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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

03.04.2013 | Publication

TAB book »The pharmacologically improved human – Performance-enhancing substances as a social challenge« now available

To broaden the visibility and to strengthen the impact of TA research performed by TAB on behalf of the German Bundestag at the international level, selected studies of TAB are published in English language. The book on the TA project »Pharmacological and technical interventions to improve performance – prospects for more widespread use in medicine and everyday life« (»Enhancement«) provides a detailed and multifaceted examination of the topic.

The use of pharmacologically active substances – medications or narcotics – by healthy individuals to improve their performance is nothing new. However, for some years now there has been a trend – based upon assumptions about real or expected scientific and technical advances – to view such behavior (termed »enhancement« or »neuroenhancement«) as an eminently desirable future strategy for improving mental performance in the professional and private spheres. By contrast, doping in sport is still widely condemned.

The book provides a detailed account of current possibilities for influencing human performance by pharmacological means and examines the drug, food, and health regulations pertaining to such substances. It shows that today’s medico-ethical standards and drug regulatory practices pose a significant barrier to the development of nontherapeutic enhancing agents. Nevertheless, despite their lack of proven efficacy and their significant side-effect potential, it must be assumed that performance-enhancing drugs are used by the population to a relevant extent. The authors believe that dealing with the related causes and conditions is the real challenge facing society.

The book’s analysis of the bioethical and social science debate – and in particular its examination of research findings about the use of doping in competitive and recreational sport – sheds light on the possible dynamic nature of enhancement in a society preoccupied with boosting performance.

In a nutshell, the analysis shows that:

  • Enhancement agents in the narrow sense, i.e. specific and side-effect-free substances, remain a research vision and a construct of the debate.
  • Our knowledge of the extent to which medicines are being used with the intention of enhancing performance is still very sketchy.
  • Targeted and systematic research and development of performance-enhancing substances would require far-reaching regulatory changes. That, in turn, would presuppose a strong social and political will in favor of enhancement.
  • There are sound reasons for calling into question the goal of pharmacological performance enhancement as a desirable strategy for dealing with problems.
  • There is a fundamental need for a public debate about how we should approach the question of growing performance demands and individual differences in abilities.
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