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Cognitive Enhancement via Drugs vs. Software

SharpBrains Summit participant Peter Reiner, from the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia, shares his main Summit take-aways on the potential and challenges of non-invasive technologies for brain fitness.

He synthesizes the opportunity well: 1) Cognition is not monolithic 2) Software is adaptive 3) and seems safe, elaborating that:

“Will brain fitness software dominate the world of cognitive enhancement? Prior to this conference I was quite skeptical, but the overall impression that I was left with was that brain fitness software may turn out to have some distinct advantages over pharmacological approaches.

  1. Cognition is not monolithic: there are multiple domains of cognition to be targeted, and the deficits that individuals have as they age vary. The software lends itself to both assessing which domain an individual is in need of ‘tuning up’ and then directing them to a particular product that is best capable of improving that domain of cognition. Pharmacological cognitive enhancement, even as it matures, may include drugs that target particular domains. However, the development costs for each drug are so great that it seems unlikely to me that there will be as many domains of cognition targeted with drugs as with brain fitness software.
  2. Brain fitness software is progressive: as one becomes more proficient at the task, it becomes difficult. Such individual tailoring is difficult to achieve with pharmacological agents.
  3. Using software is probably safe. I say probably, because as Mike Merzernich pointed out, nobody has systematically investigate the potential side effects of using this software. There may be some, but the likelihood of side effects is relatively low.

Probably the biggest disadvantage with brain fitness software is that you have to do it; just like physical exercise, if you don’t regularly ‘exercise’ your brain, you won’t improve. The software now needs to move from being useful to being compelling. Taking a cue from the gaming industry’s success might be an idea whose time has come.”

You can read his whole blog post clicking on Brain Fitness Software Update.

Based on what we see, I’d say that top-down and bottom-up approaches are complementary, so the question will be when and how to use each on its own vs. combined.

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