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Brain Games: Is 'Limitless' a Glimpse of Our Future?

  1. buckcamp
    "Everything I ever read, heard, or seen was just organized and available," Eddie Mora narrates. "I knew exactly what I needed to do and how to do it."

    Mora just took a new, unapproved memory-enhancing drug. Within minutes, everything around him becomes clear as the drug ramps up his brainpower and memory. He can not only access memories long thought lost, he can also make new memories quickly and easily.

    In his first month on the drug, he teaches himself to play piano in three days, writes a book and learns several languages, and turns $12,000 into $2.3 million as a day trader.

    Sadly for college students everywhere, this drug isn't real, yet. Eddie Mora's life on a drug called NZT is the plot of the new movie "Limitless," in theaters tomorrow (March 18). Though it's a fantasy world, some researchers say such memory-enhancing drugs might not be far off.

    Advances in knowledge of long-term memory and the processes that guide and shape it are leading the way to memory-enhancing therapies.

    "It's really amazing; I think we are on the verge of having the essential building blocks of haow memories are made in the hippocampus," Alcino Silva, a memory researcher at UCLA, told LiveScience. (The hippocampus is buried deep within the forebrain and is involved in the formation and storing of memories.)

    While the movie-based drug promises to let Mora and other takers use more of their brains (that's a myth in the first place – people already use most of their brains), real-life drugs would likely focus on enhancing the creation and accessibility of memories.

    Researchers are developing memory improving drugs as treatments for patients suffering from dimentia, such as Alzheimer's, and amnesia from stroke or traumatic brain injury. But such a drug might have different, possibly dangerous effects in non-impaired persons, who might abuse it to improve their mental abilities, like in “Limitless.”

    Memory enhancement: now and later
    Two recent studies have found memory-boosting molecules in the brain, research that has spurred the memory and cognition field, adding to this possibility. These molecules can enhance the formation of memory, even long after it has been created. Most other research has focused on molecules that block memory formation, so these new discoveries are the best candidates for an NZT-like drug, scientists say.

    In late January, researchers led by Cristina Alberini from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York announced that they had discovered a naturally occurring hormone that could enhance a rat's memories both during creation and during recall. "We need to know so much more," Alberini told LiveScience. "But everything we have seen is actually very suggestive that it may work [as a cognitive enhancer]."

    Then, in early March, researcher Todd Sacktor of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and co-researcher Yadin Dudai, at New York University, announced that they had discovered how a protein called PMKzeta can be used to both enhance and erase memories even long after they had become permanent. Since the study was done in rats, we can't be sure how this would work in humans, the researchers say, but it sounds eerily like Mora's NZT.

    "What never had been done before was to be able to, after you learn something, wait days to weeks later, and then do something that would be able to enhance those previously stored memories," Sacktor told LiveScience. The molecule seems to play an important role in the maintenance and structure of memories after they have become long term.

    "You can show an enhancement and impairment [in memory] by manipulating one molecule," said memory researcher Karim Nader, of McGill University in Montreal, about Sacktor's work. "It's still pretty new, and it's happening pretty fast, but the data is there."

    Possible abuse
    Drugs that can enhance these memory pathways in the brain would be a miracle for patients with memory loss, like Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Drugs that block these pathways could also help treat phobias or mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    "If we want to manipulate memory clinically to treat Alzheimer's and post-traumatic stress disorder, it's really important to know what are the key molecules that need to be manipulated," David Glanzman, of UCLA, told LiveScience. These recently discovered molecules could fit that bill, Glanzman said. "It's clear that PKMzeta is a sort of master molecule."

    If this type of cognitive enhancer follows the lead of other drugs, it may become fodder of college students everywhere. Adderal and Ritalin, drugs created to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD), have become a rampant problem in schools and workplaces, including by researchers themselves. Twenty percent of responders to a Nature survey said they have used these types of drugs for non-medical uses, including improving focus. People without the disorder who take Adderall can concentrate for hours on end without disrupting their ability to memorize the information they are taking in.

    There is no question that such a memory-boosting drug would be abused similarly to Adderall, but enhancing the memories of doctors and other knowledge-intense professions might be a good thing. "Medications can be used to various ends, but we are just providing the information, and it's up to society to determine what to do with it," Dudai told LiveScience.

    Memory-erasing drugs, like in the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," developed to treat phobias or PTSD, could be abused as well, or be used to abuse others. For instance, date-rape drugs, like Rohypnol (aka roofies), have a main side effect of memory loss of the event. Other memory-destroying or memory-blocking drugs may be used in similar ways, researchers speculate.

