How Long Should We Wait For A Better Brain?
May 25, 2007 by Peter Jameson
The theory of evolution suggests that if we are intelligent enough to invent a technology that can increase our brain capacity then we should be smart enough to use it to our advantage.
As noted psychologist Corneliu Giurgea stated in the 1970s, "Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain".
Increasing intelligence is no longer science fiction and there are many "smart" drugs presently in clinical trials that could be on the market in less than five years and there are already some medications available to patients with memory disorders that may have the ability to increase intelligence in the healthy population.
Many of the drugs that were originally designed for psychotherapy can also be used to enhance certain regular mental functions. Just as 'Ritalin' can improve the academic performance of hyperactive children it can do the same for normal children and it is commonly believed to improve SAT scores by more than 100 points for both the hyperactive and the normal user.
Some types of memory enhancers are already available whilst others are making their way through the Federal Drug Administration's approval process. They are technically referred to as cognitive enhancers but are commonly known as smart drugs, or nootropes, from the Greek noos, for "mind," and tropein, for "toward and they will reportedly improve memory function.
Whenever a study indicates that a certain chemical produces even a moderate increase in memory in an animal population (whether it be fruit flies, mice or humans) then one of two things generally happens.
If the compound is not already on the market then a pharmaceutical company quickly jumps in to exploit the finding and if the drug is already on the market but is used to treat a known ailment like Alzheimer's or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder then a surge takes place in off-label use for a purpose other than the intended application.
It should also perhaps be noted that some smart drugs are already on sale all along the West Coast of America in stores that are commonly known as 'smart bars' and scientists have known for years that more many of the more commonplace chemicals such as adrenaline, glucose and caffeine increase memory and performance.
Self-medicating with coffee is one thing but consider the following.
In July 2002 Jerome Yesavage and his colleagues at Stanford University discovered that 'donepezil' which is a drug approved by the FDA to slow memory loss in Alzheimer's patients also 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 one half of the pilots 'donepezil' and the half a placebo.
One month later they retested the pilots and found that those who had taken the 'donepezil' remembered their training far better and it was demonstrated by improved performance.
Their exists the possibility therefore that 'donepezil' will become a 'Ritalin' for college students and there appears to be nothing on the horizon that will stop the trend.
For a society that spends a significant amount of its time and money trying to be liberated from past experiences and memories the arrival of the new memory enhancers has a certain irony.
Why do people drink, smoke marijuana and engage in other activities that cause them to take leave of their senses? Why are psychiatry offices full of patients with unhappy memories that they would like to forget? Why do the victims of dreadful emotional events such as trauma, abuse or stressful relationships suffer from their vivid recollections? It seems quite likely that a pill that enhances memory may well lead to a whole new set of disorders.
Many steps precede success in drug development and some critics doubt that we will see these newer memory enhancers in our lifetime.
Even though studies on animal models found that certain drugs improved memory or performance on specific tasks it is not clear that they will help humans and many nootropes that were promising in lab animals have failed miserably in human clinical trials.
Is this perhaps because millions of years of evolution have led to a human brain whose neuro-chemical concentrations are already at optimal levels?
Another obstacle for the drugs is their potential to cause harmful side effects and there are accounts of mice with altered "smart" brains which indicate that the not only are the mice more receptive to learning but that they are also more sensitive to pain.
Smarter on Drugs. Part 2