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July 31, 2011

Neurotherapeutics: Helpful or Harmful?


Who wouldn't want to take a pill that would enhance their mental capabilities? Instead of studying for hours and hours, how much more enjoyable would it be if you took a pill, enhanced your memory making capabilities and thus only had to spend an hour or two studying for that big cumulative exam? These days research and scientific developments have allowed the range of pharmaceuticals to alter mood, cognition and other cognitive skills such as memory to go beyond what we previously would have believed to be to be impossible. Drugs that have been developed to treat some of the most heinous diseases now bring the promise of, not only treating illness, but enhancing performance. Today, the debate between treatment and enhancement has already begun to be a hot button topic in neuroscience.

According to an article by Paul Root Wolpe, there are two fundamental questions that we must address pertaining to this issue. First, "what do terms such as average or normal functioning or even disease and enhancement mean when we can improve functioning across the entire range of human capability?" Second, "should we encourage or discourage people to ingest pharmaceuticals to enhance behaviors, skills and traits? What are the social implications of using drugs or other neurotechnologies to micromanage mood, improve memory, to maintain attentiveness or improve sexuality?"

Enhancement has been defined by medicine and its implications. Medicine treats disease but what it does not treat is enhancement. So if we begin allowing or encouraging people to take pharmaceuticals in order to enhance their well-being, where do we draw the line? A good example used in this article is the use of Prozac and other anti-depressant drugs. If drugs like Prozac can increase a user's mood, what emotional state then becomes normal? If it becomes normal for everyone to take mood enhancing drugs, than does being in a sad state become taboo? Furthermore, if more people start taking drugs like Prozac, will insurance companies still cover these sorts of drugs? Insurance companies pay for treatments and injurious events, but if everyone is using a drug does this drug then become a commonality such as the use of Advil, which is not covered by insurance companies?

As humans, we have always been able to find techniques to enhance our performance and general functioning. We go to school, take vitamins, and go through training programs. But is it acceptable to bypass all of these "external" strategies and directly alter our brains? Sure, the drugs we have currently developed may help us increase cognitive function but what about the long term side effects? Take the use of drugs that are supposed to treat disabilities like ADD and ADHD. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin prescribed for attention deficit disorder are becoming more and more popular among students. These drugs boost cognitive function and enable the user to study for hours with full concentration without getting tired or distracted. But at what cost? Long term use of cognitive enhancers like Ritalin cause serious side effects such as severe sleep deprivation and heart problems. More troubling, however, is that these drugs can be highly addictive. Users can get to the point where what we now define as "normal" cognitive function is unachievable without the use of cognitive enhancers. So if drugs like Adderall can have these results, can our pharmaceutical strategies backfire on us and destroy the delicate balance in our brains?

On the other hand, think about a world where we have not only found a cure for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, but where people in general have a higher standard of living because our brains are functioning at the fullest extent! It's a fine line between helpful and hurtful when it comes to our emerging neurotechnologies and pharmaceuticals.

For more information on this debate check out the article by Paul Root Wolpe at: http://www.chem.arizona.edu/courseweb/081/CHEM4361/reading_pdfs/guest_lecturers/treatment_enhancement.pdf
Posted by      Sherry W. at 11:23 AM MDT

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