Ethics of “Cogniceuticals”

By Katy Shepard, Christina Nemeth, Karen Murray, Callie McGrath 

Originally published Winter 2010.


Against Cogniceuticals.

For those who do not already feel disadvantaged by the social and occupational divides created by education, socioeconomic status, race and gender, a new chemical barrier lies on the horizon.

Pharmaceuticals designed to enhance cognitive function are being promoted and marketed to the general public. “Cogniceuticals” first hit the scene when research proved fruitful in creating compounds that improved cognition in animal models of various dementias and behavioral disorders. It was posited that if these drugs have the potential to improve the mental capacities of animals (and possibly humans) with deficits, they could enhance the normal functioning of a healthy brain. Far beyond enhancers such as caffeine, and the extracts found in Ginkgo biloba and St. John’s Wort, more extreme cogniceuticals claim to “improve” personality, picture thinking, creativity, goal‐setting and even perception.1 Many aspiring cogniceuticals are still in the midst of clinical trials, but considering current cognition‐enhancing drugs, such as amphetamines, the forecast for society is unnerving. Amphetamines are already recommended for increased brain power, however the associated dangers of its use alone should be enough to petition the restriction of other similar drug creations. Because these drugs threaten to dramatically change the industrial and academic landscape, we need to articulate a position on the non‐clinical use of cogniceuticals before we find ourselves locked in pharmaceutical arms races with our coworkers and classmates.

As a society, we have decided that performance‐enhancing drugs are unacceptable in the realm of athletics; all major American sports organizations have policies in place banning use of performance‐enhancing substances. When internal mechanisms have failed to keep athletes from doping, external regulators including the U.S. government have taken an interest and stepped in to correct lapses in rule enforcement. Congressional involvement in the steroid‐use policies of Major League Baseball serves as an indicator of the public’s interest in fairness in competition. We agree as a society that in athletics, people should compete to the best of their natural ability. Use of artificial enhancers is unethical. If we do not accept the use of performance enhancers in sports, why should we settle for anything less in the world outside of athletics?

Our country was built on an “up by the bootstraps” ideology. In principle, it doesn’t matter where you start – whether from a single‐parent home in the ghetto or a wealthy suburb, anyone can rise to the top by virtue of their own merit. Cogniceuticals put an end to this by linking wealth to intelligence. The wealthy will be able to buy attention‐ or memory‐enhancing drugs to improve their children’s performance in school. These children will get into better colleges, increasing their chances of securing high‐paying jobs, and the cycle continues, leaving the poor at a disadvantage. The outcome will be intense and accelerate class stratification.

Cognitive enhancers could also carry serious abuse potential. Although many cogniceuticals do not have a recognized mechanism of action and rely on the placebo effect for results, others, such as amphetamines, are powerful stimulants that are highly abused by adolescents and college students in the face of a more demanding and competitive academic scene. Furthermore, these drugs are most frequently acquired illegally and without a prescription, increasing the risks of overdose. Drug addiction already affects millions of people and is a priority for public health research. The promotion of cogniceuticals can only contribute to this damaging and costly epidemic.

Although the idea of a chemically‐enhanced brain may be alluring, unnecessary drug use will negatively impact not only our bodies but the academic and professional landscape as we know it.

In Favor of Cogniceuticals.

Today’s society consumes an assortment of pharmaceuticals to enhance behavior and function. Caffeine, nicotine, multivitamins, and Ginkgo biloba are all non‐medicinal cognitive enhancers that are commonly used and socially accepted. Currently, drug companies are developing new enhancers known as cogniceuticals, which are drugs that facilitate learning, memory, attention, and potentially other aspects of mental efficiency and processing. Although we accept the use of traditional enhancers as the status quo, controversy surrounds the development of new cogniceuticals.

Caffeine is a readily available and widely consumed cognitive enhancer. Both scientific literature and popular press have documented and praised caffeine’s stimulation of alertness, attention and memory.2 Although minimal side effects occur, society feels that caffeine is a safe, and perhaps even necessary, cognitive enhancer. The gains of consuming caffeine outweigh the losses since most of the negative side effects are mild and attenuated after cessation of consumption.

Furthermore, individuals are typically able to moderate their caffeine intake to achieve their needs. One fear society has about future cognitive enhancers is that they will not have control over how these compounds are obtained and consumed. So far, people feel comfortable with the self‐administration of caffeine, suggesting that individuals will be able to maintain this self‐dosing responsibility in the future. Comparing cogniceuticals with highly regulated and abused substances, such as steroids, may be an unfair comparison as the potential for abuse of cognitive enhancers should be limited. Steroids have been banned in many settings due in part to their detrimental effects; yet such deleterious characteristics should not be a component of new cogniceuticals when used properly.

As drug research evolves, a new future for cognitive enhancing drugs emerges. Well‐developed, well‐researched drugs will reach the public with known efficacies, side effects, and benefits. These are attributes currently lacking from supplements such as Ginkgo biloba, an herbal remedy used widely to boost memory despite the fact that its effects are not fully substantiated and taking this supplement may be useless or have detrimental side effects.3 Despite the unknowns surrounding Ginkgo biloba, its use is sanctioned. Surprisingly, public perception of a compound currently acts as more of criterion for usage than drug efficacy or side effects. In the future, well‐regulated cogniceuticals should provide greater transparency and efficacy, lessening public apprehension on the use of these newly developed compounds.

A strong argument for the use of memory enhancing drugs is the potential benefit to society as a whole. As people age, memory declines. Memory enhancing drugs can help remedy this deficit. For those not yet affected, benefits could range from ease in remembering the location of keys to improved eyewitness recall. Few would argue against such benefits, but rather against introducing a drug to facilitate such augmentations. No cogniceutical will be a miracle drug creating abilities no individual possesses. The extent to which they can provide a benefit will most certainly be limited.

The use of cognitive enhancers plays to one’s sense of fairness by selectively giving an advantage to one group over another. However, before any enhancer is introduced, some individuals are already at an advantage caused, at least in part, by the genetic lottery. Some individuals have photographic memories, while others have difficulty remembering where they parked their car. Rather than provide an unfair advantage, memory enhancers could level this playing field. The intention is to create opportunity for a more productive society. Society is constantly reaching to the future to improve upon itself. Tools such as exercise, meditation, sleep, diet, and traditional enhancers are known to improve cognition, but these tools have limits. Cogniceuticals will improve upon these traditional tools. It is now the responsibility of society to endorse the development of cogniceuticals to promote the natural forward growth of humanity.

1. “Nootropic”

2. Medline Plus. Caffeine. April 2009.

3. National Center for Complementary and alternative medicine. Herbs at Glance: Gingko. November 2008.


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