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?
A drug that blocks phosphodiesterase has potential for treating
Alzheimer's and MCI, as well as age-related memory decline, which is the
forgetfulness that often comes with older age but is not necessarily a sign of
impending Alzheimer's disease.
Unterbeck says that while age-related memory loss is common,
"it's not a necessary consequence of aging" because it doesn't affect
everyone. He says he thinks it should be looked at as a medical problem that
might be treated with a memory-enhancing drug.
As for whether MEM 1414 could be used to improve memory in
young, healthy people, "that would be pure speculation," he says.
"It is clearly not a target for us as a company."
The possibility that memory-enhancing drugs may be as commonly
prescribed in the future as Prozac and Ritalin are today raises some social and
ethical questions, which Martha Farah, PhD, a professor of psychology at the
University of Pennsylvania, addressed in a paper published in the May 2004
issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
American employers are already squeezing more productivity out
of fewer workers, so one wonders whether we might feel pressure to enhance our
brainpower pharmaceutically, should the state of the art develop so far.
Already, workers may be tempted to seek prescriptions for Provigil, a drug that treats daytime sleepiness.
Provigil was originally approved as a treatment for narcolepsy and was subsequently approved for use by
people who work swing shifts and suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness.
Could smart drugs, rather than being another tool in our
self-improvement kit, turn us into worker drones?
"I think that you have to be careful when you jump from
somebody enhancing their attention to get ahead at work to Brave New
World," Farah says. "In some ways it's not a different problem from
all the other ways that Americans are encouraged to be workaholics."
What Is Intelligence?
The question remains, also, whether drugs that improve memory
or concentration can really be called smart drugs. The idea that a "smart
pill" might come to exist took root with "nootropic" drugs, such as
Piracetam and Hydergine, which were studied for decades as potential cognitive
enhancers and treatments for Alzheimer's.