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.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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