If you have not come across the term ‘neuroenhancement’ before, it is a very controversial subject in the science and technology spaces, especially concerning neuroethics. First, here’s a simple definition:
Neuroenhancement refers to the specific augmentation, improvement, extension, and enhancement of the brain’s cognitive, behavioral, and affective functions in people who are not clinically impaired or do not have any mental illnesses. It involves using neuro-technologies to improve core information-processing systems in the brain based on a proper understanding of the individual’s neurobiology. Neuroenhancement can involve both pharmacological and non-pharmacological methods. As a matter of fact, there is quite a range of technologies used in neuroenhancements such as brain stimulation, gene editing, brain-computer interfaces, and a host of others.
Deep brain stimulation on the other hand is a neurosurgical technology or procedure used for the alteration of nerve activity through targeted delivery of different types of stimulus to particular neurological sites in the body.
The stimulus could be chemical agents or electrical stimulation. It is a procedure used to treat neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, and essential tremor. It is being researched to be used for other pathological circuitry conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and depressive disorder.
In simpler terms, brain stimulation technology is the surgery done on the brain to improve the treatment of brain disorders. Brain stimulation research has been going on for a very long time but it was further spurred as a result of the great success of neuroimaging (the use of different methods to either directly or indirectly image the function and structure of the nervous system); specifically its use in identifying the neural bases of cognitive functions, leading to directly altering brain activity, thereby changing cognitive processes.
The question this article poses to answer is eventually one of belief. There is no way to say for certain if one thing might lead to the other but factual points will be provided for you to draw your conclusions.
Is Brain Stimulation Really Worth it?
Well, it has always been possible, with proper training and learning techniques to improve brain function, especially with children. Human beings have always used cognitive enhancement methods to improve their range of different types of mental activities such as writing to store information. With new and ongoing scientific and clinical advancements, however, the possibilities when it comes to NIBS (Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation) are more direct.
It was originally developed and mostly used to treat people with neurological deficits which may include motor and cognitive impairments after a stroke. Deep Brain Stimulation Technology can now directly improve a perfectly healthy individual’s cognitive performance in the long term. There is also the possibility that this procedure, when conducted on people in perfect health, as opposed to the possibility of improvements, may have no effects on those with extraordinary cognitive abilities.
Therefore, depending on the highlighted factors, the ‘worthiness’ of Brain Stimulation Technology swings in two ways: cognitive improvement or nothing at all.
There are different methods of neuroenhancement currently being developed for patients with neurological or psychiatric illnesses as well as perfectly healthy individuals. These methods include Transcranial Electromagnetic Stimulation methods such as:
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
- Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS)
- Deep Brain Stimulation
- Behavioral training techniques, as well as others being used with neuroimaging.
Some of the possible advantages of these procedures include improvement of perception, memory, attention, and other forms of cognition, which lead to improved performances in day to day activities of the individual. For patients with existing psychiatric illnesses, the procedure could reduce the duration, cost, and impact of brain and mental illnesses. Cognitive stimulation could help compensate for memory failures in patients who have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. It could also help restore motor functions and speech in patients
Disadvantages or Consequences of Neuroenhancement methods on healthy and high-performing individuals
Earlier in this article, it was stated that healthy individuals who undergo neuro-enhancement may not experience any improvement in their cognitive. Does non-effect also mean side effects?
At this stage of research, the consequences are honestly unpredictable, except, of course, disappointing those with high expectations for the procedure and hoping that this was some pathway to creating superhumans with telepathic abilities. The procedure is proven to affect some high-functioning individuals by damaging or impairing some of their abilities. It is like taking medicine when it is not needed. Effects could be worse than non-effects. This is why it is imperative that the side effects and limits of the procedure on healthy persons should be properly studied to avoid casualties, irreversible damage, and possible abuse by the unskilled.
Brain Stimulation Technology: Hero or Villain?
A skeptical researcher once made a valid point, stating that people seem to forget that the brain is the body’s control center for feeling, eating, moving, breathing, understanding, and much more. He further stated that to attempt to tamper with the brain, especially when it is not needed, with the use of electricity or magnetism can inherently alter how an individual relates with other people and the society at large. He cited the possibility that this procedure, if a success, has high chances of becoming addictive to people.
There are recent theories that suggest that the human brain cannot be pushed past its natural capabilities. The brain may have space for expansion, but once it has reached its limit, wherever that be (different for each individual), there is nothing to be done. If you try to push the brain past those levels, it will likely initiate counter-mechanisms.
Lots of scientists weigh in on both sides of the discourse. The singular purpose of brain stimulation is to help people with brain disorders; emphasis on people with disorders. Even for these people, the procedure is not proven completely effective. Going out of that box by carrying these procedures on perfectly healthy people is highly questionable. Alternately, other scientists strongly believe that the benefits of neuroenhancement outweigh the possible disadvantages. For example, Ramez Naam, a computer scientist, technologist, and author of the book ‘More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement’ during a talk titled ‘Networked Minds’ expressed his belief that the most powerful impact that such advancements in technology could have in future is enhancing the human ability communicate with one another.
Is the world in dire need of that? Is Brain Stimulation the only road to achieving that? This article has presented you with facts on what Brain Stimulation Technology is and its relationship to neuroenhancement.
Can brain stimulation technology lead to neuroenhancement? It definitely can, it is just a matter of ethics. The question to be asked is if it should.