09 February 2006

Beyond Smart Drugs: Getting Smarter

Aubrey de Grey's SENS approach to gerontology may very well help us to live longer, perhaps much longer. Then what? Humans really do need to become smarter. Present levels of human intelligence are just about good enough to get us all killed. To go beyond what was discussed in the posting Smart Drugs, I would like to look toward longer term prospects for boosting intelligence--permanently.

Returning briefly to neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in his Oct 2005 SCIAM articleSmarter On Drugs, we see the real essence of the problem. Smart drugs temporarily augment the brains we have, but they do not make them better. To do that, we have to go further:

We have isolated one gene involved in intelligence, and others will follow. We know which parts of the brain are influenced by particular genes and which parts correlate with high IQ. We also know some of the neurochemicals involved in learning and memory. With such knowledge, we will gain understanding of what needs to be manipulated to increase intelligence in people who were not blessed with brilliance in their genomes or further increase the intelligence of those who were. Gene therapy could insert, delete, turn on or turn off genes that we find to be associated with intelligence.

We know about the Human Genome Project, and we understand that it is the foundation for much bigger things. We have heard about the International Hapmap Project, and we may have a vague idea of the possibilities that will be generated because of it. Diseases and other human attributes possess significant genetic components. We need to know what they are.

But we must think more broadly than mere genes. Genes are only part of the story. The better understanding of proteins, or proteomics, holds many of the keys we are looking for. In addition, non-coding RNA is a critical piece of the puzzle. The entire control structure of each cell is a highly complex internetwork of feedback systems. If you add the feedback systems of neighboring cells and tissues, then take into account signals coming to the cell from the blood, lymph, nerve terminals, and other meta-control systems--and you begin to see the problem.

We were talking about how to become more intelligent, using the genes. But now we understand that it can never be just the genes. It has to include the entire biological environment of the nervous system, and the entire organism.

But, wait. The organism is not hermetically sealed. The organism has inputs from the outside, and outputs to the outside. We know that growing organisms have to be given adequate nutrition, physical exercise, and mental stimuli to develop normally. They also need emotional nurturing. From Intelligence Testing Blog, we learn from Kevin that even video games may contribute to cognitive enhancement in young children. But what about the mature, developed organism--human? Assuming he is getting optimal nutrition, exercise, mental challenge, and emotional support? What else can be done?

OK, I talked about ampakines, donezepil, and modafinil here. If you are living on the edge of your mental capacity, it might be worth it to you, to try to get your hands on some donezepil. Modafinil should be treated gently, since everyone needs ample sleep, and with modafinil the temptation is to skimp on sleep to get more done, potentially abusing the body in the process. Ampakines are not available yet, but will be relatively soon. These are temporary approaches.

While we are waiting for researchers to understand the genetics, proteomics, and epigenetics of intelligence, there may be more permanent actions we can take to augment our mental capacity.

Assuming your nutrition is indeed optimal, your physical activity regular, your mental stimulation productive, and your emotional supports satisfying--what else can you do?

Neurofeedback is a technology that has been largely ignored by the public and news media, but is an approach that holds enormous potential for mental growth, even for mature and normal human mind/brains. It is still experimental in terms of stimulating mental growth for normal brains, but it is safe and non-invasive.

People with phobias, such as math phobia, are preventing themselves from progressing in the direction of their phobia. Such persons can certainly be helped by neurofeedback and other behavioural approaches.

There are many commercial programs, such as this one, that tries to capitalise on the human desire to improve oneself. This is another group that seems to be taking an even more advanced approach to developing mind improving technology. And while Daniel Amen may be rightly criticised by his peers for jumping too quickly into imaging technology to diagnose common everyday conditions, there is no doubt that Amen is at the leading edge of the curve, and may have the last laugh after all.

Taking nutritional supplements may not be a bad idea, either. In addition to the multivitamins, the extra vitamin C and E, and the minerals, taking curcumin, lipoic acid, and precursors for neurotransmitters might be helpful for many, particulary those with depression, fatigue, or ADD. This is not medical advice, but merely a suggestion for something that might be looked into.

Long life and increased intelligence are not the final goal. To reach the final goal, you must also include enlightenment, and wisdom. Using both sides of the brain to the fullest extent. Mysticism and holism are only part of wisdom. Wisdom also includes the ability to look at the details with exquisite clarity, and being able to place them into dynamic context.

We have some distance yet to travel, many things to learn. There is no reason not to use the footstools, ladders, and knotted ropes dangling above us.

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