In 2008 I was involved in an April Fool’s Day prank: a horde of science bloggers, under the sway of a charismatic yet psychotic leader, all conspired to publish the same fake story: that the NIH and European science funding bodies had decided to ban the use of grant funds by scientists who engage in “brain doping”, i.e., mental performance enhancement through the use of pharmaceuticals.

The prank was relatively successful — enough so that mastermind Jon Eisen got calls from reporters pursuing it as a legitimate story — but we can’t take all the credit. The fake story was believable in large part because it was so close to the truth: “brain doping” is actually very widespread, enough so that several entities in the mainstream media had already pondered its potential effects on the “level playing field” of academic science (see the list in the original prank post).

Margaret Talbot’s recent New Yorker piece is probably the longest and most comprehensive treatment of the subject I’ve seen so far. It starts with a discussion of brain doping by students but also considers their role in the workplace and the medical, ethical and sociological implications of cognitive enhancement (though, happily, it doesn’t spend very much energy hand-wringing over worst-case scenarios resulting from use and abuse of such approaches). There’s even a connection to lifespan extension (link):

BRAIN GAIN: The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs

And on Internet forums such as ImmInst, whose members share a nerdy passion for tweaking their cognitive function through drugs and supplements, people trade advice about dosages and “stacks”—improvised combinations—of neuroenhancers. …

Seltzer considers himself a “transhumanist,” in the mold of the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and the futurist writer and inventor Ray Kurzweil. Transhumanists are interested in robots, cryogenics, and living a really, really long time; they consider biological limitations that the rest of us might accept, or even appreciate, as creaky obstacles to be aggressively surmounted. On the ImmInst forums—“ImmInst” stands for “Immortality Institute”—Seltzer and other members discuss life-extension strategies and the potential benefits of cognitive enhancers.

I’ve argued before that there are profound similarities between some of the ethical issues raised by cognitive enhancement and those raised by lifespan extension, especially in the structure of the arguments underlying opposition to these kinds of intervention. For those of us interested in expanding human longevity, it will be wise to keep abreast of the discussion.