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July 31, 2011

Cosmetic Neuro-tinkering


Altering your body for aesthetic reasons has become social norm in society. What if you could alter your brain functions to improve motor skills, attention, learning, and mood, would you do it? Advances in neuropharmacology are beginning to progress to the point that they are able to use drugs to enhance these abilities. This emerging technology is becoming known as cosmetic neurology.

In an article entitled, "Cosmetic Neuorlogy: The Controversy Over Enhancing Movement, Mentation and Mood," Anjan Chatterjee MD outlines three general categories, motor systems, attention/learning/memory, and mood, that could have a prospect for better bodies and mind.

Chatterjee says that all three of these areas of improvement already have neuophamagological drugs that can improve them. For example, Insulin-like growth factors (IGF) can be given to men over 60 to increase muscle mass, decrease body fat, and improve skin. This in turn improves the quality of life of these people? In addition to IGFs, there are drugs that can improve plasticity, block receptors that cause depression, and decrease unpleasant memories.

Unfortunately, any time you wish to alter the brain there are several ethical dilemmas. In this case safety, individuality, distribution and coercion become the prominent issues.

Safety is a main concern with any form of drug treatment. In disease, a person weights the risks against the potential benefits. Which is why people with terminal cancer are willing to endure toxic chemotherapies to prolong life. Where as in a healthy state any risk is harder to accept because the alternative is "normal" health (Chatterjee 2004). This is where ethics plays in. Is it ethical to treat someone with something that does not save them for something else? Some people think it is, as long as that person is equipped with enough information about the potential side effect. But then again where did the information come from and did the person use it?

Another issue in this cause is individuality; Chatterjee says that a major concern is that chemically changing the brain threatens to eliminate personhood. This then leads into a more ethical issue of if tinkering with brain chemistry is going to threaten what it means to be human?

As in most discussions, who gets them becomes an important question to ask. Because these mind-altering drugs are expensive it is unlikely that the government or insurance companies are going to pay. Does that mean that the rich prevail again? Then we have to ask ourselves? what happens when the rich get stronger, smarter, and sweeter than "normal" people? A critical ethical issue when talking about new drugs is distribution.

Finally, we must look at how choices can evolve into forces of coercion (Chatterjee 2004). One form of this is the common feeling that you want to be better or at least maintain your position in society. As people become smarter, fast, and stronger, pressures increase and smaller groups of people will be competing for larger prizes. Imagine what you could do if you could work 100 hours a week without becoming tired! Another issue is demand for superior performance. Pilots taking donepezil preformed better in emergencies than those on a placebo. Should that then mean that all pilots should take it, or that people will pay more for flights where their pilot takes it?

It does not take much imagination to see how the media will advertise for "better brains." We must look follow these topics and developments. Up until now, I did not realize the extent of these mind-altering substances. Did you?
Posted by      Robin J. at 9:03 AM MDT
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