Cognitive Enhancement: Which Path Will We Take?
Many people are presented with options to enhance their abilities and do so on a regular basis; even though the most popular option may be caffeine, there are many others available, and even more will become available in the coming years. The future holds the potential for a wide variety of scientific discoveries to change the way the brain works and improve it drastically. There are varieties of cognitive enhancement being developed, but they may not achieve their potential unless scientists are able to overcome specific hurdles in development. Broadly, these enhancements fit into three categories: 1) chemicals that impart certain cognitive effects, 2) activities that enhance cognition over time and 3) surgically implanted prostheses that are currently being developed to enhance mental abilities.
Chemical Cognitive Enhancement
Most societies are no strangers to enhancing cognitive abilities through chemical means. The routine engagement in the morning caffeine ritual allows millions to enhance focus and prepare their brains to handle the attentive demands of the workday. Children and teens with focusing problems are chemically dosed to calm their minds and focus their attention. College students use prescribed pharmaceuticals illegally in order to complete large amounts of work without sleep and before deadlines. For many, this habit continues into graduate school, medical school and beyond. Regardless of the fact that society looks down upon chemical cognitive enhancement because of the psychological or physical dependencies they create, pharmaceutical enhancement is far from stepping into the shadows of man’s quest to improve his abilities.
It is unclear whether pharmaceutical enhancers will become the standard-bearer of the cognitive enhancement story. There is the possibility that, as neuroscientists discover more about neurotransmitters and the brain, pharmaceutical companies will be able to refine their products such that effects are heightened and side effects reduced, which will result in increased popularity. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), common antidepressants, are taken in pill form and are therefore delivered to the entire brain rather than the site of the imbalance. This drug attempts to reduce depressive symptoms by bathing the brain in serotonin, which is a simplistic and ineffective way of treating psychiatric illnesses. Advances must occur before pharmaceutical enhancers will become more effective and commonplace.
The most significant may be advances in targeted delivery systems, which would allow for the direct delivery of a medication to a particular cell type based on the shape or behavior of a particular delivery capsule or the medicinal molecule itself. Even though similar technologies are currently being employed to fight cancer, these advanced delivery systems have yet to be applied to psychiatric illness. Effective targeted treatment of a brain region or cell population would revolutionize mental health and likely give rise to a vibrant and far-reaching cognitive enhancement industry. On the other hand, FDA restrictions on such medications become more restrictive as more is discovered about these drugs’ unintended consequences.
Furthermore, even though drugs like Ritalin and Adderall continue to be popular, many outspoken voices strongly disagree with modern society’s heavy reliance on these drugs, especially those prescribed to children. The question boils down to whether people prefer to owe their mental capacity to a pill or to the power of their own mind. While some people might prefer to use their own mental power to increase their own intelligence, many might prefer the easier route of taking a pill. Furthermore, the pharmaceutical industry is highly profitable and has considerable influence—factors that will play an important role in the future of cognitive enhancement.
Although it has far to go before becoming a mature technology, brain training has grown quickly in popularity over the last five years. Most training programs concern themselves with participants using computers to train specific cognitive systems to operate more effectively and thereby transfer their increased abilities into the real world. Working memory, which is the ability to store auditory or visual and spatial information and recall it when necessary, has been one of the most successfully trained cognitive systems (1,2). Attention training has also been successful for the treatment of ADHD, and for the elderly, training vision and hearing has been effective in helping them to regain their driving abilities (3,4,5).
Before this technology is able to mature, advances must be made to increase effectiveness, generalizability and speed of training. Most importantly, cognitive neuroscientists must understand the phenomenon of transfer more completely. Transfer is the phenomenon of training on one task and seeing improvement on other tasks that are either in the lab or in the real world. Scientists measure the effectiveness of transfer by determining if the training program also helps a person in an untrained task that is theoretically related to the training task, but there are many variables outside of the training itself that can have an effect on transfer: motivation, fatigue, caffeine, glucose and nicotine levels, not to mention mood. The success of transfer must be determined by more objective measures—like functional and structural neuroimaging—rather than relying solely on behavioral tests.
