Archive for the ‘neuroenhancement’ Category

Can antidepressive medicine alter your decision behaviour? A recent paper in Science now demonstrates that alterations in subjects’ serotonin levels leads to significant changes in their decision making behaviour. In the study, subjects were set to play the Ultimatum Game repeatedly. Subjects had to do the task two times at two different days, and at one of the days they were administered an acute tryptophan depletion (ATD), i.e., their serotonin levels would drop for a period of time. The design was double-blind and placebo controlled.

The Ultimatum Game is an experimental economics game in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between themselves, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal. The game is played only once, and anonymously, so that reciprocation is not an issue.

What the researchers found was that the ATD led subjects to reject more offers, but only unfair offers. That is, ATD did not interact with offer size per se, and there was no change in mood, fairness judgement, basic reward processing or response inhibition. So serotonin seemed to affect aversive reactions to unfair offers.

The study is a nice illustration of how we now are learning to induce alterations in preferences and decision making. Along with other studies using, e.g., oxytocin to increase trust in economic games (see also my previous post about this experiment), one may expect that increasing the serotonin level may actually make subjects less responsive to unfair offers.

This knowledge is also important to learn more about, as it poses a wide range of ethical problems. If our preferences and decisions are really influenced by these stimuli, can this be abused? It should be mentioned that many of these substances are not necessarily detected (oxytocin is odourless), so we may be influenced without our consent or knowledge. The wide applicances could include casinos, stores (e.g. for expensive cars), dating agencies and so on. If we did not accept subliminal messages in ads, how can we accept this?


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In relation to our previous and well-visited post about oxytocin, we should mention a new study that uses this very substance in a neuroeconomic set-up. In the study, recently published by Neuron, and headed by Baumgartner et al., it was found that the administration of oxytocin affected subjects’ in a trust game. In particular, it was found that subjects that received oxytocin were not affected by information about co-players that cheated. Or, as put in the abstract:

(…) subjects in the oxytocin group show no change in their trusting behavior after they learned that their trust had been breached several times while subjects receiving placebo decrease their trust.

That is extremely interesting. This suggests that oxytocin, a mammalian hormone + neurotransmitter that is known to be related to maternal behaviour and bonding, also is modulating social trust. So the brain link is obvious. But what happens in the brain when oxytocin is administered during the trust game?

This difference in trust adaptation is associated with a specific reduction in activation in the amygdala, the midbrain regions, and the dorsal striatum in subjects receiving oxytocin, suggesting that neural systems mediating fear processing (amygdala and midbrain regions) and behavioral adaptations to feedback information (dorsal striatum) modulate oxytocin’s effect on trust.

So oxytocin reduces fear and aversion responses, and this leads to the lack of effect in responding to cheaters. Excellent, why not use this for treating anxiety, phobia and other fear-related problems? Sounds promising, and yet other more ethically problematic issues remain to be resolved. Think, for example, about whether oxytocin makes us more susceptible to gambling, shopping and marketing effects? Or what if it may work as the first scientifically proven aphrodisiac? What if your next pick-up line would be “Hi, I’m Thomas, how are you” just followed by a few ‘puff-puff’ sounds.

Joke aside, studies like this demonstrates that emotions and decisions are often influenced by factors not consciously available, or at least only partially so. As the marketing industry is increasingly interested in multi-sensory inventions, oxytocin may be the next step in this endaveour.


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The good people at the Dana Press have been kind enough to send us an advance copy of Jonathan Moreno’s forthcoming book, Mind Wars. Since it is first scheduled for publication in November (in the US; December in Europe) I will wait a few months before recording my thoughts about it here on the blog, but rest assured that you wiil hear about this book again. Mind Wars is the first book, as far as I know, to survey the American military’s use of, and involvement in, neuroscience research. Besides being a highly interesting topic in itself, this also makes the book the first neuroethics tome to really give an in depth picture of just how seriously Government and other parties are considering using neuroscience insights and methods to monitor and alter our brains. I predict it will make quite a splash in the press when November comes.

For now I want to highlight a concept much toted by Moreno: dual use. Briefly, “dual use” refers to the idea that much brain research may benefit both medicine and military use. Consider brain-machine interface research. Clever devices by which a brain damaged patient, for instance patients with locked-in syndrome, can be made able to manipulate computers or protheses also can be used by soldiers to manipulate weapons and other war related artefacts. When promoting projects or seeking funding many military researchers therefore make a big deal out of stressing how putative results may turn out to benefit health care as much as warfighting. As Moreno points out a rather big chunk of the US neuroscience effort is either directly or indirectly funded by such dual use programmes. Also, even research with no overt military funding, and with no apparant relevance to warfighting, may end up being exploited by military authorities, as neuroscience journals are routinely perused by military authorities. Perhaps this knowledge ought to give pause to brain researchers. On the other hand, it should also be noted that it is often only because of money coming from the military’s budgets that important research is being done in the first place. So the ethical connundrum of dual use is not quite that simple.

