Pediatric Neuro-enhancement, Best Interest, and Autonomy: A Case of Normative Reversal

  • Veljko DubljevićEmail author
  • Eric Racine
Part of the Advances in Neuroethics book series (AIN)


The debate on “cognitive enhancement” has moved from discussions about enhancement in adults to enhancement in children and adolescents. Similar to positions expressed in the adult context, some have argued that pediatric cognitive enhancement is acceptable and even laudable. However, the implications differ between the adult and the pediatric contexts. For example, in the debate over cognitive enhancement in adults, i.e., those who have legal majority, respect for autonomy demands that personal preferences not be overridden in absence of strong arguments because competent adults are in the best position to recognize and protect their own interests. However, the concepts of best interest and autonomy provide a different picture in the case of pediatric enhancement. In the context of decision-making involving minors, it is assumed that the parents are in the best position to promote and protect the interests of their children and this is chiefly why they are granted the authority to make decisions on their behalf. However, we argue in favor of guarding the physical integrity of children from intrusive medical interventions without medical need and with clear and detrimental effects (e.g., suppressing growth). We also support leaving open other legitimate life trajectory and career choices, as this is in the best interest of the child, even if they are less in line with the expectations of parents or success in educational settings. In addition, parental decision-making in favor of cognitive enhancement suffers from a lack of information about cognitive enhancers (e.g., safety and efficacy) and potential biases. Thus, bearing in mind these issues and the development of volitional capacities of children, we argue that pediatric enhancement is not a morally acceptable practice and “inevitability” can be curbed with clear and fair rules that establish duties of state representatives, physicians, and public institutions. We conclude by canvassing evidence-based policy options that could protect the open future of minors and define the parameters of parental decision-making analogous to the cases of nicotine and alcohol.



Support for this work comes from the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships Programme (Dubljević) and the Fonds de recherche du Québec—Santé for career awards (Racine). We extend our thanks to members of the Neuroethics Research Unit for feedback on previous versions of this manuscript. Special thanks to Matthew Sample for detailed constructive feedback on a previous version of this manuscript.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IRCM and North Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA
  2. 2.IRCM, Université de Montréal, and McGill UniversityMontréalCanada

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