Furthermore, scientists must increase their understanding of why transfer happens for one person and not another; this would help tailor the training sessions to the personal characteristics of the trainee. Also, for this technology to have the largest effect, cognitive neuroscientists must create training paradigms that have rapid and long-lasting effects. For example, it is widely accepted that meditation training has a significant impact on brain structure and function, but meditators must devote thousands of hours to attaining such levels of impact (6,7). There should be certain aspects of meditation training that can be replicated in a computer-based training program and drilled until similar benefits are obtained. Vipassana training involves a great deal of somatosensory and attention inhibition training; both of these training aspects can be manipulated in such a way to create an effective computer based training paradigm without the need for meditating ten hours per day.
Of the enhancement technologies discussed here, perhaps the most interesting to the transhumanist community is a small chip or machine that mimics or improves on neural functioning and gives its user superior cognitive capabilities by being implanted into a part of their body or brain. Ideally, in an increasingly interconnected and interactive world, this technology should dovetail seamlessly with other digital mediums enabling users to connect to devices and other users with their mind. Modern implants are far cruder than many of the technologies that futurists envision; nevertheless, they fulfill a fascinating function in today’s society. By recording, exciting or blocking neural activity at a specific location, the implants are able to prevent unhealthy brain activity such as epileptic seizures and depressive symptoms. Retinal implants, with low black and white resolution, are able to help the blind see as never before. The cochlear implant that is used in deaf patients recreates sound within the brain by recording sound and stimulating nerves connected to the ear. The nature of such technologies is that they are first developed for people with serious deficits but could, after years of refining, eventually become available as an enhancement operation for healthy individuals. Recently, researchers have created a chip that allows for increased memory in rats (8,9), and by turning the chip on or off they are able to alter recollection of an event. While this technology may still be a decade or two from human trials, it may eventually be used as a memory enhancement or even replacement.
Regardless of the enormous impact that brain implants have already have, and will have in the future, these technologies will never come into full bloom unless some important hurdles are overcome. Perhaps the most important is the extraordinary difficulty with which these operations are performed. Brain surgery is extremely delicate, and should never be taken lightly. Unless such enhancement operations can be performed with more ease and much smaller chance of infection and rejection, they will never become anything more than a badge of devotion for the most extreme and wealthy transhumanists. Alternatively, rather than overcoming this hurdle, researchers could look to circumvent it completely by looking into other possibilities. Eventually, nanobots might perform the construction and installation of these implants without ever opening the skull, or powerful magnets might be worn on the scalp that enhance cognitive abilities by stimulating certain brain networks.
Every day, scientists are discovering more about the brain. Like never before, neuroscientists are working with computer engineers, philosophers, physicists, biochemists, mathematicians, cognitive scientists and medical doctors to produce the most significant advances in humanity’s understanding of the workings of the brain and mind. Many other scientists will build upon these discoveries by creating devices, chemicals and training regimens that improve our minds and allow us to more fully control our own intellectual development. Irrespective of the fact that these developments will revolutionize the ways we can develop our minds over the next few decades, there are many things that one can do today to encourage positive neuroplasticity and discourage neurodegeneration. Daily exercise, cognitive engagement, healthy eating, learning new skillsets and social relationships have been widely demonstrated to have a significant impact on overall brain health and encourage longevity.
Here’s an article I wrote about the future of cognitive training:
I’ve also made a few videos on the topic of cognitive training. You can check them out here:
About the Author
Aki Nikolaidis has a passion for understanding how brains are able to change and is fascinated by the possibilities for cognitive enhancement offered by cognitive training. He’s currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Illinois Champaign Urbana, and his research focuses on using neuroimaging methods like fMRI to find how cognitive training changes the brain. He’s made a YouTube channel dedicated to discussing topics in the brain sciences, links above.