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Diabetes Drug May Make You Smarter (Also, The Importance Of Unintended Consequences) July 5, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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Unintended consequences have led to some of the greatest advances in modern medicine (just look at penicilin).  Well know we may be able to add the name Metformin to the list of We Didn’t Expect This To Happen But It’s Still Awesome.

A drug commonly used to control Type 2 diabetes can help trigger stem cells to produce new brain cells, providing hope of a potential means to treat brain injuries and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, researchers say.

A study by scientists at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children found the drug metformin helps activate the mechanism that signals stem cells to generate neurons and other brain cells.

Researchers started by adding metformin to stem cells from the brains of mice, then repeated the experiment with human brain stem cells generated in the lab. In both cases, the stem cells gave rise to new brain cells.

They then tested the drug in lab mice and found that those given daily doses of metformin for two or three weeks had increased brain cell growth and outperformed rodents not given the drug in learning and memory tasks.

One standard test involves a water maze in which the mice must swim around until they locate a hidden platform.

“And the remarkable thing is the mice that got the metformin, what they showed was increased flexibility in terms of the way they learned the location of things,” said Miller, explaining that the drug-treated mice had a greater ability to learn and remember.

There are two main things I like about this.  Firstly, this is further evidence of Metformin shaping up to be a wonder drug.  In addition to it’s main use as a highyl effective treatment for diabetes and this new evidence of it’s use as nootropic it may also protect against cancer and heart disease and do all of this without any serious side effects (with the ever important caveat that no drug is truly safe).

More importantly for me is what this does to the debate over human enhancement.  A common tactic on the anti-enhancement side is to set up a rather arbitrary line between medicine (bringing a person back to a “healthy state”) and enhancement (improving a person’s abilities beyond their “healthy state”).  This is mainly done to get around the problem of having to condemn enhancement technologies as being unnatural while at the same time supporting all the other wonderful unnatural things that modern technology has brought us.  The argument usually looks something like this: It is wrong to enhance human abilities because to do so would alter the human condition, something which is desireable to maintain.  Medicine, while not in itself natural, is acceptable as long as it does not alter our basic humanity by enhancing our abilities beyond what is natural.

Others have pointed out the numerous problems with this line of reasoning so I will only draw attention to two points.  The first is the difficulty involved in defining what is natural.  Is it the state a person is in at that point in time?  Is it what is average for a member of the population or species?  Is it species typical functioning?  If we gave a drug to an 80 year old that returned their physique to that of their 20 year old self would that constitute enhancement since their “natural state” is that of a senior citizen?  If we raised someone’s intelligence higher but not beyond what is typical for humans would that constitute enhancement?  There are far more of these which I will not list here but you get the idea.

The other thing I wanted to point out is the problem of unintended consequences.  A common retort to the medicine/enhancement argument is that given a person with a serious condition and a drug which can cure it but will also enhance that persons abilities it would seem to forbid us from treating said person with said drug.  This puts defenders of the position in a bit of a quagmire, having to refuse to (potentially) save a person’s life because it might cross their imaginary boundary.  To my knowledge this argument has been entirely theoretical.

Until know.

I look forward to Leon Kass telling diabetics to stop taking their life saving and life improving enhancements.

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