Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a promising technology to enhance cognitive and physical performance. One of the major areas of interest is the enhancement of memory function in healthy individuals. The early arrival of tDCS on the market for lifestyle uses and cognitive enhancement purposes lead to the voicing of some important ethical concerns, especially because, to date, there are no official guidelines or evaluation procedures to tackle these issues. The aim of this article is to review ethical issues related to uses of tDCS for memory enhancement found in the ethics and neuroscience literature and to evaluate how realistic and scientifically well-founded these concerns are? In order to evaluate how plausible or speculative each issue is, we applied the methodological framework described by Racine et al. (2014) for “informed and reflective” speculation in bioethics. This framework could be succinctly presented as requiring: (1) the explicit acknowledgment of factual assumptions and identification of the value attributed to them; (2) the validation of these assumptions with interdisciplinary literature; and (3) the adoption of a broad perspective to support more comprehensive reflection on normative issues. We identified four major considerations associated with the development of tDCS for memory enhancement: safety, autonomy, justice and authenticity. In order to assess the seriousness and likelihood of harm related to each of these concerns, we analyzed the assumptions underlying the ethical issues, and the level of evidence for each of them. We identified seven distinct assumptions: prevalence, social acceptance, efficacy, ideological stance (bioconservative vs. libertarian), potential for misuse, long term side effects, and the delivery of complete and clear information. We conclude that ethical discussion about memory enhancement via tDCS sometimes involves undue speculation, and closer attention to scientific and social facts would bring a more nuanced analysis. At this time, the most realistic concerns are related to safety and violation of users’ autonomy by a breach of informed consent, as potential immediate and long-term health risks to private users remain unknown or not well defined. Clear and complete information about these risks must be provided to research participants and consumers of tDCS products or related services. Broader public education initiatives and warnings would also be worthwhile to reach those who are constructing their own tDCS devices.
Voarino N, Dubljevic V, Racine E. tDCS for memory enhancement: A critical analysis of the speculative aspects of ethical issues. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2017; 10(678), 1-13