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Neuroenhancing public health
  1. David Shaw
  1. Correspondence to Dr David Shaw, Institute for Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel, Bernoullistrasse 28, Basel 4056, Switzerland;{at}


One of the most fascinating issues in the emerging field of neuroethics is pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement (CE). The three main ethical concerns around CE were identified in a Nature commentary in 2008 as safety, coercion and fairness; debate has largely focused on the potential to help those who are cognitively disabled, and on the issue of ‘cosmetic neurology’, where people enhance not because of a medical need, but because they want to (as many as 25% of US students already use nootropic cognitive enhancers such as ritalin). However, the potential for CE to improve public health has been neglected. This paper examines the prospect of improving health outcomes through CE among sections of the population where health inequalities are particularly pronounced. I term this enhancement of the public’s health through CE ‘neuroenhancing health’. It holds great promise, but raises several ethical issues. This paper provides an outline of these issues and related philosophical problems. These include the potential effectiveness of CE in reducing health inequalities; issues concerning autonomy and free will; whether moral enhancement might be more effective than CE in reducing health inequalities; and the problem of how to provide such CE, including the issue of whether to provide targeted or universal coverage.

  • Neuroethics
  • Health Care for Specific Diseases/Groups
  • Public Health Ethics
  • Enhancement
  • Epidemiology

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