Comments: Perinatal functional food: the slippery slope towards health

Of course, one thing to consider is whether the memory enhancement is free of side effects. For example, the genetic memory enhancement of Tsien et al. in mice produced mice able to learn better, but also more sensitive to certain kinds of pain. The mechanism here is very different, but it is not unreasonable to think that aspects of personality, perception and attention could be affected by changes in acetylcholine receptors. It seems likely that the side effects of prenatal choline are subtle rather than any obvious malformation or mental problem.

If, for example, a choline-enriched hippocampus predisposes towards religious or mystical thinking, is that a problem and an ethical reason to avoid giving choline supplements? (the irony here is of course that pro-enhancement transhumanists are often rather anti-religious and would see it as more of a problem than the average person). My answer would be that such a change in predisposition is just as acceptable as any other change in predisposition; as long as the possibilities of living a good life (as experienced by onself) are not diminished they are acceptable. Freedom has not been diminished significantly, especially since such predispositions can be expressed in an infinite number of personal ways. One can become rapt with the mysteries of neuroscience just as well as conventional religion, or ignore one's tendency towards seeing transcendent meaning by integrating it into everyday life.

But the problem remains that some of the drawbacks and changes are subtle and slow to develop. It is not inconceivable that prenatal chemical signals affect brain organisation that emerge in adolescence (some models of homosexuality involve this).

Most likely safety testing in the traditional way cannot be done, but we need to make retrospective studies of what mothers ate during pregnancy. Which is of course very hard, who remembers every piece of icecream eaten and what it contained?

A solution might be to actually do total monitoring as an experiment: have mothers document everything they eat and do (through wearables and lab doggybags) and then do a longitudinal study of child development. Expensive, slow and cumbersome - but also an academic and medical goldmine. Who knows what questions will be asked in 10 or 20 years that can be studied using this kind of data?

Of course, the deep irony is that monitoring the mother and then making follow-up tests and studies of the children is going to be far more invasive and character-affecting than most plausible prenatal food interventions.

Posted by Anders at March 13, 2004 10:54 PM

Sadly, these distinctions will largely go unrecognized, I think. The fine line between modification, enhancement, and health care in a functional sense is not as apparent to people who are arriving at their opinions from a reactive, emotional base.

The concept of heath care as 'normalization' is still pervasive, and prenatal supplementation, will be presented or analyzed as preventing malnutritional defects, rather than introducing supernormal development. So the distinction between such 'increases' and real augmentation will still be firm, if not well founded.

It is instructive to remember one of my favorite quotes here, "one cannot reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into."

Posted by Justin Corwin at March 14, 2004 06:04 AM