Donepezil, an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, has been widely cited in media and bioethics literature on cognitive enhancement (CE) as having the potential to improve the cognitive ability of healthy individuals. In both literatures, this claim has been repeatedly supported by the results of a small study published by Yesavage et al. in 2002 on non-demented pilots (30-70 years old). The factors contributing to this specific interpretation of this study’s results are unclear.
We examined print media and interdisciplinary bioethics coverage of this small study, aiming to provide insight into how evidence from research may be shaped within different discourses, potentially influencing important policy, ethics, and clinical decisions. Systematic qualitative content analysis was used to examine how this study was reported in 27 media and 22 bioethics articles. Articles were analyzed for content related to: (1) headlines and titles; (2) colloquialisms; and, (3) accuracy of reporting of the characteristics and results of the study.
In media and bioethics articles referencing this small study, strong claims were made about donepezil as a CE drug. The majority of headlines, titles, and colloquialisms used enhancement language and the majority of these suggest that donepezil could be used to enhance intellectual ability. Further, both literatures moved between reporting the results of the primary study and magnifying the perceived connection between these results and the CE debate that was alluded to in the primary study. Specific descriptions of the results overwhelmingly reported an improvement in performance on a flight simulator, while more general statements claimed donepezil enhanced cognitive performance. Further, a high level of reporting accuracy was found regarding study characteristics of the original study, but variable levels of accuracy surrounded the presentation of complex characteristics (i.e., methods) or contentious properties of the CE debate (i.e., initial health status of the study subjects).
Hyped claims of CE effects cannot be completely accounted for by sheer inaccuracy in reporting. A complex interaction between the primary and secondary literature, and expectations and social pressures related to CE appears to drive enthusiastic reports.
Wade L, Forlini C, Racine E. (2014) Generating genius: How an alzheimer’s drug became considered a ‘cognitive enhancer’ for healthy individuals. Bmc Medical Ethics, 15, 37-37. doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-37