Can you cheat without cheating? It was a question that character Merlin Jones wanted to know in the 1964 Disney movie, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. Merlin was a college student who experimented with mind-reading and hypnotism. At one point, in an effort to know information for an exam, he experimented with a tape-recorder playing information while he slept, hoping it would sink in without the work of studying.
Today, scientists are onto something much bigger. They are working on a drug to supercharge our brain. But would that be cheating? Would it be an unfair advantage when competing for scholarships or college entrances? To complicate the question further, the hormone being tested that enhances brain function, also prevents against brain diseases. So, with a two-fold prevention/enhancement result, can we disallow one at the sacrifice of the other?
In 2011, Dr. Dena Dubal began experimenting on the hormone called Klotho seeking treatments for brain disorders in the elderly. Although much was unknown about Klotho, it was found in the human brain and experiments revealed that giving it to mice gave them a 30 percent longer lifespan.
Further experiments had dramatic effects on brain power and protection against mental decline. The mice bred to produce higher than average Klotho on their own, were smarter than the others with increased their memories and maze-navigating skills.
Five year later, Klotho seems to be a wonder hormone—at least in rodents—appearing to protect against neurological disorders and add brain power. Right now, scientist are unsure how this is happening which is a sticking point. They need to understand what exactly it is triggering since injecting Klotho into the body does not result in it going into the brain itself. Is it triggering a response and where is that happening? And what is the effect it is causing on other cells? The experiments are continuing, but there are moral questions we should be asking at this point.
As we look to the future possibility that a pill could not just protect our brains against aging diseases but also increase intelligence, we need to ask if this would be a good thing. There was a time when muscle-enhancing drugs were fair game until the sports community called it cheating. But would it be cheating for students competing on standardized testing or academic competitions to benefit from Klotho?
Since Klotho both protects and enhances the brain, it could mean that people predisposed to something like Alzheimer’s disease might be able to avoid it. It would seem terribly illogical and unfair to deny them such treatment simply because of the added benefit of increased intelligence. And if we could increase our children’s intelligence with the hormone, should we?
Studies in humans have found that people who naturally produce high levels of Klotho in their brains perform better on cognitive tests and show less signs of pre-existing conditions for Alzheimer’s disease. What this will mean for the future is not entirely sure. It could be a matter of gene manipulation or as simple as taking a pill or injection.
As we learn more about genes and scientist discover ways to manipulate them, whenever genetic manipulation is done in a petri dish, it is always against Catholic teaching. The announcement last year from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the United Kingdom that changing the DNA of a human embryo could be “morally permissible” is in conflict with Catholic teaching. The immoral roots of embryonic experimentation goes back to God's plan for conception as a sacred gift between a man and woman. Conception and embryos was intended for the marital embrace and not for petri dish manipulations in laboratories.
Aside from genetic manipulation, however, are potential treatments that would simply involve taking a pill or injection. We do that sort of thing all the time with medications, and even a cup of coffee, to enhance our mental alertness. But there are still so many ramifications to consider. If only the wealthy could afford Klotho, would that create more human injustice? If pilots and brain surgeons could enhance their mental acuity, everyone would seem to benefit. And preventing Alzheimer’s disease would mean more people retaining their abilities and less people becoming a burden on others.
The world is certainly not getting any simpler. If I had a pill in front of me guaranteed to improve brain health, make me smarter, and did not go against Catholic bioethics, it would be tempting. Another consideration is that often we only learn much later of a products harmful side effects for other parts of the body. And for society as a whole, would greater emphasis on the intellectual continue to erode the spiritual? After all, it’s holiness, not intelligence, that makes saints.