August 14, 2011

Slate reviews 'Planet of the Apes'-style research into brain boosting

James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is featured in Slate's article, Think Faster: A review of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes-style research into brain boosting:
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco plays a scientist who discovers a genetic engineering treatment, delivered via virus, that prompts the brain to repair itself in the sick and boosts brain power beyond base line in the healthy (at least, in healthy apes). In the real world, though, that sort of therapy is still relegated to mouse experimentation. According to James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, genetic therapy is still a field with more promise than successes. It can be dangerous, as is portrayed in the Apes prequel: In 1999, Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old who suffered from a rare metabolic disorder, died as a result of a gene-therapy trial, and the field is still grappling with that failure.

Brain-computer interfaces, such as implants or "hook-ups," represent an alternative path for neuroenhancement. Linking your brain to a computer chip may conjure up sci-fi nightmares of a USB slot behind your ear, but it's not quite that far-fetched: Technically, the cochlear implants that allow some hearing-impaired or deaf people to hear in a limited fashion are brain-computer interfaces, as Greely points out. But Hughes speculates that brain-computer interfaces for better cognitive skills are probably at least 30 or 40 years out. "Even if we don't have nanobots in your head, we might have simpler ways of, and perhaps noninvasive ways, of hooking the brain up to external media and doing things we can't quite imagine yet," he says.

So any blockbuster neuroenhancer is still in the lab, or just a twinkle in a scientist's eye, at the moment. But those in the field are already preparing for the ethical and societal ramifications. Some, like Greely, urge the public—and physicians—not to be too squeamish about giving healthy brains a little boost. "In a world in which human work spans and life spans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools—including the pharmacological—will be increasingly useful for improve quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal pathological age-related cognitive declines," he and colleagues argued in a 2008 Nature commentary.

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