There has been a small amount of media buzz recently about smart drugs, or "cognitive enhancers." What is a cognitive enhancer? First of all, it's a drug. Like many drugs, it modifies the body's biochemistry by mimicking the shapes and/or properties of specific chemicals used in vital biochemical processes.

Drugs that have an effect on consciousness impact the actions and interactions of neurons. As of now, very little is known about how neurons work with neurotransmitters to produce conscious events. If the complexity of their interrelated interactions and collaborations is an iceberg, today's very best neuroscientists are still struggling to chip away at the tip.

But this has not stopped the neurotechnology industry. The makers of a drug called Modafinil (trade name Provigil), already licensed to sell their drug as a treatment for narcolepsy, are now lobbying for the right to sell it as antidote for jetlag. They promise their drug will cure you of the need for sleep. Take it, and you can count on your ability to concentrate, even under stressful conditions, on little or no rest. And it's completely safe!

Modafinil is just one of many drugs in various stages of development that will inevitably challenge conventional definitions of the human mind. And at the moment, the future of smart drugs seems unbounded. In the newest Discover Magazine, Sherry Baker gives an entertaining, in-depth look at the current state of mind-altering drug research and development. The article states,
"Drugs like modafinil are just the leading edge of a growing trend. The potential for mind-boosting drugs and technologies has increased stunningly over the past decade as neuroscientists have unlocked the secrets of neuronal circuits, neurotransmitters, and specific molecular events triggering brain functions in three interconnected cognitive domains--attention, memory, and creativity."

But what if these drugs are "enhancing" cognition at the expense of another vital system? In the case of Modafinil--we are nowhere close to a broad understanding of why animals require sleep (although here's one apparent reason). How could we possibly defeat the need for it with a pill?

Naturally, military leaders across the globe are interested in a pill that promises to help soldiers overcome their fragile human-ness during combat. Could a pill really influence the outcome of a war? Perhaps. As this 2006 Scientific American piece postulates,
"The first state (or nonstate) actor to build superior fighters will make an enormous leap in the arms race. In the short run, researchers are trying to devise aids that would overcome a person's inherent limitations, such as mental fatigue. Long-term results could lead to individuals everywhere who are tireless, less fearful or even better speakers."


1 comment:

Ian said...

The New Yorker is ripping you off: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/04/27/090427fa_fact_talbot?currentPage=all