“New findings in neuroscience have given us unprecedented knowledge about the workings of the brain. Innovative research—much of it based on neuroimaging results—suggests not only treatments for neural disorders but also the possibility of increasingly precise and effective ways to predict, modify, and control behavior.” – Robert H. Blank, Intervention in the Brain
The ethics of neurocognitive enhancement, that is the use of drugs and other brain interventions to make normal people “better than well”, is an example of a neuroethical issue with both familiar and novel aspects. On the one hand, we can be informed by previous bioethical work on physical enhancements such as doping for strength in sports and the use of human growth hormone for normal boys of short stature. On the other hand, there are also some arguably novel ethical issues that arise in connection with brain enhancement, because these enhancements affect how people think and feel, thus raising the relatively new issues of “cognitive liberty”. The growing role of psychopharmacology in everyday life raises a number of ethical issues, for example, the influence of drug marketing on our conceptions of mental health and normalcy, and the increasingly malleable sense of personal identity that results from what Peter D. Kramer called “cosmetic psychopharmacology”.
Nonpharmacologic methods of altering brain function are currently enjoying a period of rapid development, with a resurgence of psychosurgery for the treatment of medication-refractory mental illnesses and promising new therapies for neurological and psychiatric illnesses based on deep brain stimulation as well as relatively noninvasive transcranial stimulation methods. Research on brain-machine interfaces is primarily in a preclinical phase but promises to enable thought-based control of computers and robots by paralyzed patients. As the tragic history of frontal lobotomy reminds us, permanent alteration of the brain cannot be undertaken lightly. Although nonpharmacologic brain interventions are exclusively aimed at therapeutic goals, the US military sponsors research in this general area that is presumably aimed at enhancing the capabilities of soldiers.