Equity, Equality, and Restraint: The Ethics of Neuroenhancement in Education

Yashwanth Gokarakonda


Neuroenhancement is a rapidly developing area of neuroscience that focuses on the use of drugs and technologies to improve cognitive abilities. Although  it has countless promising applications in all reaches of society, it has the greatest impact on the education system. Various inequalities and learning barriers plague modern education, and neuroenhancement holds the potential to decrease such cognitive disparity. As neuroenhancement technology evolves and becomes more accessible, several routes can be taken to administer it in the education system to bridge the gap between students. In this article, the morality, the advantages, and the drawbacks of multiple implementation methods are explored. The ethical and physical risks of neuroenhancement are also discussed.


What is Neuroenhancement?

As the ever-growing field of neuroscience continues to expand its reach, society is faced with the need to accept  its products, results, and innovations. This could not be more true for neuroenhancement, which is defined as the “the use of neurotechnologies to improve cognitive, affective or behavioral functioning“ [1]. Neuro enhancing drugs and technologies such as nootropics, tDCS (transcranial direct-current stimulation), modafinil, and other stimulants can improve concentration, memory, vigilance, decision-making, mood, and stress perception [2]. Although these methods apply to a wide population, their most direct application seems to be in the education sector. The potential benefits of neuroenhancement are limitless, but it could also lead to catastrophic consequences if it is not implemented properly into the current education system. The avenue for methods to boost mental processes is huge, especially in an era that values and rewards academic productivity, creativity, and concentration. However, the novelty of technologies such as tDCS implies exclusivity and expense, which can lead to problems such as inequality and socioeconomic division through educational disparity. Widespread implementation, on the other hand, could lead to a loss of autonomy. Even if students don’t desire to use neuroenhancers to improve their cognitive abilities, they might be forced to in order to keep up with a “smarter” generation of peers. Conversely, if these revolutionary technologies are not explored at all, existing academic inequalities will persist and society may be held back from a wave of cognitive advancement. Thus, the decision has to be made: should society choose equity, equality, or restraint when it comes to the use of neuroenhancement in education?


The Considerations of Equity

A multitude of inequalities, barriers, and disparities already exist in the current education system. Students with conditions such as ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, dyslexia, and other learning disorders have been shown to possess lower intelligence levels, speech ability, and performance ability [4]. Other students, even though they don’t have a diagnosable condition, consistently perform worse in academic tasks. If the government chooses to only offer neuroenhancements to lower-performing students (equity), whether due to a disorder or a disadvantage, a degree of cognitive inequality would be dissolved. Ideally, if neuroenhancing technology continues to develop at the rapid pace at which it has been progressing for the past few decades, the educational gap could eventually be bridged. 

However, this option has many ethical considerations that need to be accounted for before it can be widely implemented. Firstly, should the level of performance be determined by results on school assignments or by intelligence tests such as the WISC-V (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Fifth Edition)? While academic results would take into account many other factors such as test-taking strategies, anxiety, and work ethic, the WISC-V conducts assessments that only measure raw intelligence and cognitive abilities, making it a more viable evaluation for neuroenhancement [5]. One interesting perspective is that only individuals with disorders should be supplemented with neuroenhancement. Nonetheless, this also raises many questions. Where is the line drawn between a disorder and a disadvantage? Students suffering from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have varying degrees of symptoms and impairments [6]. Would it be justifiable to provide students who perform slightly worse than the majority with the same treatment as students  who have severe autism or ADHD? Finally, should it only be supplemented to selected students? Supplying neuroenhancements only to lower-performing students could, in a way, encourage performing worse in education, contradicting many of the values such as work ethic, determination, and perseverance that education is supposed to uphold in students. Although neuroenhancements would assist students through their academic years, their lack of these values could cause them to struggle in “the real world.” Academic institutions must answer these questions to successfully implement neuroenhancements into the education system and address the cognitive inequality that plagues it. 


