Child-testing debate divides scientists

Research suggesting that brain stimulation can improve learning abilities has opened up debate about the ethics of testing such techniques on children.

Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh of Jesus College has found that Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) can improve mathematical abilities, not only during stimula- tion, but for a prolonged period of time afterwards as well.

Delivering low current, non painful stimulation every day for five days of a week while the participant completed a mathematical task showed that, compared to a control group, those that received TDCS had significantly improved performance. Cohen Kadosh said that his study is only the most recent of many different experiments that have found improvement in various cognitive learning abilities following TDCS, including language, motor training, working memory, and decision making.

While researchers are continuing to look at the effects of TDCS on adults, Cohen Kadosh described how they are also planning to look at the effects of such techniques on children with learning disabilities.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme Prof Barbara Sahakian of Cambridge University brought up a number of objections to research with young children as participants, saying that we currently lack the knowledge to make this move.

Sahakian said: “We have to consider the risk benefit analysis when we do this. At the moment I don’t think what we know about these techniques, especially their long term safety, justifies using these techniques in studies with typically developing children.”

Practical ethicist Julian Savulescu of Oxford disagreed with ranted on kids at the lower end of Sharakian. Savulescu said: “We simply won’t be able to predict whether it is beneficial in normal kids without doing the experiments”, since “something that appears safe in the developed brain may be unsafe in the developing brain.”

He added: “Since the normal variation in ability to learn is so significant, studies are at least warranted on kids at the lower end of the learning curve.”

Savulescu noted that the issues of coercion are applicable to all aspects of life, but suggested that they are most objectionable when “the technology is expensive and only affordable to some” and when “it has significant risks, so exposing people to unreasonable risks just to keep up.”

He added that these objections are not sustainable in the current case since “this is cheap and could be subsidized if effective, like public schooling” and because, after further research, we will able to identify the risks; “If it is safe, it is not a problem. If it is risky, it should be regulated, like medicines.”

Savulescu did say, however, that “if there are significant downsides it should only be available from, and under monitoring by, professionals. Of course people could abuse this, like they abuse medicines, but abuse can never be fully prevented.”

Sahakian also brought up the issue of coercion asking: “Will people be forced to use this? Will other children be using it and therefore parents will feel pressure on themselves to use it on their children?”