Letters – Additional Considerations for "Cognitive Enhancement in Education"

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Betty Schlatter, CNM

I enjoy reading Dignitas and recently read “Cognitive Enhancement in Education: the State of the Issue” by Susan Rouse, PhD. I realize there will be another installment in the future, and she may address these concerns at that time, but wanted to comment. One issue that will need further study is how these drugs may affect the length of one’s life and/or the quality of the end of one’s life. Our bodies are not designed to live forever, or even for prolonged times, in this fallen world (thankfully!), so one wonders what will be the outcome in later life if we “push” our bodies to perform beyond their usual ability in earlier years. We also do not have a good handle yet on how we individually respond genetically to various medications, but we do know that there are individual differences. This may mean that some individuals do well with cognitive-enhancing drugs and others do not . . . or less so. And, finally, if we “improve” the human condition with drugs, we may potentially give ourselves the false hope that we can do life without a Savior and Redeemer and, therefore, give people fewer reasons to turn to Him. I appreciate CBHD and the monumental work you do in bioethics from a Christian perspective.

Dr. Rouse replies:

I wholeheartedly agree with the comment that the issue of the long-term, broad-scope impact of cognitive enhancing drugs must be addressed. Certainly it is reasonable to hypothesize that long-term use of these neuro-active drugs would change synaptic function in the brain in ways that are seemingly beneficial in the short term, but potentially damaging in the long term. I also agree that it is hard to predict each individual’s response to a particular drug. We see both of these points illustrated by other psychoactive drugs of abuse. The ADHD medications in question act on the mesolimbic dopamine system (the area of the brain deemed the reward circuit that is heavily implicated in addictive behaviors). As a result, it is not an unreasonable hypothesis that if these drugs were legalized, addiction to these drugs would begin to emerge, and long-term users would begin to experience irreversible physiological damage. So, on your first two points, I agree. However, I see the last issue you raised a little differently. Throughout all of human history we have been working to improve the human condition. Every bit of technology aims to accomplish this end. Yet, as technology advances, so does our realization that our condition is simply unable to be perfected. While I agree that cognitive enhancement (for many) is just another means for pursuing perfection (salvation) through technology, I would assert that no matter how good the drugs are, we will not achieve perfection. So, interestingly, this pursuit could actually increase despair. Those that are turning to enhancement for fulfillment will be disappointed. This may leave the door open for us, as Christians, to share with them the only real means to peace and perfection, Jesus Christ. This is clearly not a reason to celebrate cognitive enhancement, but may allow us to see this trend through God-colored glasses and be prepared to offer hope where there is little.