Friday, November 22, 2013

tCDS and the First Glimpses of Human Enhancement Technology

Recently I have become increasingly aware of an emerging emphasis on using advances in biotechnology not just to cure disease but to improve the capabilities of healthy people. This ‘human enhancement’ phenomenon is cropping up in all sorts of places ranging from the military experimenting with ‘exoskeltons’ to give soldiers extra strength, to supposed life-style enhancing ‘nutraceuticals’, to the first attempts to increase longevity with drugs such as rapamycin. An interesting example was recently reported in a NY Times Magazine article “Jump-Starter Kits for the Mind” (1). This involved trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tCDS), a technique where small currents are applied to regions of the brain to improve memory or executive function. The idea is that the current stimulates neural tracts and such ‘exercise’ increases function, thus reflecting the well-establish neurobiological concept of Long Term Potentiation. As with it’s near relative, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a number of studies in ageing patients with impaired mental functions have claimed to detect benefits with use of tCDS. This has prompted investigators to examine the effects of tDCS in healthy people and, as described in the Times article, some positive results have been found. Apparently, since the technology is so simple, this has also prompted handy do-it-yourselfers to download how-to videos from YouTube and make tCDS devices for themselves. Since there have not yet been large-scale, blinded, controlled trials of tCDS or TMS the jury is still out on whether they really work. However, the enthusiasm with which they have been adopted by scientists and by some members of the public illustrate that there is tremendous interest in in the whole human enhancement thrust. 

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