October 15, 2005
Brain Enhancement Drugs Headed To Market

Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College, has an essay in the October 2005 edition of Scientific American entitled Smarter On Drugs.

Work on memory enhancers may be furthest along. Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University, who won a Nobel Prize for his research on learning and memory in the sea slug Aplysia, is one proponent. He found that learning occurs at the synapse (the junction between two neurons) by several means. The synapse is enhanced when a protein called CREB is activated, and CREB plays a role in memory formation in fruit flies and in mice. With these discoveries came the 1998 birth of Memory Pharmaceuticals, Kandel's Montvale, N.J.-based company, which hopes to formulate a drug that will raise the amount of CREB in the human neural system and thus facilitate the formation of long-term memories. One of the most promising chemicals is called MEM 1414. If clinical trials go well, MEM 1414 could be on the market after 2008. At least one other company, Helicon Therapeutics in Farmingdale, N.Y., is also investigating CREB to improve human memory formation.

Alternative drugs are also in the works based on other brain mechanisms. Before a neuron naturally increases CREB, certain channels on its membrane must open to allow positive ions to flow into the cell. The ions then trigger a cascade of events leading to the activation of CREB. One channel of interest is known as NMDA. In 1999 Joseph Z. Tsein, Ya-Ping Tang and their colleagues, then at Princeton University, discovered that increasing the number of NMDA receptors in the mouse hippocampus led to better performance on a spatial-memory task. Now researchers and pharmaceutical companies are pursuing NMDA receptor agonists (they combine with the receptors) as nootropes. At least a dozen new drugs of this kind are making their way toward clinical trials.

Some FuturePundit readers have requested I post more on currently available cognitive enhancement methods. Well, Gazzaniga points to one way to boost learning:

Self-medicating with Starbucks is one thing. But consider the following. In July 2002 Jerome Yesavage and his colleagues at Stanford University discovered that donepezil, a drug approved by the FDA to slow the memory loss of Alzheimer's patients, improves the memory of the normal population. The researchers trained pilots in a flight simulator to perform specific maneuvers and to respond to emergencies that developed during their mock flight, after giving half the pilots donepezil and half a placebo. One month later they retested the pilots and found that those who had taken the donepezil remembered their training better, as shown by improved performance. The possibility exists that donepezil could become a Ritalin for college students. I believe nothing can stop this trend, either.

Donepezil is marketed by Pfizer as Aricept. Note that doctors in the United States can prescribe drugs for purposes other than their original FDA approved purpose. Therefore donepezil can be had by anyone in America who can find a cooperative doctor willing to write an Aricept prescription. In some Third World countries you just have to show up at a pharmacy and wave some money in front of the pharmacist and Aricept can be acquired without the cooperation of the doctor. Note that I'm not advocating this. My point is that some people are going to try Aricept to boost their learning and no doubt some already are doing this.

Since donepezil blocks acetyl cholinesterase it boosts available neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This probably causes other consequences aside from increased learning. For example, I've noticed that taking large amounts of choline (which presumably also boosts acetylcholine) makes me a lot more prone to depression. Your mileage may vary.

Gazzaniga also relays claims that Ritalin enhances cognitive function not just for hyperactives but also for regular minds. Has anyone ever come across any controlled studies on SAT tests, IQ tests, or other measures of cognitive function that demonstrate this claim? A lot of claims are floating around out there. But in the absence of controlled (preferably double blind) studies I'll treat such claims with skepticism.

The article above is adapted from Gazzaniga's book The Ethical Brain.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 15 02:03 PM  Brain Enhancement

Fly said at October 15, 2005 7:18 PM:

As KevinM notes, some of us discussed Ritalin on the GNXP thread. Several people (some with ADHD and some without) described their experience with Ritalin and test taking. However, no one contributed a good reference for a controlled study on Ritalin and SAT performance. Hopefully Randall has more success.

Fly said at October 16, 2005 8:32 AM:


“The team injected laboratory rats with a synthetic substance called HU-210, which is similar, but 100 times as potent as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the compound responsible for giving marijuana users a high.
They found that the rats treated regularly with a high dose of HU-210 -- twice a day for 10 days -- showed growth of neurons in the hippocampus. The researchers don't know if pot, which isn't as pure as the lab-produced version, would have the same effect.”

Sione Vatu said at October 16, 2005 4:23 PM:

Interesting stuff.

