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Can a Pill Make You Smarter?

Several drugs can improve thinking, memory, and alertness in people with Alzheimer's disease and other diseases that affect the mind. So can these drugs help healthy people, too?
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"If you start flogging your nerves in an indiscriminate fashion, you're going to increase both short-term and long-term memory," Hausman says.

Yet there is no proof that an Alzheimer's drug could improve brain function in healthy people, although the results of one tantalizing study conducted by Stanford University researchers showed that a small group of middle-aged pilots given Aricept did better on flight simulation tests compared with those given a placebo.

Hausman hastens to add that his company has no interest in developing Phenserine as a "smart drug," for use in normal people. "I don't know if the FDA would ever allow a normal memory drug," he says.

Once a drug is FDA-approved, however, doctors can prescribe the drug for "off-label" uses other than those for which it was approved. But Hausman says, "I will never recommend off-label use."

Pending approval for Phenserine in Alzheimer's patients, he says Axonyx does intend to study the drug further as a treatment for mild cognitive impairment (MCI). People with MCI have some memory loss, but they don't yet have full-blown dementia. Many, however, go on to develop Alzheimer's disease.

In addition to increasing the levels of acetylcholine, Phenserine also seems to block the gene that makes beta amyloid, a toxic protein that builds up and causes plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. Scientists believe this protein is responsible for killing brain cells in people with Alzheimer's disease.

A New Pathway

Less far along in the development pipeline is Memory Pharmaceuticals' experimental drug, MEM 1414. It's currently in phase I trials, which are designed to test safety in people.

MEM 1414 works by blocking phosphodiesterase, an enzyme that breaks down an important brain chemical, cyclic AMP. It appears to work in the area of the brain where new memories are formed. "It's very important for facts and events," says Axel Unterbeck, PhD, president and chief scientific officer of Memory Pharmaceuticals.

"In order to be able to form new long-term memories -- which are memories lasting for more than three hours, by definition ... the [brain] also processes that information for facts and events to be stored long term, he says. "If you enhance this pathway, you get, potentially, enhancement of this very function."

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