Brain behaviour - Brain teasers

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
Whether it's smart pills or genetic profiling, there are numerous debates ahead for educators, argues Paul Howard-Jones

Imagine a world where drugs can enhance thinking power, where computer-based brain training can boost intelligence and where measurements of brain activity can screen infants for risk of dyslexia. Actually, that shouldn't be too difficult - because that world is here already.

And some say we should act now to embrace it. Only last month, leading scientists argued on the journal Nature's website that cognitive enhancers or "smart drugs," widely used by students in some US universities to improve their grades, should be seen as a benefit to society and legalised. These are stimulants such as Modafinil, used to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, and Ritalin, the anti-hyperactivity drug. Others include Donepezil, originally developed to control the effects of dementia among an ageing population, which have been shown to enhance memory in healthy young adults.

Researchers in Switzerland have shown how cognitive function can be boosted without drugs. They asked postgraduate students to practise 25 minutes a day on a specially-designed working memory task and found it could boost performance on intelligence tests - a result that will be of interest to makers of popular brain training games. And, for some time now, we have known that recordings of electrical brain activity over the scalps of newborn infants can help predict which children will be poor readers or dyslexic at the age of eight.

So, rather than belonging in the realm of fantasy, these concepts present some all too real issues. Should exam grades achieved with the help of drugs be valued as highly as those achieved without? Should something be done to pre-empt such drugs (which are not cheap) contributing to the education gap between rich and poor?

If enhancement of intelligence is possible with computer-based training, what priority should this training enjoy in the curriculum? And, although literacy interventions benefit from being early, what are the dangers of labelling newborn infants as prone to learning difficulties?

There are, of course, no simple solutions. Answers must arise out of public and professional debate, and the usefulness and value of these answers rests heavily on how that debate is conducted. However, even when discussions are formally organised, educators cannot assume they will have a voice in them. When the government's Foresight Programme appointed stakeholders and experts to discuss how cognitive enhancers (or cogs) might affect the UK, education was not represented.

The 2005 consultative report predicted that cogs would start appearing in the UK around 2011 and, by 2017, might become "an acceptable part of the knowledge professional's tool kit". Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the lack of representation, the report failed to consider the significance of this for education.

Yet, cogs are already available. It only takes a few minutes on the internet to find a tempting offer: 25 pills for Pounds 26 (offered with an additional sweetener of two free Viagra).

I would not advise anyone to take cognitive enhancing drugs without prescription (there are some reported side-effects), but some students may choose to do so and their peers have a right to ask how fair that is. The point is this: if educators don't start asking questions about the use of such drugs, it may be the learners or their parents who will be doing the asking.

Moving a few years into the future, the growth of our genomic knowledge could allow educational programmes to be tailored to suit individual genetic profiles. According to a survey by Robert Plomin, the geneticist, teachers believe that genes are at least as important as environment in determining academic success.

Such a belief does not have to conflict with a teacher's sense of agency: their power to make a difference. Although genomics will soon allow the characterisation of every individual in terms of their genetic "script," it is the environment, and especially the school environment, that determines how this script is turned into the performance of a lifetime.

Specialists in this area, however, point out that the implications of genetic profiling for education go well beyond the formation of attitudes. In the near future, "educogeneticists" will be able to provide informed recommendations to schools and families about how a child's education may be planned in order to optimise academic outcomes. Such an idea, of course, generates a plethora of ethical issues and questions that need answering, such as: who makes the decisions about testing and interventions, and by what processes; and what precautions are needed to prevent this new educational opportunity feeding demand for genetic engineering and eugenics?

Again, it seems possible that individual teachers may face these questions before the wider debate has even started. Biotechnology companies are now marketing genetic tests directly to the public. It may be only a matter of time before parents are knocking on educators' doors, holding their child's genetic profile in their hands and asking what the school intends to do.

Around the world, excitement is gathering around our emerging understanding of brain, mind and biology, and how this may enhance education. There are many examples of how this is beginning to happen, such as the development of interventions for dyslexia and dyscalculia. However, science can also, sometimes inadvertently, produce technologies and insights with the potential for an educational life of their own, even before informed scrutiny has begun.

A range of educational futures may await us, many of which appear positive and bright. But ensuring we choose the best path will depend on promoting informed debate that includes the voice of educators - preferably before that knock on the door

Paul Howard-Jones is a senior lecturer in education and co-ordinator of the Centre for Psychology and Learning in Context at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol


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Jaeggi, S.M., Buschkuehl, M., et al (2008) Improving Fluid Intelligence with Training on Working Memory, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 105:19, 6829-33

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