Health research

11 steps to a better brain – Smart drugs

Does getting old have to mean worsening memory, slower reactions and fuzzy thinking? Around the age of 40, people may already start to notice changes in their mental abilities.

This is the beginning of a gradual decline that in many of us will culminate in a downward spiralling into dementia. If it were possible somehow to reverse it, slow it or mask it, wouldn’t you?

A few drugs that might do the job, known as ‘cognitive enhancement’, are already on the market, and a few dozen others are on the way. Perhaps the best known is modafinil.

Licensed to treat narcolepsy, the condition that causes people to suddenly fall asleep, it has notable effects in healthy people too.

Modafinil can keep a person awake and alert for 90 hours straight, with none of the jitteriness and bad concentration that amphetamines or even coffee seem to produce.

In fact, with the help of modafinil, sleep-deprived people can perform even better than their well-rested, unmedicated selves. The sleep that you lost supposedly does not need to made up another night.

My own experience, tho, having had many overnight working stints and missing a night’s sleep, is that it takes me two nights to fully get over a sleepless night

US Military research found that people can stay awake for 40 hours, then sleep the normal 8 hours, and then pull another all-nighter, even multiple overnighters, without any side effects.

But then, the US military would not find any ill effect, or at least not look too hard or test emotional well-being too thoroughly.

It’s an open secret that many, perhaps most, prescriptions for modafinil are written not for people who suffer from narcolepsy, but for those who simply want to stay awake.

Similarly, many people are using Ritalin not because they suffer from attention deficit or any other disorder, but because they want superior concentration during exams or heavy-duty negotiations.

The pharmaceutical pipeline is clogged with promising compounds —drugs that act on the nicotinic receptors that smokers have long exploited, and drugs that work on other systems to block the effects of narcotic are also in the pipeline.

Some drugs have also been specially designed to augment memory. Many of these look genuinely plausible: they seem to work, and without any major side effects.

Gary Lynch is the inventor of ampakines, a class of drugs that changes the rules about how a memory is encoded and how strong a memory trace is — the essence of learning.

But maybe the rules have already been optimised by evolution, he suggests. What looks to be an improvement could have hidden downsides.

By Mark O’Brien 2015, taken from an article originally published in New Scientist Magazine, Issue 250

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