Are Smart Pills & Brain Zapping Risky? Bioethicists Weigh In

human mind illustration
(Image credit: agsandrew/

Boosting a person's smarts through drugs or electrical or magnetic stimulation of the brain is becoming an increasingly widespread practice. Now, bioethicists are weighing in, saying that while such cognitive enhancement is neither bad nor good, it deserves more research.

In the past, "there have been many arguments that suggest one should take an ethical stance for or against cognitive enhancement" of healthy individuals, said Amy Gutmann, chairwoman of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which released the second part of a report today (March 26) on ethics in neuroscience research, commissioned by President Barack Obama as part of the BRAIN Initiative, a collaborative effort to develop tools to study the human brain.

"We as a commission recommend there is no bright line to be drawn here," Gutmann told Live Science during a news conference yesterday. [10 Easy Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp]

The new report focused on three main areas: cognitive enhancement, informed consent in mentally impaired individuals and the use of neuroscience in the legal system.

The bioethics commission called for continued research into the effects of all forms of neural modification, for both healthy people and those suffering from brain disorders, said commission member Dr. Stephen Hauser, chair of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.

This includes brain-enhancing drugs, such as the common stimulants methylphenidate (brand name Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall); medications that improve focus or energy, such as modafinil (Provigil); and drugs used to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, such as Donepezil (Aricept).

The commission also called for more research on technologies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, transcranial direct current stimulation and deep brain stimulation. The latter has mostly been used to treat tremors in people with Parkinson's disease, but it has shown some promise in treating cognitive disorders such as depression.

The report's authors also said that more research is needed on neuroscience-based learning tools, which attempt to improve brain function through feedback — the "21st-century biofeedback approach," as Hauser put it.

In addition to these forms of cognitive enhancement, the commission members urged more research on "low-tech" ways to improve brain function, such as a healthy diet.

The report also brought up the issue of unequal access to cognitive enhancement, which could widen the achievement gap between the rich and the poor. Alternatively, these enhancement tools could serve to close some gaps in mental ability due to education or employment, the report's authors said.

The commission released the first part of its report in May 2014, which stressed the importance of incorporating ethics into neuroscience early on, and explicitly, in research.

Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.