APA Monitor: Building a ‘Better’ Brain

The May 2013 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology is now online. This month’s Time Capsule section features an article on the work of psychologist David Krech. In this piece Barbara Lusk describes Krech’s interest, in the wake of Watson and Crick’s work on the structure of DNA, in the possibility that RNA encoded learned information and that knowledge of such could be used to improve brain functioning. As she describes,

A watershed event occurred in 1965 when Krech arranged a multi-session symposium on “Brain, Biochemistry and Behavior” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. Approximately 2,000 attendees heard prominent geneticists, anatomists, biochemists, physiologists, pharmacologists, neurologists and psychologists who discussed the tantalizing evidence on the role of RNA. Biochemist Bernard Agranoff of the University of Michigan reported that administering various RNA or protein-synthesis inhibitors before or just after training had significant adverse effects on the retention of newly acquired learning in goldfish. In other experiments, James McGaugh and Lewis Petrinovich (both former students of Krech) demonstrated that increasing RNA synthesis by administering strychnine improved learning. Psychiatrist Ewen Cameron of McGill University reported that yeast RNA administered to elderly people suffering from dementia had a positive effect on their memory. Researchers at Abbott Labs reported that Cylert (magnesium pemoline) enhanced learning in rats and, more important, that human trials were planned.

In both his introductory remarks and closing commentary at the symposium, Krech worried out loud. The potential benefits of this research, he agreed, were enormous. But the social and ethical questions raised by this work were of the same magnitude as those resulting from the achievements of the atomic physicists: If the biochemical tools are developed, will governments be tempted to manipulate the behavior of their citizens? Should scientists or governments tamper with individuals’ natural endowments? Should such potions, once developed, be used only to treat cognitive deficiencies or should they be used to enhance normal functioning? Who gets what and when? Who bears the cost of these treatments? Who decides? Who keeps watch over those who do?

The full article can be read online here.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York University. Her dissertation explores the early history of questionnaires in American psychology.

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