high-school science project.

Seems too good to be true. Let’s go now to the ethicists. “Is anything wrong with this picture?” asks an article in press in Current Biology. [Accessible as a PDF through an Oxford University science blog.]

The authors, Roi Cohen Kadosh and a group of scientists and ethicists mostly from Oxford University, note that the electrical brain stimulator really does appear to be pretty safe in healthy adults: there are no reports of seizures, one of the first concerns for any intervention that turns up the volume on neural circuits. In the blog on the University of Oxford site, Cohen Kadosh was quoted: “I can see a time when people plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano.”

The ethical issue at hand is what happens when you use a technology willy-nilly on an autistic patient, the self-enhancing Wall Street trader or, in particular, healthy children. Direct-current stimulation has, as yet, no training guidelines for health-care workers, let alone e-manuals for self-experimenters or enhancement gurus. “At best, this situation could result in the exploitation of vulnerable patients or parents for financial gain; at worst, it may risk long-term damage to the brain…” the authors wrote. Repeated stimulation to one segment of the brain’s outer layer, the cortex, to enhance number-crunching skills in a child “could even worsen performance and lead to atypical brain development,” relates the Current Biology paper. Enhancing one cognitive function, moreover, could potentially diminish performance of another.

All of these risks are hypothetical, and the researchers acknowledge that a tool that can improve cognitive function and potentially help people with psychiatric disorders or neurological conditions should not be discarded out of hand. At this point, completed studies with adult subjects might provide the basis for formulating guidelines for studies on children. The studies should start small and subjects should be monitored closely for chemical, anatomical and behavioral changes, the Current Biology commentary suggests. The message: wait a bit. It’s not time yet to start a run on 9-volt batteries at Radio Shack.

Source: Roi Cohen Kadosh


Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. engineer.sci 4:29 pm 02/6/2012

    The essence of the ethical problem, the risk of negative result, stems easing the path to forming channels of target search, but not the enhancing of target visibility. That is, the approach of general stimulation seems to increase the brains ability to form neurological connections — but the question is if during that formation period, is the brain properly seeking to develop the enhanced logical/creative thinking, or perhaps there is noise, illusory perception/reasoning, or blockage such as taboo/psychic dissonance type blockage. If such demons rule the moment, the ability to easily open up connectivity formation in the brain and then lock it in become an act of brain damage rather than repair or enhancement.

    Ideally then, one would wish to enhance plasticity and new growth of neural connections, but rather enhance the attractive power of the target itself — the person’s desire to reach this state over other disturbing factors. The first thought then is how to rev-up the subjects selfish desire for this goal.

    In speaking of ethics — in fact, to combine ethics with enlightened self-interest, altruism, we find something very important along the above lines of thought. For imagine, if we could rev-up a persons altruism instead. Think about it for a moment, selfishness generally doesn’t need much of a helping hand — it usually is the “demon” of the moment (which is why this technique seems to be somewhat effective in general terms). But what percentage of what could be perceived out there, logically derived out there, or more to the point, creatively grasped through “Eureka!” out there — is not because the mind at some level says, “where is the, at least long term, personal payoff for me?” And if it isn’t there, I’m not interested — in fact I’ll block it because it wastes my time for pursuing more self-lucrative goals. I would say that the vast majority of potential developments good for Humanity as a whole, or other specific individuals that just don’t enter our immediate circle of family and friends or twanged sympathy strings, fall into this category.

    Now what if we changed the way we thought, educated our children, and in general looked at the world around us? Imagine that everybody was thinking about ways to help all of us without a personal take. Indeed, how vastly improved would be everybody’s personal take! — It would turn the world from hell into heaven in no time at all.

    I think our chief research on the mind should be towards how we learn to focus on each other, rather than just ourselves. Imagine a world of mutual concern and responsibility, where — for example — the Internet would no longer be a partnered tool for the best information and business grabbing for everyone, but would evolve into a common mind whose goal is the benefit of everyone.

