As part of the first What if… beer held at the UOC in October and organized by the eLearn Center, the following questions were posed: What would happen if we got to the point where a skill could be acquired with a pill or by putting on an object? What role would universities in general and the UOC in particular then play? To debate this question, we invited Diego Redolar, PhD in Neuroscience, professor at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and coordinator of various courses in Biological Psychology and Neuroscience.
To answer the questions, Redolar began his talk with an introduction to the deep stimulation techniques that have already been carried out with rats and that note that by “stimulating the areas of pleasure and reinforcement, learning and memory are helped”. With these experiments, “the hypothesis that underlies it is that if the areas of reinforcement are activated, a state of activity (arousal*) is created, and this action state aids the person’s attention – in this case, that of rats – improving the indicators in the memory tests”, he adds.
The downside, says Redolar, “is that deep brain stimulation is highly invasive as it involves the implanting of electrodes in nerve tissue. For this reason, the development of non-invasive brain stimulation techniques, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation or direct transcranial electrical stimulation, opens up new doors to therapy and to research into the neural substrate of different cognitive functions.
Would the non-invasive stimulation of the brain of someone who does not have any type of illness with the aim of improving their cognitive functions be ethical? Certainly, if we think of children, we could come to the conclusion that it would not be appropriate, especially bearing in mind that their brains are still maturing”.
As for universities, where the community is adult and the brain is already developed, Redolar states that, technically speaking, it could be done “as neuroscience allows it” and, ethically, using these techniques to enhance cognitive skills would not be so questionable. What role, then, would universities play in this new scenario? And professors? Redolar believes that the role of the university would continue to be fundamental: “The university would not under any circumstance lose its role; what would change would be teaching functions”.
In a debate that aroused a great deal of interest among those present, Redolar concluded that currently these invasive stimulation techniques “are already being used in the USA in therapy: Parkinson’s disease, major depression, schizophrenia, etc., but they have not reached learning yet”. Will they happen in a near or distant future? It appears we will have to wait.
Diego Redolar, PhD in Neuroscience and professor at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
*Arousal – Observations of everyday life suggest that our level of alertness can vary throughout the day. For example, when we see something that is very interesting (or terrifying, or simply surprising), we feel that we are activated and are more aware of our surroundings. In the nervous system, there are various neural circuits that segregate at least five different neurotransmitters (namely acetylcholine, noradrenaline, serotonin, histamine and orexin) that act on some aspect of a person’s level of alertness and wakefulness. These circuits are part of what we call arousal systems.