27 March 2011

The Limits of Smart Drugs

The Clear Pill

Why Smart Drugs Don't Work Like NZT

What are smart drugs? Pills that are supposed to enhance a person's cognitive abilities in some way. Anything from Ritalin to Amphetamines to Provigil might qualify, as well as a wide range of lesser known "nootropics."

These pills are not only popular among university students, but also among workers from truck drivers to pilots to fast-paced professionals who are pushing every synapse to its limit. They can enhance attention, prolong attention span, help keep the mind on topic. All very important when facing a deadline for a research paper, a big work project, or when cramming for an exam.

In one sense, advanced societies run on smart drugs. Western societies embraced coffee, tea, and chocolate as quickly as they could -- and significant battles were fought over the rights to market these early smart drugs.

Fast forward to today, and the "stimulant smart drugs" are being pumped onto the markets -- both legal and illegal -- at prodigious rates. But newer, more advanced generations of smart drugs may be on the horizon.

This Al Fin posting from 2007 is still one of the best summaries of the smart drug research pipeline I have found. Here is a more recent survey of the field from Gizmodo. Some of the newer drugs enhance attention, some enhance memory, some may enhance creativity.

But what about other approaches to getting smarter, besides drugs?
Instead of drugs, the first brain boosters to channel creativity could be electromagnetic devices designed to enhance cognitive skills. One fascinating proposal comes from Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney in Australia. He theorizes that autistic savants derive their skills from an ability to access “privileged, less processed sensory information normally inhibited from conscious awareness.” For normal people, tapping that sensory well might lead to deeply buried creative riches. To test the idea, Snyder and colleagues exposed subjects to low-frequency magnetic pulses (the technology is called transcranial magnetic brain stimulation, or TMS) that suppressed part of their brain function. The researchers found that the subjects acquired savantlike skills, including the ability to render more detailed, naturalistic art. _Discover

Electromagnetic stimulation of the brain probably has a great future ahead of it. But caution is always wise, when working in and around the brain.

All of these drugs -- past, present, and future generation -- are relative sledge-hammers compared to the intricate workings of the human brain. But the real reason smart drugs won't work like "NZT" (from the movie "Limitless") is because none of them can make the necessary changes in both function and structure, to turn mediocrity into brilliance. To do that it is necessary to tweak gene expression at multiple levels.

NZT is an idea whose time has come. But ideas can only take you so far. Converting this idea into a dynamic reality will take more than a little thought.

From an earlier posting at Al Fin, the Next Level


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Blogger Ugh said...

When you talk of electromagnetic stimulation I am reminded of Larry Niven's great sci-fi classic "Ring World" where Louis Wu was addicted to the "wire", a device worn on the head that stimulated the pleasure centers of the brain. In the book Niven alludes to those who whither and die with the wire stuck on their heads because they couldn't be bothered to eat, drink or sleep.

Tuesday, 29 March, 2011  

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