Journal of Cognitive Enhancement

, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp 323–330 | Cite as

Neuroethical Issues in Cognitive Enhancement: the Undergraduates’ Point of View

  • Alice CancerEmail author
  • Peter J. Schulz
  • Silvana Castaldi
  • Alessandro Antonietti
Original Article


To date, legitimacy of the application of cognitive enhancement programs to healthy individuals is still fueling neuroethics discussions. The aim of the present investigation is analyzing naïve conceptions of the ethical implications of different practices—namely, non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS), psychotropic drugs, diet, hydration, and physical activity—which can be followed to enhance cognitive performance. An online survey targeted the opinions of the general public about the efficacy of the neuroenhancement techniques and ethical concerns in different contexts. Measures of general self-efficacy and beliefs about intelligence have been collected as well. Responses of 89 Italian undergraduate students of medicine or psychology were analyzed statistically and thematically. Findings supported the notion that passive ways of enhancing human performance, which fail to imply any personal effort and individual responsibility, are conceived as infringing moral rules, regardless of the context where they are implemented.


Cognitive enhancement Neuroethics Neuromodulation tDCS Psychotropic drugs General self-efficacy Implicit theories of intelligence 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.


  1. Bostrom, N., & Sandberg, A. (2009). Cognitive enhancement: methods, ethics, regulatory challenges. Science and Engineering Ethics, 15, 311–341.CrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  2. Buchanan, A. (2009). Human nature and enhancement. Bioethics, 23, 141–150.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Castaldi, S., Gelatti, U., Orizio, G., Hartung, U., Moreno-Londono, A. M., Nobile, M., & Schulz, P. J. (2012). Use of cognitive enhancement medication among Northern Italian university students. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 6, 112–117.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Cohen Kadosh, R., Levy, N., O’Shea, J., Shea, N., & Savulescu, J. (2012). The neuroethics of non-invasive brain stimulation. Current Biology, 21-22, R108–R111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Colzato, L. S., & Hommel, B. (2016). The future of cognitive training. In T. Strobach & J. Karbach (Eds.), Cognitive training: an overview of features and applications (pp. 201–211). Cham: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Daniels, N. (2000). Normal functioning and the treatment-enhancement distinction. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 9, 309–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Farah, M. J. (2015). The unknowns of cognitive enhancement. Science, 350(6259), 379–380.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Greely, H., Sahakian, B., Harris, J., Kessler, R. C., Gazzaniga, M., Campbell, P., & Farah, M. J. (2008). Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature, 456, 702–705.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lapenta, O. M., Valasek, C. A., Brunoni, A. R., & Boggio, P. S. (2014). An ethic discussion of the use of transcranial direct current stimulation for cognitive enhancement in healthy individuals: a fictional case study. Psychology & Neuroscience, 7, 175–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Looi, C. Y., & Cohen Kadosh, R. (2015). The use of transcranial direct current stimulation for cognitive enhancement. In S. Knafo & C. Venero (Eds.), Cognitive enhancement: pharmacologic, environmental and genetic factors (pp. 307–341). New York: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Parens, E. (1998). Is better always good? The enhancement project. In E. Parens (Ed.), Enhancing human traits: ethical and social implications (pp. 1–28). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Ragan, C. I., Bard, I., & Singh, I. (2013). What should we do about student use of cognitive enhancers? An analysis of current evidence. Neuropharmacology, 64, 588–595.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Riggall, K., Forlini, C., Carter, A., Hall, W., Weier, M., Partridge, B., & Meinzer, M. (2015). Researchers’ perspectives on scientific and ethical issues with transcranial direct current stimulation: an international survey. Scientific Reports, 5, 10618.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Sandel, M. (2007). The case against perfection. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Schelle, K. J., Faulmüller, N., Caviola, L., & Hewstone, M. (2014). Attitudes toward pharmacological cognitive enhancement—a review. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 17, 53.Google Scholar
  17. Schermer, M. (2008). Enhancement, easy shortcuts, and the richness of human activities. Bioethics, (7), 355–363.Google Scholar
  18. Sibilia, L., Schwarzer, R., & Jerusalem, M. (1995). Italian adaptation of the General Self-Efficacy Scale: self-efficacy generalized. Retrieved July 18, 2018, from
  19. Singh, I., Bard, I., & Jackson, J. (2014). Robust resilience and substantial interest: a survey of pharmacological cognitive enhancement among university students in the UK and Ireland. PLoS One, 9(10), e105969.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCatholic University of the Sacred HeartMilanItaly
  2. 2.University of LuganoInstitute of Communication and HealthLuganoSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of Biomedical Sciences for HealthUniversity of MilanMilanItaly
  4. 4.Quality Unit Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda OMPMilanItaly

Personalised recommendations