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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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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.

"These compounds were supposed to have some effect on global brain function, very similar to what people believe is the case for ginkgo biloba," Unterbeck says.

They still have a cult following, but the scientific evidence for their effectiveness is "very anecdotal and poorly documented," he says.

"I certainly don't think that there will be a smart pill," Howard Gardner, PhD, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University and a co-author on the Nature Reviews article, tells WebMD in an email.

Gardner is famous for his theory that the human mind has not one, but many distinct intelligences that work together to make up what we broadly call intelligence. "Any pill will and should have much more targeted effects," he says.

Nevertheless, a drug that improved your memory could be said to have made you smarter. We tend to view rote memory, the ability to memorize facts and repeat them, as a dumber kind of intelligence than creativity, strategy, or interpersonal skills. "But it is also true that certain abilities that we view as intelligence turn out to be in fact a very good memory being put to work," Farah says.

Pills cannot impart wisdom or make everyone capable of brilliant leaps of imagination, but they may tune up the machinery and give you more raw material to work with.

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Reviewed on March 24, 2004

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