It seems that the pharmaceutical industry is riding on the crest of a new wave of drugs promising to improve our mental abilities and are therefore giving us better memories. But is it too good to be true?
Originally developed to treat narcolepsy, the condition that causes people to suddenly fall asleep in the middle of whatever they’re doing, modafinil is now being used to keep people alert and awake for hours at a stretch with no apparent side-effects either from the drug itself nor from the lack of sleep.
Military research is showing that well-rested, drug-free volunteers are being outperformed by those on modafinil – who are staying awake for 40 hours, sleeping for 8, and then staying awake again.
Ritalin, normally prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is often now being used (or perhaps you think abused), by those wanting superior levels of concentration during exams.
As well as the drugs already available today, there are more on the way. It looks like we’re set for memory enhancement drugs to become more common. After all, who wouldn’t want a quick fix for a declining memory? And who among us has not noticed things getting more difficult to recall and reactions getting slower as we pass the age of 40?
And they’re not just being used as memory boosters, they’re openly being marketed as such. The science seems plausible enough. They really do seem to work and as yet no major side-effects have been discovered.
But is it really safe?
Daniele Piomelli at the University of California in Irvine has been using similar drugs to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has discovered a way of making victims’ memories less emotionally charged.
But he’s concerned that memory enhancement drugs might have you remember things you really don’t want to remember. The unconscious mind is very clever and can hide traumatic memories from you. Some therapies insist that you “re-experience the trauma” but science is revealing that not only is that not necessary, but it is positively dangerous. And why would you do that when there are other, painless, ways of reprocessing those memories to make them more manageable?
One concern is that perhaps evolution has already optimised the processing of memories so messing with our brains might have some long-term effects that we hadn’t bargained for.
Personally, I can’t help feeling this is potentially a very dangerous way for us to go. It’s not normal to take drugs and whenever we do we’re putting a strain on our system to metabolise the chemicals and eliminate them from our body.
It worries me that increasingly we seem to consume drugs at the drop of a hat, for convenience rather than because it’s the best solution. Take antibiotics for example. The more we’ve taken them, the more bacteria have evolved to resist them, and the less effective they are when we really need them.
Every other advert on TV seems to reflect our neuroticism about germs, imploring us to sanitise every surface. But as our gut flora has changed as a consequence, we’re experiencing more eczema, asthma and other allergies. It’s no consequence that in areas of the country that are more rural, where children are growing up not in the pristine environments of the conurbations, but are playing outside, in the muck – they are growing up healthier and more resistant to infection.
Surely, it’s one thing to use drugs when we have no other solution for a debilitating disease, but it’s another thing entirely to use them as a shortcut to success, when physical exercise and mental challenge keep our brains functioning well anyway.
I can’t help thinking that we will see a backlash to using enhancement drugs and I suspect the dangers are similar to those of recreational drugs, with their obvious and more insidious drawbacks to health.
So we’ll see. But I’m not holding my breath. I’ll continue to recommend healthy habits and effective revision strategies for better memory – we know what we’re doing there.