Thursday, June 24, 2010

Turbocharging the Brain

Will a pill at breakfast improve concentration and memory—and will it do so without long-term detriment to your health?

The symbol H+ is the code sign used by some futurists to denote an enhanced version of humanity. The plus version of the human race would deploy a mix of advanced technologies, including stem cells, robotics, cognitionenhancing drugs, and the like, to overcome basic mental and physical limitations. The notion of enhancing mental functions by gulping down a pill that improves attention, memory and planning—the very foundations of cognition—is no longer just a fantasy shared by futurists. The 1990s, proclaimed the decade of the brain by President George H. W. Bush, has been followed by what might be labeled “the decade of the better brain.”

Obsession with cognitive enhancers is evidenced in news articles hailing the arrival of what are variously called smart drugs, neuroenhancers, nootropics or even “Viagra for the brain.” From this perspective, an era of enhancement has already arrived. College students routinely borrow a few pills from a friend’s Ritalin prescription to pull an all-nighter. Software programmers on deadline or executives trying to maintain a mental edge gobble down modafinil, a newer generation of pick-me-ups. Devotees swear that the drugs do more than induce the wakefulness of a caramel macchiato, providing instead the laserlike focus needed to absorb the nuances of organic chemistry or explain the esoteric of collateralized debt obligations.

An era of enhancement may also be advanced by scientists and drugmakers laboring to translate research on the molecular basis of cognition into pharmaceuticals meant specifically to improve mental performance—mainly for people suffering from dementias. But a drug that works for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s patients might inevitably be prescribed by physicians far more broadly in an aging population with milder impairments. Widely publicized debates over the ethics of enhancement have reinforced the sense that pills able to improve cognition will one day be available to us all.

Academic and news articles have asked whether cognitive enhancers already give some students an unfair advantage when taking college entrance line if they required ingestion of these chemicals to meet a company’s production deadlines.

But even as articles are published on the “boss turns pusher,” doubts have arisen about the reality of drugs for strengthening brainpower. Do current drugs developed for attention problems or excessive sleepiness really allow a student to do better on an exam or an executive to perform flawlessly under sharp questioning from a board of directors? Will any drug that fiddles with basic brain functions ever be safe enough to be placed on pharmacy shelves alongside nonprescription pain relievers and antacids? All these questions are now provoking heated deliberations among neuroscientists, physicians and ethicists.

Key Conce pts
College students and executives ingest stimulant drugs to enhance routine mental performance, although the compounds were never approved for that purpose.

Some ethicists and neuroscientists have raised the prospect of making these drugs widely available for enhancement of healthy people who do not suffer from dementia.

Questions remain about whether any drug that tinkers with basic mental functioning will be sufficiently safe and effective to be consumed like coffee or tea

Source of Information : Scientific American October 2009

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