Summary How Realistic Are the Scientific Assumptions of the Neuroenhancement Debate? - Schleim & Quednow - 2018

Introduction into neuroenhancement

The pharmacological optimism hypothesis is about that, with the help of drugs healthy people can become smarter. This is called cognitive enhancement, which seems to be very difficult to realise. The neuroenhancement prevalence hypothesis is about whether attempts in neuroenhancement are common and if, in the future, neuroenhancement techniques will be increasingly used.  

Other possible strategies next to the use of drugs are brain stimulation or genetic modification. In this paper the focus is on stimulant drugs such as methylphenidate, modafinil and amphetamine. There is a lot of interest in neuroenhancement, as seen in the amount of publications about the topic and the often used term “brain optimization” in the media. There are three assumptions that are the basis of the enthusiasm:

1. Intellectual performance can be improved by drugs (this is called the pharmalogical optimism hypothesis);

2. Pharmacological neuroenhancement is something that is already done by healthy people (neuroenhancement prevalence hypothesis);

3. Neuroenhancement will be increasingly used in the future (neuroenhancement prevalence hypothesis).

The pharmacological optimism hypothesis

In the 1990s and the early 2000s there was a high optimism regarding neuroenhancement. This optimism was based on the idea that new drugs for dementia or attention disorders could also be useful to improve cognitive functioning in healthy people. But, around 2010, there was a funding crisis of psychopharmacology. This crisis is the reason for that most of the literature on neuroenhancement are based on drugs that exist for a long time such as amphetamine. The research on neuroenhancement is difficult, especially because of the ethical issue of providing drugs to healthy people. It is also difficult to establish how neuroenhancement should be measured and to determine a definition on what human enhancement is. So, because of this reasoning, the pharmacological optimism hypothesis gets rejected.

The neuroenhancement prevalence hypothesis

There seems to be an increase in the production of stimulants, but this can be explained by the increase of diagnoses such as ADHD for which these stimulants are prescribed. There is no evidence that there is an increase in the use of stimulant drugs for the purpose of neuroenhancement. It seems that it are mostly young people (e.g. students) who use these kind of drugs for the purpose of enhancement. But they also stop taking them after a period of experimenting or after leaving college. But despite the increase in production of stimulants, there does not seem to be an increase in the use of stimulants for neuroenhancement. Therefore this hypothesis also gets rejected.

The history of neuroenhancement

There have been documentations found of the use of neuroenhancements as early as in the 1930s. For example, in Germany in 1938 there was an experiment carried out to compare students who studied while they were sleep deprived. Three groups were compared: a placebo group, a caffeine group and an amphetamine group.  In 1978, the dutch physician Meerlo also described three of his students that had used amphetamines to study all night long. They came to him with complaints about anxiety, which is a side-effect of amphetamines. Even after the “War on Drugs” in 1970, people still seemed to use psychostimulants with the goal of neuroenhancement. Because of that the use of psychostimulants has been documented since the 1930s, this leads to an even stronger rejection of the neuroenhancement prevalence hypothesis.


Psychopharmacological research turned out to be more difficult than was expected. Therefore the authors say that research that will be conducted on neuroenhancement has to be based on the right theoretical, empirical and historical evidence so to avoid unrealistic expectations in the general public. Also, the funding crisis leads to more difficulty in examining new stimulants and this problem can not be solved easily, because it would probably lead to less medication for the “unhealthy” people, who need it the most. And, if it stays this difficult to improve people’s lives (also called enhancement of  their lives) with the use of biological factors, then a shift to more environmental and social factors that affect people’s lives could perhaps lead to more useful findings regarding neuroenhancement.


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Author: Naciye
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