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Last Updated: Monday, 16 April 2007, 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK
Drugs may boost your brain power
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC News, Science correspondent

Pills
The easy way to get smart?
The government is assessing the impact of a new generation of drugs that are claimed to make people more intelligent.

The Department of Health has asked the Academy of Medical Sciences to assess these so-called "cognition enhancing" drugs, some of which are already being widely used in the US.

In the 1960s the self styled guru, Dr Timothy Leary, urged American youth to "tune in, turn on and drop out".

Now a new generation of so-called designer drugs are becoming available.

But instead of fuelling a new drop-out culture, they are being used by people who think they will help them do better at school and work.

One of these drugs, Modafinil, was developed to treat people who involuntarily fall asleep.

Dramatic effect

Dr Danielle Turner, of the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Cambridge University, tested the drug out on 60 healthy volunteers.

If, in the future, there are cognition tablets for exams and I wasn't happy for my children to take them, would I be disadvantaging them against those children that actually take them?
Respondent to Academy of Medical Sciences study

It did not just keep them awake. She found that the effects on their brains were much more dramatic.

"We tested them two hours after they had taken a single dose of Modafinil and found quite strong improvements in performance, particularly when things got difficult," she said.

"That was interesting - as problems got harder, their performance seemed to improve. With Modafinil they seemed to think a bit longer and they were more accurate."

Bjorn Stenger was one of the volunteers in Dr Turner's study. He told us how the drug affected him.

"During the test I felt very alert and I could focus very well on the problems at hand.

"I had no problems memorising rows of numbers. I felt pretty much that I was on top of my game."

Student use

Modafinil is in common use in the US, officially for treating sleeping disorders.

In the future do you want one of those dictatorial type states where we have to take drugs to get better and faster to work longer hours?
Respondent to Academy of Medical Sciences study

But according to internet chat rooms, it is also widely used by students and busy professionals to give their brains a boost.

The drug is among a new class of cognition enhancing drugs. Professor Gary Lynch, from the University of California, Irvine, helped invent another class called Ampakines.

Professor Lynch designed them specifically to increase memory and cognition.

And he claims that animal experiments suggest that the drug enables the brain to rewire itself or make neural connections between different regions that normally people cannot make.

This rewiring, he claims, may enable people to "build thoughts that are a little bit beyond the normal brain".

So what thoughts are these?

"One would hope that what we are seeing with the Einsteins and Leonardos is that perhaps they are able to get into a space that we think of genius," he said.

But is the public ready for "genius pills"?

Potential impact

The UK Government is sufficiently concerned about them to have asked an expert group to assess their impact on medicine and their potential social impact.

The Academy of Medical Sciences expert group has held workshops across Britain to find out the public's views.

It found some real concerns - quite apart from the long-term adverse health impact - these drugs could have.

One woman commented: "If, in the future, there are cognition tablets for exams and I wasn't happy for my children to take them, would I be disadvantaging them against those children that actually take them?"

Another comment was: "Who knows where we are going? In the future do you want one of those dictatorial type states where we have to take drugs to get better and faster to work longer hours?

The Academy's report is due out later this year.

It is to help government assess whether or not these new drugs could - or even should - be used to enhance people's abilities.

Or do they pose a new and dangerous hazard to our society?

The Defeat Of Sleep will be broadcast on Monday 16 April at 2100 BST on BBC Radio 4. You can also listen online for 7 days after that at Radio 4's Listen again page.




SEE ALSO
Pill to boost brain power
05 Nov 02 |  Health
UK army tested 'stay awake' pills
26 Oct 06 |  UK Politics

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