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Monday, 8 July, 2002, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
'Smart drugs' boost pilot memory
pilots
Pilots were given an Alzheimer's drug
A drug developed to help ward off the progress of dementia could increase the mental power of people without the illness.

Tests in the US, involving 18 airline pilots with an average age of 52, found that those taking the drug Aricept were better able to retain complex training than those given a placebo.

However, whether the drug would be suitable for wider use as a memory enhancer is debatable, with concerns about side-effects.

Aricept works because it blocks the action of a body chemical in the brain.

This chemical breaks down another called acetylcholine, a "neurotransmitter" which helps pass messages between brain cells in parts of the brain key to memory and conscious thought.

Complex instructions

The pilots taking part in the study, organised by Stanford University in the US, were asked to take complex flight simulations.

In the simulator, they received air traffic control commands every three minutes with new headings, altitude and radio frequency, and codes which had to be remembered then punched into a cockpit panel.

After seven flights, half of the pilots took Aricept for 30 days, then retook the tests.


How should the use of these therapies be regulated in settings such as chess matches or test-taking?

Dr Jerome Yesavage, Stanford University
They performed better than those who had taken dummy placebo pills.

Dr Jerome Yesavage, who led the study said that the small size of the study meant that the findings might not necessarily be reproduced in larger groups.

"These results don't mean that use of donepezil (Aricept) is recommended for healthy people.

"For one thing, side effects may show up when larger numbers of people take the drug."

Expensive drug

Aricept is currently licensed in the UK for the treatment of people with Alzheimer's disease.

It has been shown to delay the progression of the disease.

The government's drugs advisory group, the National Institute of Clinical Excellence, approved the drug - a decision set to cost the NHS up to 42 million a year.

However, it is certainly not licensed for use in any other patients.

However, Dr Yesavage can foresee a time when the use of memory-enhancing drugs is widespread - and controversial.

He said: "Will it worsen the gap between the haves and the have-nots when the rich are cognitively enhanced not only through better education, but also through drugs and other technologies?

"How should the use of these therapies be regulated in settings beyond aviation or normal ageing, such as chess matches or test-taking among college students?"

Dr Richard Harvey, from the Alzheimer's Society, said that while the prospect of memory enhancing drugs was "fascinating", any university student looking for a revision aid should bear the drug's side-effects in mind.

"In the short term, it causes diarrhoea and vomiting, so it might not be ideal."

See also:

03 Apr 01 | Health
08 Mar 01 | Health
07 May 01 | Health
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