    Actually, it is beyond our imagination — blocked by our natural selfishness. But we’ve many-a-time educated ourselves over natural tendencies for our betterment. This is doubtless the greatest of tests, but its payoff could be tremendous. Given our growing socio-economic and resource/climatic difficulties, I would say one immediate payoff might be the survival of our species.

    Lets say that we focus on this, and then take full advantage of the result by providing it such technology enhancements as discussed in the article.

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  2. 2. jgrosay 6:40 pm 02/6/2012

    Did you watch the movies “Forbidden planet” and “Quatermass and the pit” ?. Both are worth watching.

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  3. 3. GG 7:58 pm 02/6/2012

    If it can improve performance, it can also degrade it. Don’t muck around blindly with your brain.

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  4. 4. KGrey 8:46 pm 02/6/2012

    Maybe it’s just setting up a more coherent local EM field that’s masking some of the random environmental EM noise. EM version of the tinfoil hat. Shielding from detrimental inputs vs adding any “enhancement”. Just a thought.

    We might want to be more clear on what’s going on before we get all twisted up about ethics and legality and all the other lawyer/government feeding frenzy generating reactions.

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  5. 5. rusty94114 9:46 pm 02/6/2012

    People routinely engage in all sorts of activities that are far riskier to the brain than this electrical stimulation technique appears to be. For example: driving a car, riding a bicycle, playing football or almost any other sport. If we aren’t making a fuss over those risks, then why should we do so over this one? Especially considering that the potential benefits of this one greatly exceed the benefits of most of those other risky activities.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 10:10 pm 02/6/2012

    People also expose fetuses to crack cocaine shake babies to the point of producing severe brain damage, but I wouldn’t recommend experimenting on developing human brains using this technology or any other. While any unintended/undesirable effects that might occur in adult brains might be acceptable, the potential effects on especially still developing brains could be catastrophic.

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  7. 7. crdcalusa 11:23 pm 02/6/2012

    I see a problem with humanity being able to have a proper good intention in using any kind of technology or drug that enhances the brain. I believe we have enough intellectuals in the world and they have failed to solve our deepest social problems because whatever we discover is put to use for nefarious reasons or for personal gain. Just seeing the photo of the child wearing this device is chilling as I imagine a normal child being taught to enhance the speed and breadth of his intellectual performance just to intensify his worth as a producer, a commodity who exists just to perform. A world full of self centered intellectual giants wouldn’t enhance our ability to live in peace or solve world hunger. This is clearly “putting the cart before the horse.” We’re too underdeveloped spiritually and ethically to embark on these activities without further corrupting our world.

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  8. 8. Spuck 9:20 am 02/7/2012

    The general public is not supposed to be smart enough to understand the things that are purposefully hidden by the select few. We will still only learn the things that make us better slaves without us being aware of it.

    And would learning A not affect how much we forget about B ? Is the brain endless in that respect ? I do not think it is. So we would probably forget the things we do not learn in school or in front of our TVs. Which is a bad thing in terms of control.

    People with “better brains” would probably benefit more, therefore making the gap bigger. Giving the more-or-less handicapped people access to this tech will not stand either. For sure, those that need it most will have the last opportunity if at all.

    Again, most likely it will be used without our knowledge to fill us with subliminal messages. No matter how good the intentions of the scientists are.

    Sorry, but I am just a pessimist when it comes to things that benefit all of us.

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  9. 9. santhip 10:56 am 02/7/2012

    what about stimulating using magnetic fields rather than just electric fields ? :)

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  10. 10. quantstyle 3:54 pm 08/15/2012

    Just to be clear, this won’t help people on Wall Street. What they do is gambling, and cognitive strength does not make one a better gambler. What it does is help one better explain their decisions on why they guessed heads vs tails, but it doesn’t make them more accurate.

    Out of all the former Investment Banks, Merill Lynch had the highest GPA requirement for their employees, and they were one of the first go go out of business.

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