Pop a memory-enhancing pill and your friends will think you are sharp for your age. They might even reduce your annoying forgetfulness. Sounds pretty good, right?
Well, such pills, in crude form, are already here, and drug companies are feverishly trying to develop better pills. The current targets for memory-drug development are three neurotransmitter systems (dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine) and a couple of enzymes that activate genes involved in storing memory.
One effect of these neurotransmitters is to enhance attentiveness, which tends to deteriorate in the elderly. If you read my latest book, Memory Power 101 (available at Skyhorse.Publishing.com), you know that focused attention enhances information registration (encoding), which is the key to memory, because information has to be encoded in brain before it can be remembered.
The original attention-enhancing drug is nicotine, which potentiates the acetylcholine system. But this is also the basis for its bad side effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and other visceral functions. However, there is a less hazardous acetylcholine enhancing drug, Aricept, which is used to reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The benefit does not last, as the disease inevitably progresses beyond the point where Aricept’s benefits work. There is not much evidence that the drug helps normal people to remember better.
Another currently available class of drugs acts to enhance dopamine and norepinephrine transmitter systems. The best known example is amphetamine, notoriously used by truck drivers to help stay awake. But amphetamine has way too many bad side effects, and has been replaced by Ritalin and Adderall. These drugs are. used to help ADHD kids to focus, but many college students use these drugs to help their memory. College students aren’t the only ones taking these drugs to help memory. A survey reported in Nature in 2008, showed that 20% of the more than 1,400 respondents took such drugs to improve their concentration. Over half of those did it daily or weekly. Nearly half of the subjects were over 35.
Another drug, modafinil, also acts to enhance dopamine and norepinephrine, but it also interacts with other chemical systems in the brain (histamine, orexin) that are involved in sleep. It also activates neural circuits that use glutamate as a neurotransmitter. Modafinil is marketed for treating excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue.
A newer class of drugs, known as ampakines, works by allowing more of the glutamate transmitter to enter nerve cells and stimulate them.
Currently, drug companies like Helicon, are feverishly working on drugs that affect expression of memory genes. This is a completely new area of research, and we don’t know much about how these memory genes (two have been identified, but only one, CREB, has been studied much) act to form long-term memories. In one pre-clinical trial with monkeys, one CREB enhancer cut in half the time it took monkeys to memorize tasks. A study of humans showed that a control group of people lost about 20% of their memory of a list of 10 words a week later. But in a comparable test group, the CREB enhancer reduced this memory loss to only 2%.
How well these drugs work to improve memory depend on a person’s already existing memory abilities. People with good memories will get little benefit. This is called a “ceiling effect” by researchers, because the closer your function already is to its maximum effectiveness, the harder it is for anything to boost performance.
Most of these drugs are hazardous in high concentrations. I already mentioned the well-known hazards of nicotine. Ritalin and Adderall are potentially addictive, given that they are biochemically similar to amphetamine. High tissue concentrations of glutamate is known to kill neurons. A similar consequence might occur from long-term continuous use even at lower doses of the glutamate enhancers modafinil and ampakines.
Memory pills will most likely become widely used as new and more effective compounds are discovered. People seek competitive advantage, especially in school and information-dense jobs. Will this create a new drug culture?
There are psychological hazards. For example, memory enhancers might make you remember too well. They would certainly aggravate post-traumatic stress syndrome. Consider also that many ordinary life experiences need to be forgotten, lest they inappropriately continue to affect attitudes and behavior. It’s like having a well-learned song play over and over in your mind. That seems to drive one crazy, and maybe real craziness could be triggered by powerful memory-enhancing drugs. Evenwithout such dark consequences, very strong memories can make it difficult to retrieve other memories, producing the commonly called “tip-of-the-tongue” recall difficulty.
There are simpler and less problematic approaches to improving memory: namely, improve learning strategies and use the established mnemonic principles and tactics, as I have outlined in my books and blog posts at thankyoubrain.blogspot.com. Besides, you can take more pride in intellectual achievement and being mentally sharp when you have earned it.
1. Baker, Sherry (2009). Building a better brain. Discover Magazine. April, p. 56-59.
2. Maher, B. 2008. Poll results: look who’s doping. Nature. 452: 674-675.
3. Partridge, B. J. et al. (2011). Smart drugs “as common as coffee”: media hype about neuroenhancement. PLOS One. Nov. Vol. 6 (11).