The Myth of Cognitive Enhancement Drugs

Neuroethics 8 (3):257-269 (2015)
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There are a number of premises underlying much of the vigorous debate on pharmacological cognitive enhancement. Among these are claims in the enhancement literature that such drugs exist and are effective among the cognitively normal. These drugs are deemed to enhance cognition specifically, as opposed to other non-cognitive facets of our psychology, such as mood and motivation. The focus on these drugs as cognitive enhancers also suggests that they raise particular ethical questions, or perhaps more pressing ones, compared to those raised by other kinds of neuroenhancement. Finally, the use of these drugs is often claimed to be significant and increasing. Taken together, these premises are at the heart of the flurry of debate on pharmacological cognitive enhancement. In this article, it is argued that these are presumptions for which the evidence does not hold up. Respectively, the evidence for the efficacy of these drugs is inconsistent; neurologically it makes little sense to distinguish the cognitive from non-cognitive as separate targets of pharmacological intervention; ethically, the questions raised by cognitive enhancement are in fact no different from those raised by other kinds of neuroenhancement; and finally the prevalence rates of these drugs are far from clear, with the bulk of the claims resting on poor or misrepresented data. Greater conceptual clarity along with a more tempered appreciation of the evidence can serve to deflate some of the hype in the associated literature, leading to a more realistic and sober assessment of these prospective technologies

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Hazem Zohny
University of Otago