Neuroscience is the study of the brain and the nervous system. The brain is the organ that enables us to adapt to our environment - to learn. The brain is constantly changing and everything we do changes our brain - this allows us to continuously take account of the environment and store memories to use in the future.

In Jan 2011, the Royal Society published their first report from the Brain waves policy project "Brain Waves Module 1: Neuroscience, society and policy".  The report is available here. The report highlights some of the current developments in neuroscience and raises issues and questions for society and policy.

There are two suggestions of how to run this activity:

Option 1
Print and cut out the cards - one set for each group. Arrange the class into groups of 4-6 and give them the cards. Ensure that students understand what is meant by ranking. Get them to place "acceptable" at one side of the table/floor/wall and "unacceptable" at the other. Ask them to look at the cards and rank them between acceptable and unacceptable in terms of using it as a method to increase cognitive enhancement. You could use the context of their own AS/A2 exams and they should think about ranking them for a typical student.

Once they have ranked them they should have a line in front of them. If you want to make it a little harder you can tell them they cannot have any cards ranked equal i.e. there must be a single line. Look at the different groups and see which cards have been placed in different places in different groups. Ask a couple of groups why they put the card where they did and see what reasons they have used.

Next get them to make a note of the order they put the cards then ask them to repeat the exercise but this time for a student with learning difficulties. You could leave it vague or you could describe a specific condition to the group or give different groups different conditions to consider and see what differences there are.

Option  2

Another way to run this activity would be to have a virtual line across the classroom with acceptable on one wall and unacceptable on an opposite wall. Read out one of the cards and ask the students to physically place themselves on the line of "acceptability". Ask a couple of students why they chose to stand where they did (particularly those who are at extremes). You could then ask if they would move if they considered the case of a student with a learning disorder. Ask a couple of people who moved to explain why they moved.

Plenary discussion
When is something fair or accessible to everyone? How would you define something as being "fair" - can you come up with a definition that the whole class agrees with?

Curriculum links

All sciences
3.6 Specification content
• Consider ethical issues in the treatment of humans, other organisms and the environment.
• Appreciate the role of the scientific community in validating new knowledge and ensuring integrity.
• Appreciate the ways in which society uses science to inform decision making.
Psychology 4.3 AS level specifications must require candidates to develop knowledge and understanding from all of the following areas of psychology:
• cognitive
• social
• developmental
• individual differences
• biological.
4.5 In 4.3 and 4.4 above, there is a minimum requirement to relate to the following:
c) ethical issues in psychology
f) the contribution of psychology to an understanding of individual, social and cultural diversity.
4.6 A level candidates must have an understanding of the major approaches in psychology including cognitive, biological, behavioural and psychodynamic. Knowledge and understanding must be related to:
a) the applications and implications of psychology to cultural, social and contemporary issues
b) the interrelationship between different areas of psychology
c) the scientific nature of psychology
d) the selection and application of knowledge and understanding of theories, concepts and approaches to the solution of problems
h) an appreciation of issues and/or debates in psychology.

Scottish Curriculum

Human Biology Higher Potentially relevant to modules:
Neurobiology and Communication (links between neurotransmitters and behaviour, while considering personal and social citizenship. Human communication is linked to social behaviour.)

Boost your brain power

ritalin_200Drugs that help people learn are called cognitive enhancing drugs or pharmacological cognitive enhancers and are sometimes referred to as 'smart drugs'.

Some of these drugs, such as Ritalin or Modafinil, are usually prescribed by doctors for people who have specific learning disorders such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

But they are sometimes used 'off-licence' in people with normal brain function. These smart drugs affect the role of neurotransmitters in certain cognitive processes and have been used to overcome jet-lag, reduce the need for sleep, and boost motivation and concentration. Research is needed in order to establish the side effects of taking such drugs, their long term consequences and the risks involved.

This research also needs to take account of the ethical issues that arise from questions like access to these opportunities, and fairness.


Activity: Are cognitive enhancers fair?

Using these cards, put the activities/substances in a line (rank them) from acceptable to unacceptable use for enhancing cognitive performance in a typical student about to take exams. Decide whether or not you think using these is fair to everyone. Why or why not ?

Make a note of the order you placed the cards in and now rank the cards again but this time the student has a learning disorder. Does this change how you rank the cards?

Some learning disorders

  • Dyslexia - a disorder that impairs reading, speaking and spelling.
  • Dyscalculia - a condition characterised by difficulties comprehending numbers and quantities.
  • Dyspraxia (poor motor skills) - the coordination of messages from the brain to the body is impaired. Those with dyspraxia may have difficulties writing and have poor short-term memories.
  • Attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder AD(H)D - a disorder where a person displays a number of behavioural characteristics such as hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsiveness.