Think Faster

A review of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes-style research into brain boosting.

This article arises from Future Tense,a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

Scene from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Click image to expand.
What will our neuroenhanced descendants make of Rise of the Planet of the Apes?

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which arrives in theaters Friday, we finally learn how intelligent chimps came to rule Earth: An idealistic young scientist creates a high-IQ ape in his quest to cure Alzheimer’s, setting off a series of events that destroy humanity as we know it. It’s your standard Hollywood tale of scientific progress leading to apocalypse.

At Future Tense, we examine how emerging technologies are changing society and policy. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the second major film this year—after Limitless, in which a little pill turned Bradley Cooper from dead-ender to genius—to turn cognitive enhancement into a cautionary tale. So I wondered: What kind of neuroenhancers are actually in the real-world pipeline right now?

Not many. Scientists with a knack for brain chemistry tend to focus on treatments for illnesses like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and stroke, rather than on just-for-kicks enhancements. In this respect, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is somewhat realistic: Neuroenhancers could likely emerge from more cure-centered research. Some possibilities follow.

You’re probably familiar with some of the pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers already used off-label by folks looking for a little cognitive lift: stimulants for ADD/ADHD treatment, like Ritalin and Adderall, and the anti-narcoleptic drug Provigil (modafinil). It turns out that some Alzheimer’s treatments, like Aricept (donepezil), may also help boost memory in people without dementia. But even the best pills we’ve got today aren’t going to pump up your IQ. “It’s not clear that they’re really cognitive enhancers for healthy people,” says Hank Greely, a Stanford professor who studies law and the biosciences. “The evidence is mixed. And if they do help … they don’t seem to help very much. It’s not like Limitless; they’re not turning into Superman.”

Still, given the rapid pace of neuroscience discoveries, researchers suspect that more effective neuroenhancing pills will be available soon—and it will be profitable. Just look at the massive sales of supplements that purport to boost brain power, like ginkgo biloba and ginseng, even though research suggests their benefits fall somewhere between modest and nonexistent.

Other researchers have been exploring deep brain stimulation, in which electrodes are implanted in a patient’s brain to send electrical signals. Currently, DBS is used as treatment for Parkinson’s and other diseases that include tremors. In 2008, researchers investigating DBS as a treatment for obesity reported that one subject had displayed a surprising side effect: His memory improved. Last year, a small study suggested that DBS could be effective for mitigating Alzheimer’s. Right now, DBS is highly invasive and so wouldn’t tempt many healthy subjects, but that may change: Some researchers are investigating a noninvasive form of DBS using ultrasound. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is used to treat depression, migraines, and stroke, is a similar potential neuroenhancer.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco plays a scientist who discovers a genetic engineering treatment, delivered via virus, that prompts the brain to repair itself in the sick and boosts brain power beyond base line in the healthy (at least, in healthy apes). In the real world, though, that sort of therapy is still relegated to mouse experimentation. According to James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, genetic therapy is still a field with more promise than successes. It can be dangerous, as is portrayed in the Apes prequel:In 1999, Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old who suffered from a rare metabolic disorder, died as a result of a gene-therapy trial, and the field is still grappling with that failure.

Brain-computer interfaces, such as implants or “hook-ups,” represent an alternative path for neuroenhancement. Linking your brain to a computer chip may conjure up sci-fi nightmares of a USB slot behind your ear, but it’s not quite that far-fetched: Technically, the cochlear implants that allow some hearing-impaired or deaf people to hear in a limited fashion are brain-computer interfaces, as Greely points out. But Hughes speculates that brain-computer interfaces for better cognitive skills are probably at least 30 or 40 years out. “Even if we don’t have nanobots in your head, we might have simpler ways of, and perhaps noninvasive ways, of hooking the brain up to external media and doing things we can’t quite imagine yet,” he says.

So any blockbuster neuroenhancer is still in the lab, or just a twinkle in a scientist’s eye, at the moment. But those in the field are already preparing for the ethical and societal ramifications. Some, like Greely, urge the public—and physicians—not to be too squeamish about giving healthy brains a little boost. “In a world in which human work spans and life spans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools—including the pharmacological—will be increasingly useful for improve quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal pathological age-related cognitive declines,” he and colleagues argued in a 2008 Nature commentary.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the audience—and Franco’s naive researcher—are warned repeatedly about the dangers of playing with brain power. “You’re trying to control things that are not meant to be controlled,” one character cautions. But moral panics have accompanied all sorts of technologies, from electricity to television. Genevieve Bell, the director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, told the Wall Street Journal in May that there were all kinds of scare scenarios surrounding the advent of railway: “There was some wonderful stuff about … [how] women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.” Someday, our neuroenhanced descendants will watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes and laugh.