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Smart drugs: on the path to perfection

The Times Online has published a piece about the development of a new drug that will enhance memory retention in…

By Kevin Sauve , in Grey matter: A blog about the brain and behaviour , on January 31, 2009

The Times Online has published a piece about the development of a new drug that will enhance memory retention in healthy individuals. The drug developed by Astra-Zeneca, Targacept, and Epix Pharmaceuticals is designed to ameliorate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s but researchers are interested in marketing a milder version as a “life-style” pill.

Students and professionals are already using Alzheimer’s drugs such as Aricept to boost memory and ADHD medications, such as Ritalin and modafinil, to improve concentration. Although this practice is currently illegal, a study conducted by Nature in 2008 determined that one-fifth of the world’s professional scientists and science students have used prescription stimulants this way.

Last month seven neuroethicists wrote a commentary in Nature requesting that cognitive enhancers be made available for use by the healthy:

“[Cognitive enhancement drugs], along with newer technologies such as brain stimulation and prosthetic brain chips, should be viewed in the same general category as education, good health habits, and information technology — ways that our uniquely innovative species tries to improve itself.”

Are we willing to sacrifice happiness for the sake of progress? I think we run the risk of doing so if we are concerned only with progress for progress sake.

A genuine criticism of legalizing smart pills is the unknown consequences of long-term use. For example, could the use of memory boosting medication result in the “persistence of unwanted recollections”, as the authors of the Nature commentary mention as a possibility?

Perhaps meaningless details about every day life, such as at what time you put the toothpaste cap back on last Tuesday, would be persistent mental irritants. This is not to mention the details of unpleasant or horrific events that we may wish to forget but cannot. Next in line, ‘misrecollection’ medication.

Never mind the social ramifications. Consider the widening socio-economic gap that already exists and that will surely grow in the wake of cognitive enhancement technology. Certainly those that can afford to benefit from it will, and those who cannot, or choose not to, will be at a significant competitive disadvantage.

Given the current economic downturn and the scarcity of high-paying jobs, people are looking for anything available to give them an edge against their competition. And what is to stop an employer from “suggesting” that his employees take a regular dose of medafinil to keep them focused and efficient, especially once smart advertising tunes into smart pills?

Students are particularly susceptible to the allure of enhancement technology. Studies indicate that approximately 7% of American university students use prescription stimulants for academic purposes. Legalizing this practice is the same as encouraging it. Should we assess our future leaders and thinkers on the basis of whether or not they are willing, and can afford, to pop pills for higher grades?

I fear that legalizing prescription stimulants for use by the health will jeopardize the discretion of those who reject the technology and further marginalize the financially vulnerable.

The truth of the matter however, is that as long as we continue to make drugs that enhance cognitive function, healthy people will find a way to acquire them. We should not stop producing Aricept simply because select groups of healthy individuals may use the drug as a brain booster.

I am certain that as cognitive enhancement technology is perfected there will be increasing pressure to use it, despite whether or not this comes at the expense of our genuine happiness and freedom.