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.