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Ethical, social, and legal implications of neural enhancement with noninvasive brain stimulation

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Recent years have seen the rise of noninvasive brain stimulation as a safe approach to focally manipulating brain activity in either transient or potentially enduring ways. Neuromodulation technologies may have the capacity to increase human cognitive abilities, not only for persons who suffer from neurologic ...

Recent years have seen the rise of noninvasive brain stimulation as a safe approach to focally manipulating brain activity in either transient or potentially enduring ways. Neuromodulation technologies may have the capacity to increase human cognitive abilities, not only for persons who suffer from neurologic and psychiatric disorders that impair their mental acuity, but also for individuals who wish to augment their intellectual capabilities beyond their normal limits. For this reason, noninvasive brain stimulation — once of interest only to neurophysiologists, cognitive neuroscientists, and clinicians — has drawn increasing public attention, both from an enthusiastic and decidedly optimistic media as well as from commercial entities that are motivated to make neural enhancement devices both commonplace and profitable. In addition, the fact that neuromodulation technologies like transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) are inexpensive to build, seemingly safe, and technically straightforward to operate has helped give rise to a motivated community of “do-it-yourself” brain stimulators, who combine their shared self-experimentation experiences with close reading of the scientific literature to guide their quest to create smarter, better selves. However, as attractive as neural enhancement with brain stimulation may seem, its promise is tempered by the many potential ethical, social, and legal challenges that accompany it. In order to create a sensible framework for thinking about how to engage the range personal and societal problems that may accompany widespread adoption of brain stimulation, certain fundamental questions must be addressed, many of which would be most sensibly addressed by experts such as neuroscientists, neuroethicists, and neuromodulation device manufacturers.

In this Research Topic of Frontiers, we will assemble a team of leaders in these and other fields to provide a comprehensive, rigorous, and balanced approach to engaging the promises, perils, and pitfalls of neural enhancement with noninvasive brain stimulation. Given the recent popularity of tDCS as an enhancement approach, this will be the principal but not sole technical focus of this Research Topic. Authors will address central questions, such as the safety and efficacy of cognitive enhancement with brain stimulation. Interestingly, our discussion of safety must include not only the risk of physical injury but also the potential for inadvertent cognitive effects both for individuals and societies. Epistemological issues will be raised regarding what can and cannot be gleaned about the capacity for neuromodulation technologies to enhance normal abilities based on current cognitive neuroscience experiments and clinical studies of patients. Relatedly, we will ponder whether there is an ethically meaningful difference between treatment and enhancement when it comes to cognition? Finally, we will discuss how a rational framework for regulating cognitive enhancement might look, and what the challenges are in finding an appropriate balance between public safety and respect for autonomy with regard to cosmetic brain stimulation.


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