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A genealogical study of the concept of successful aging — III: ’Successful aging’ in the neurosciences and th

Posted Jan 22 2010 12:00am

This is the last part of my project description for the Ph.D.-project called “A genealogical study of the concept of ’successful aging’ and its relation to the idea of ‘human enhancement”. See the first two parts here and here.

 ’Successful aging’ in the neurosciences and the link to ‘cognitive enhancement’
In order to narrow the problem field, the project will look closely at how the notion of ‘successful aging’ has been understood and defined in the field of neuroscience in the last decades, and how ‘successful cognitive aging’ has played together with discussions — both in the scientific literature, in science policy documents and in general public discourse — about the possibility for so called ‘cognitive enhancement’ (‘neuro-enhancement’) [12][13][14][17]. Both in the scientific literature and in policy documents on ‘successful aging’ and ‘human enhancement’, the neurosciences are considered as the primary field of research; neuroscience also figures prominently in the corresponding public discourse [7][21][23], cf. [25]. The brain and cognition are ascribed significant cultural value in the emerging ‘knowledge society’; healthy cognitive abilities are considered necessary for a life-long contribution to the labour market and for well-being in everyday life, and not surprisingly some of the exponents for the notion of ‘knowledge society’ are also exponents for ‘converging technologies’ [17][21].

Current developments in the field of aging research also have strong discursive links to cognitive enhancement. As the aforementioned EU parliament study argues: “The growing problem of neurodegenerative diseases in ageing societies has turned research and development in therapeutic cognitive enhancers into a very dynamic field with significant resources” [21:26]. Likewise, in enhancement discussions special attention is being ascribed to cognitive enhancement: “’neuro/ brain enhancement’ as a research field stands at the centre of the CT [converging technologies] debate. It attracts the largest share of attention due to its plans to simulate and manipulate brain processes, which – if realized successfully – could directly affect our concepts of the human self and identity” [17:382], cf. [21][23][25]. Also here there may be a significant aspect of user-driven innovation: medications developed in research into age related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease is already being used by young, healthy individuals to (presumably) enhance their cognitive abilities [14][17][21], and, conversely, one could therefore expect that the market for cognitive enhancement may stimulate research in the prevention and treatment of age-related neurodegenerative diseases.

These interconnected arenas of aging research, enhancement discourse and general ideas about successful aging will be the focus point of this project. The point of departure is that the connection between the discussion about successful aging and the discussion about human enhancement has been overlooked in the scientific literature and that the two discourses are more closely related than usually presumed. Shedding light on the historical relation between the two notions both in the scientific and popular discourses will potentially have significant consequences for future research, for research politics and for the public understanding of successful aging.

References:
7. Kirk, H. (2008). Med hjernen i behold – Kognition, træning og seniorkompetencer. København: Akademisk Forlag.
12. Balling, G. (2002) (ed.). Homo Sapiens 2.0. Når teknologien kryber ind under huden. København: Gads Forlag.
13. Balling, G og Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2006). Det menneskelige eksperiment. København: Museum Tusculanums Forlag.
14. Greely et al. (2008). Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature, 456, 702-705.
17. Beckert, B., Blümel, C and Friedewald, M (2007). Visions and realities in converging technologies. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 20(4), 375-395.
21. European Parliament Science and Technology Options Assessment (2009). Human Enhancement Study. Awailable at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/stoa/publications/studies/stoa2007-13_en.pdf (14.08.09)
23. http://www.humanityplus.org/read/2009/07/human-enhancement-what-should-be-permitted-geneva-october-20-21-2009/ (14.08.09)
25. Dumit, Joseph (2004). Picturing Personhood. Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press

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