If we can get people to "learn" better by putting the right drugs inside them, what shall they be taught? And will they want to learn?

Marvin said at October 17, 2005 7:40 AM:

Sione, the consensus among university schools of education, is that the current school systems are properly honing the procedures for inculcating political correctness into their students. The fact that some students are able to proceed through the system and graduate from university with thought impurities intact, simply means that the political correctness orthodox dogma requires chemical assistance for its thorough implantation into young minds.

What will be taught? More of the same, of course! These little buggers, I mean precious students, simply must be made to get their minds right.

? said at October 17, 2005 1:27 PM:

Randell Parker you had said that you have taken large amounts of choline. What do you mean when you say large amounts 500mg+? And if you don't mind me asking what brand of choline would you recommend using? Have you heard of Juvenon and if so would you recommend the use of this product?

Marvin said at October 18, 2005 9:02 AM:

Acetylcholine predominance in some brain centers certainly predisposes to depression. Dopamine and norepinephrine must be present in sufficient levels to balance the ACh. If you take Choline, you need to also take Acetyl Tyrosine and D,L Phenylalanine. Also 5HTP for the serotonin. Psychiatrists are just now beginning to catch on to the therapeutic effects of amino acid precursors to neurotransmitters, something that many clinicians trained in nutritional science knew decades ago.

heather said at November 21, 2005 9:01 AM:

check out the latest edtion of MIND, a new publication of Scientific American. You will find an article on brain enhancement drugs and a reference to a study where Ritalin increased SAT scores of students by 100 points.

janice said at April 1, 2006 4:33 AM:

Have you tried medicine with bacopa extract? I heard its really good as memory enhancer...

Lucy-fir said at May 6, 2006 12:15 PM:

On behalf of Eric Kandel, I 'd be fine with purchasing the product of the fruits of his study. Those things take time. His discovery of the Neural interplay of gastropods doesn't necessarily make the interplay of Sapien to be property of any human entity, either by science or law, or pharmaceutical corporation.Nature came up with it, respect her first. " you happen to be smart enough to explain it... If THC is given to you by this planet , than by all means is it freedom to the persons of its usage beyond Law. Its clear with the recent Representitive that even Govvies don't know that DUI is the effect on performance, not the legality of what is consumed.( Like, Duh) MEM 1414 seems to be a powerful molecule and good job for creating it. Humans are but a one little cell in the entire picture...THC is the comparison point and viewing the level of extinction, endangered species, and pollution, who are you people to be telling me whats moral about plants. Go get a red state and make your sheltered lives more apparent. The freedom of democratic choice thats been obstructed from me and all of you from the White house Drug cZar tampering election ballots isn't constitutional... Maybe you should be spending more time in Soical studies than church, the admin doesn't even know its still to be looking for Osama. 1.2 Billion a day is a big investment for people to swallow if its just an arms market for playing tag with live ammo.

Jeffrey Ong said at April 24, 2007 7:26 AM:

I started taking Ritalin last week and it seemed like a very strong stimulant, many times more potent than Caffeine. However, I felt that although it heightens my awareness and alert, it also made me very jittery and "on the edge". As a result, it actually clouded my thinking rather than made it clearer. I've tried to cut the pill into smaller portions so that I can still get the stimulating effects without being over-whelmed. But it seems like both being stimulated and being clouded come hand in hand.

On the other hand, my experience with Aricept seems better. It does not have a stimulating effect, but improves my clarity and memory somewhat. I can recall slightly more things.

eric woodruff said at November 15, 2007 7:02 AM:

im looking for something that would help me retain information alot better to make me more smarter instead of having to read over and over

james mwanzia said at January 28, 2008 6:14 AM:

Besides taking drugs for enhancing brain power... i believe there are natural ways of remaining alert including a good diet and exercises. However, the temptation to beat everybody else in school or forums where wits are required is quite a challenge. As such, it is important to make these drugs accessible.

James P. Crow said at March 17, 2008 12:40 PM:

Temporary fixes almost always have long term negative effects, the brain is an extremely plastic organ capable of changing to enhance thought processes along with short and long term memory. Just like any other muscle in your body it needs exercise to come to it's full potential. Temporary fixes like the ones discussed in this thread actually defeats the purpose and just like athletes and steroids when you stop using everything tends to fall apart.

Joey Ying said at April 11, 2008 4:48 PM:

these drugs may prove a high advantage to high school students and SAT takers...interesting

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