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The Medical Ethics of Cognitive Neuroenhancement

1 Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA;
2 West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA

Topical Section: Neuroenhancement

Prescription stimulant medications have been sought for cognitive “neuroenhancement”, the practice of enhancing ostensibly normal cognitive function such as attention span, focus, and memory. This trend, particularly studied in college students, has driven a debate about many ethical aspects related to cognitive enhancement; however, the central role of physicians and the medical ethics of this practice have been minimally investigated. In this paper, a clinical case serves as the focal point to review the current state of prescription stimulant use for enhancement, beginning with the medical and legal problems related to the surreptitious, yet common, behaviors of diversion and malingering. In contrast, there may be a growing trend for individuals to seek prescription stimulants “openly” (without malingering or diversion) as a direct request from their physician, which leads to complex ethical questions. A model of clinical-ethical decision making (the “four-box model” from Jonsen et al.) is applied to analyze the factors that a physician must consider when deciding whether to engage in the open prescribing of a stimulant neuroenhancer to otherwise healthy, autonomous adults. Four domains are explored in depth: medical indications, quality of life/beneficence, patient preferences, and contextual factors. Relevant experiences from the medical disciplines involved in athletic enhancement and cosmetic enhancement are discussed. Although an overall ethical framework for neuroenhancement continues to evolve, from a perspective of medical ethics there are presently significant reasons to be wary of cognitive neuroenhancement with stimulant medications.
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Keywords Neuroenhancement; cognitive enhancement; stimulant enhancement; neuroethics; medical ethics; cosmetic enhancement; athletic enhancement

Citation: Erick H. Cheung, Joseph M. Pierre. The Medical Ethics of Cognitive Neuroenhancement. AIMS Neuroscience, 2015, 2(3): 105-122. doi: 10.3934/Neuroscience.2015.3.105

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