Vitamins and tablets

Self-improvement

New techniques and developments in manipulating the brain can raise tricky ethical questions

Adam is in the first year of a university degree in economics. His exams are approaching, but he hasn’t done much revision. He wants to enhance his brain function using psychostimulants and brain stimulation, so he can cram in as much as possible in the little time he has left before they start.

He knows someone who can get him some ‘smart drugs’ – modafinil, a stimulant given to people with narcolepsy, which enhances wakefulness and has memory-boosting effects, and methylphenidate (sold as Ritalin), a stimulant given to children with ADHD, which enhances attention.

Adam thinks that taking modafinil might help him to stay up all night, giving him precious extra time for last-minute revision, and that methylphenidate might help him to stay focused on his work for much longer than normal.

He also knows that he can further boost his capacity to learn and retain information using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a simple technique that involves applying small electrical currents to the brain, via electrodes on the scalp that are attached to a 9-volt battery. He can buy a cheap tDCS kit online and apply it himself.

Questions for discussion

  • Do you think it’s OK for Adam to enhance his mental functions in this way? 
  • Would it give him an unfair advantage over other students who have worked hard throughout the year? 
  • What would you do if you were in his position? 
  • How is this different from drinking coffee to keep yourself alert? 
  • If you were a potential employer, would these actions influence the value you placed on his grades?

Lead image:

Vitamins and tablets.

Kate Whitley/Wellcome Collection CC BY

References

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Topic:
Neuroscience
Issues:
Inside the Brain, Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development