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Brain boosts with nootropics

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Pills like these could someday improve our cognitive capacity, raising ethical questions. (Photo: File/ CDC/ Amanda Mills)

What if you could take a pill and concentrate more, have a stronger memory, or, better yet, increase your intelligence? Would you take it? What about its ethics, do you think it would be right for individuals to take cognitive enhancers during an examination, for their preparation, or just about any other time? Though you may not have an answer to these questions yet, it appears that society must answer these questions sooner rather than later. Indeed, there is a growing interest in these substances, and with the release of the recent blockbuster, Limitless, which featured just this sort of pill, interest is sure to keep rising.

If you have not heard of the term before, such drugs are classified as Nootropics. Nootropics encompass a group of substances whose primary role is to enhance cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and intelligence, among others. It is important to note however, that whether these drugs can actually sustainably lead to better intellectual performance in the short- or long-term remains the subject of investigation.

In a recent review by Lynch et al.The likelihood of cognitive enhancement, the authors share their view that "expanded cortical areas are likely to use generic network designs shared by most primates; if so, then it appears unlikely that the designs are in any sense 'optimized' for cognition. We take this as a starting position for the assumption that the designs are far from being maximally effective for specialized human functions, and therefore that it is realistic to expect that cognition-related operations can be significantly enhanced."

The authors point out to something important as well: there is a difference between the potential of a substance to encourage the maximal cognitive function and enhancing cognitive abilities that are beyond the limits of our natural capabilities. Studies on rats as well as monkeys have pointed to the possibility that breaking species-specific cognitive limitations may indeed be possible. The particular substance which achieved these results in animal studies was an 'ampakine'.

Ampakines bind strongly to AMPA receptors; this interaction in turn, is believed to result in "enhance subthreshold connections between cortical association regions to a point at which the global network expands beyond the limits normally imposed by connectivity." In other words, the stimulation of AMPA receptors by ampakines in these studies appear to facilitate connections between different regions of the brain which normally would not have been made.

Potential Nootropic drugs which are frequently discussed online include Methylphenidate (ritalin), modafinil, and racetam drugs. The discussion of whether these drugs actually have the capacity to improve cognitive function is beyond the scope of this post, but it suffices to say that much of the data that has been published is conflicting. Little evidence points however to their ability to improve deficiencies in cognitive function, meaning that ritalin and modafinil are likely to show cognitive improvements for the intended patient population (e.g., ritalin and ADHD patients; modafinil and narcolepsy patients).

Keep checking in on MemberCentral for future posts on Nootropics as I will continue to discuss the topic in the future.