Cognitive Enhancement

This is the first of a series of posts leading up to PsyNApps’ Symposium, “Human Advancement in the 21st Century” on May 18, 3-6 PM at the Hume Rothery Lecture Theater. We are bringing together speakers from Oxford to talk about the cognitive and social aspects of human advancement. One of our esteemed speakers will be Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh, whose work is highlighted in our post below.

Cognitive Enhancement

Written by Rhiannon White | Edited by Sahng-Ah Yoo

Wouldn’t it be great if a set of electrodes could make you cleverer? The massive potential gains to be found -from occupational, to academic, to social improvement- by cognitive enhancement means that there is a huge interest in the development and refinement of such enhancement techniques. Professor Cohen Kadosh’s work considers the neural mechanisms behind cognitive processes such as mathematical ability, suggesting ways such processes can be enhanced experimentally.

Snowball, Kadosh et al (2013) demonstrated that transcranial electrical stimulation to the front of the brain (the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, DLPFC) over a period of five days enhanced arithmetic performance. Participants could both perform mathematical calculations more quickly, and showed improved recall-based arithmetic learning. What is perhaps more incredible is that these behavioural effects were still evident six months later, and generalised to non-trained arithmetic material. This could have huge practical applications in terms of enhancing mathematical performance of the general population. It is also of great importance theoretically, demonstrating the extent of neuroplasticity for even high-level cognitive functions.

So why don’t we just apply transcranial stimulation to everyone? Growing evidence is suggesting that the story is not quite so simple. Luculano and Kadosh (2013) stimulated different brain regions of human participants while they learnt the value of new, arbitrary symbols. They found that stimulation of the dlPFC enhanced the automaticity of learning, in that participants were able to perform the task more quickly and easily, with minimal cognitive effort. However, the learning process itself was impaired, as skill acquisition was slowed. By contrast, the opposite was true following stimulation of the posterior parietal cortex, in that learning was facilitated while automaticity was impaired. This suggests there may be ‘cognitive side effects’ to enhancement techniques, perhaps as the brain’s resources are devoted to a particular function at the possible expense of another. The potential presence of physical side effects, and the ethical implications, mean that a discussion of cognitive enhancement and its applications is far from straightforward. However, the potential gains may be such that the extra effort is worth it.

Join us on May 18 to hear more about the future of cognitive enhancement!

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