The Considerations of Equality

Another approach to this situation is to allow neuroenhancements for all students (equality). Although true equality would drastically increase the cognitive and intellectual ability of society, many of the previous inequalities would continue to exist. Even though lower-performing students would benefit from neuroenhancements, the abilities of the already high-performing would also be increased, sustaining the cognitive disparity. On the other hand, the degree of neuroenhancements received by each student could be varied based on that student’s performance. This will ideally allow all students to possess “equal” cognitive abilities. If this method is implemented, what standard of cognitive excellence should we strive for? Either approach of equality will require an enormous amount of expenditure. Thus, until neuroenhancement becomes mainstream and more easily accessible, these options do not seem viable. 


The Drawbacks of Neuroenhancement

Before considering any of these options,  humans must deeply reflect on the ethical and physical drawbacks of using neuroenhancers at all. Although the side effects of neuroenhancement drugs are rarely mentioned, sustained use of such drugs poses significant neuronal risks. Illicit use of neuroenhancers impairs behavioral flexibility, causes higher levels of neuroticism, and threatens neural plasticity (the ability of the nervous system to adapt to changes in the environment or itself) in adolescents [7]. Even if students are not directly affected by neuroenhancement usage, they are more likely to abuse other illegal substances and prescription drugs for self-medication [8]. Furthermore, neuroenhancement inherently is morally wrong as it masks the natural potential and uniqueness of each student. By artificially increasing their cognitive abilities, students will never be able to comprehend what they could have achieved independently. Without gaining self-actualization, many students could be left with a sense of false identity and guilt for the rest of their lives. Is it ethical to place society’s youth at such physical and mental risk? If the government does decide that the dangers of neuroenhancement outweigh the possible benefits, can it restrict or even ban neuroenhancers? While neuroenhancement promotes welfare and has the ability to reduce inequality, it poses several health risks and threatens the integrity of education. This question poses a complicated ethical discussion.


Neuroenhancement technology will inevitably evolve and become safer, more effective, and more affordable. These technologies will hold the ability to address numerous inequalities, barriers, and disadvantages seen in the education system today. However, if all the possible drawbacks and moral viewpoints are not considered, they will also have the ability to only make current inequalities worse and cause serious ethical dilemmas. This delicate balance between cognitive prosperity and inequality is one that society must weigh carefully to ensure the well-being of its youth.


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  2. Kirmizitas, Burcu Anil. (09/11/2017. )“Neuroenhancement - Blessing or Curse?” Science Innovation Union, Science Innovation Union, 9 Nov. 2017, Retrieved: 05/07/2020.

  3. Schleim, Stephan, and Boris. Quednow. (22/01/2018). “How Realistic Are the Scientific Assumptions of the Neuroenhancement Debate? Assessing the Pharmacological Optimism and Neuroenhancement Prevalence Hypotheses.” Frontiers in Pharmacology, vol. 9, 2018, Retrieved: 06/07/2020.

  4. Liang, Feng, Panpan Li. (21/05/2019). “Characteristics of Cognitive in Children with Learning Difficulties.” Translational                              Neuroscience, vol. 10, no. 1, 2019, pp.141–146., Retrieved: 09/07/2020.

  5. Kaufman, A. S., Raiford, S. E., & Coalson, D. L. (19/01/2016). “Intelligent testing with the WISC-V.” pp. 73. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Retrieved: 09/07/2020.

  6. Wiggins, Levy, Daniels. (22/10/2015). “Autism Spectrum Disorder Symptoms Among Children Enrolled in the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED)”. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(10), 3183-3194. Retrieved: 12/07/2020.

  7. Urban & Gao. (13/05/2018). Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: Neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 8. Retrieved: 14/07/2020.

  8. Novak, Kroutil, Williams., & Brunt. (31/10/2007). The nonmedical use of prescription ADHD medications: Results from a national Internet panel. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 2(1). Retrieved: 14/07/2020.

Yashwanth Gokarakonda

Yashwanth Gokarakonda

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