In reality, when it comes to neuroscience, “dual use” should probably be a very general and basic concept. It is hard to imagine any result stemming from our inquiry into the brain – perception, memory, motor control, etc. – which cannot be used both for both “good” and “bad”. Of course, you could say the same about many other forms of scientific results. But being the seat of the soul the brain is really the dual use organ par excellence, and we ought to think more about the problems dual use raises.


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Today's featured article at Wikipedia is about transhumanism, "an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of new sciences and technologies to enhance human physical and cognitiveameliorate what it regards as harsh and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as disease and aging." If you think of humanism as the attempt to help every person reach her or his full potential (whatever that means; as if we have an inborn potential), transhumanism goes beyond this and asks whether we can go beyond the "naturally given" potential and expand our possibilities — and reach them.

Some, however, mean that transhumanism is one of "the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity" today, as suggested by Francis Fukuyama. The basic idea in Fukuyama's criticism is that Transhumanism leads to inequality between humans:

Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the worlds poorest countriesfor whom biotechnologys marvels likely will be out of reachand the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.

Transhumanisms advocates think they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better. But do they really comprehend ultimate human goods? (…)

A response by Nick Boström can be found here. He criticizes Fukuyama on three points:

  1. The assumption that there is a unique “human essence”
  2. Only those individuals who have this mysterious essence can have intrinsic value and deserve equal rights
  3. The enhancements that transhumanists advocate would eliminate this essence. From this, he infers that the transhumanist project would destroy the basis of equal rights.

Against the idea of "human essence", Boström argues:

The concept of such a “human essence” is, of course, deeply problematic. Evolutionary biologists note that the human gene pool is in constant flux and talk of our genes as giving rise to an “extended phenotype” that includes not only our bodies but also our artifacts and institutions. Ethologists have over the past couple of decades revealed just how similar we are to our great primate relatives. A thick concept of human essence has arguably become an anachronism.


The only defensible way of basing moral status on human essence is by giving “essence” a very broad definition; say as “possessing the capacity for moral agency”. But if we use such an interpretation, then Fukuyama’s third premise fails. The enhancements that transhumanists advocate – longer healthy lifespan, better memory, more control over emotions, etc. – would not deprive people of the capacity for moral agency. If anything, these enhancements would safeguard and expand the reach of moral agency.

Boström concludes:

Fukuyama’s argument against transhumanism is flawed. Nevertheless, he is right to draw attention to the social and political implications of the increasing use of technology to transform human capacities. We will indeed need to worry about the possibility of stigmatization and discrimination, either against or on behalf of technologically enhanced individuals. Social justice is also at stake and we need to ensure that enhancement options are made available as widely and as affordably as possible. This is a primary reason why transhumanist movements have emerged. On a grassroots level, transhumanists are already working to promote the ideas of morphological, cognitive, and procreative freedoms with wide access to enhancement options. Despite the occasional rhetorical overreaches by some of its supporters, transhumanism has a positive and inclusive vision for how we can ethically embrace new technological possibilities to lead lives that are better than well.

The discussion about transhumanism is important because it, in its essence, also deals with the part of neuroethics that pertains to brain enhancements. The making and taking of a memory pill; connecting wetware to hardware; and altering genes for non-medical purposes all deal with an aspect of transcending the naturally given about human beings. Of course, so do glasses and contact lenses. But these are mostly tobe seen as tools to help, rater than something that changes you as what you are. Cosmetic neurology (PDF document) is the term for the artificial enhancement of the brain. I'd say that the term is a bit misguided, since in my view, the "cosmetic" sounds too superficial. If you manipulate the brain, you're tinkering with what a person is per se. Taking a "brainy pill", or adding hardware parts to boost your neuronal engine goes beyond the mere tool that glasses and lenses are. There is not much of a "cosmetic feel" about it when you start changing who you are and what defines you as human: error-prone, forgetful, emotional, mortal.

So, in a way, maybe we shouldn't be too be worried about the societal aspects about cosmetic neurology (or transhumanistic thought). It is possible that cosmetic neurology is neither the problem nor solution to many of today's world's problems such as poverty and inequality between people. Nor should we think of it as something that will add much to the difference, though it will be something that might mark the difference between poor and whealthy. What we should be concerned about is how technical and medical enhancements will change how people define themselves. Just as so and so many use iPod today, will we see communities of people that start inoperating wireless communication into their brains, as in Peter Hamilton's affinity function in the Night's Dawn triolgy? IOW, we should start thinking about what "brain enhancement" does to the individual rather than staring ourselves blind at the societal problems.


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There is a most interesting question being posed at the ABC The Science Show:

“What are the implications of the latest advances in neural prosthetics?”

THE SCIENCE SHOW with Robyn Williams – iHuman
Saturday 14 January, Midday, repeat Monday 16 January, 7pm

What are the implications of the latest advances in neural prosthetics, electronic implants and robotics for humankind? It started with attachments to the body – the watch, the hearing aid – now we are working with nerves and the brain, having the brain operate motors and activators. Combining man and machine can be used to save lives, but where does it end?

Download the mp3 file directly here (mp3 file) or get the transcript here.

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