    Brain consequences
    Even if such a drug were safe, remembering everything has its own consequences.

    "What if you take this memory drug and you went out on a date. It was an average bad date, but because of the memory drug for the next month, you keep revisiting it and how horrible it was," Glanzman told LiveScience. "Memory is a double-edged sword."

    We can't be sure what it would be like to actually be on these memory-enhancing drugs, but forgetting plays an integral role in how our brain work. "Our brains are self-adjusting, rule-making machines," Silva said. "We extract and extrapolate, we derive rules from various situations."

    If we remember too much, Silva notes, we risk messing with the brain's delicate balance between remembering, forgetting and filtering of our life experiences. In Mora’s case, he started becoming overly paranoid, a situation that could result from too much memory. If all memories are forever ingrained into your brain, you might end up creating stronger memories from experiences that would normally have been filtered out.

    Sadly for Mora (spoiler alert!), there are other consequences of this miracle drug. He starts to lose coordination and have blackouts. Going off the drug is worse, though, with blinding headaches and death for some on the drug. His brain is like molasses, and he loses some of the memories he had created. Researchers have no idea what the consequences of this would be in actual human brains, but it probably wouldn't be good, they say.

    "If you don't need it you are likely to do more damage than you are likely to help," Silva said. "Our biological systems are the results of finely balanced mechanisms, if you muck with them it's at your own peril."

    Published March 18, 2011 | LiveScience


  1. Euthanatos93420
    Faux news admitting that we can be responsible for our own drug use? Either it's the end of the world as we know it or something fishy is afoot.

    IIRC (NPI) the best mnemonic device is a good story and through it you can remember anything you need to.
  2. buckcamp
    Are We Psychologically 'Limitless' - or Hitting a Wall?

    The newly-released movie “Limitless” starring Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish revolves around a struggling writer who is offered a newly-minted medication called NZT that allows him to access 100 percent of his brain’s potential, rather than the 20 percent some assert is actually engaged in daily intellectual pursuits. This essentially turbocharges him, so that he finishes a novel in four days, makes a fortune in the stock market and becomes irresistible to women.

    NZT has side effects, including losing one’s memory for long periods of time. But the real problem with it is that—like an illicit drug—it removes Cooper from reality and deposits him in a fantasy world. His talents aren’t really “his,” if you will, they are fabrications of NZT. He didn’t earn them and hasn’t learned to master them. His soul is traveling at the same warp speed that his mind is, and his soul begins to fracture.

    Whether or not reviewers think the movie is artistically compelling, and whether or not the subplots about an unethical investment bank and Russian mobsters are necessary, “Limitless” addresses the key question for psychology to ponder in the 21st century. As science and technology—including the Internet—offer us ever-increasing ways to supposedly expand our horizons and abilities, are we gaining something or losing something? Are we becoming more effective at the expense of our emotional well-being? If we have 2,000 “friends” on Facebook, are we less likely to have genuine friendships in life?

    If our sons and daughters have virtual pets they play with on ClubPenguin, are they less likely to truly love their dogs and cats and guinea pigs, leaving our children without some of the formative, emotional experiences that encourage them to bond with and love one another?

    These are not irrelevant questions as the Web increases speed, devices multiply, companies ponder whether inserting Bluetooth devices in the body might make sense and pharmaceutical companies investigate medications to heighten memory and concentration (not just restore them). At what point does the humanity in human beings become extinguished? At what point do we become less wise for being more knowledgeable? At what point do we become less connected to one another in the ways that make life worthwhile because we are becoming more connected to one another through our iPhones and Blackberries and Droids?

    Already, the question posed by “Limitless” has its mirror in real life. My own profession of psychiatry has sold out so thoroughly to chemical cures, (which do have their place, of course) that finding a psychiatrist who will actually perform psychotherapy (and actually knows how), rather than only prescribing medicines, is rarer than ever before. Young people’s self-esteem is skyrocketing while their empathy for others and their ability to actually accomplish goals is declining. The desire for performance enhancing energy drinks and Adderall prescriptions and Viagra prescriptions is surging while our internal focus on worthy goals decays and more than half our marriages fall into ruin. Athletesaccomplish greater feats of endurance and stamina and speed on the field and display less and less character in life.

    As Charlie Sheen’s ego-driven, drug-induced, rapid-fire antics compete with American military actions for headlines, he may turn out to be the poster boy for the little we have gained for all we have lost. We may well be losing our minds and our hearts while fueling our brains.

    By Dr. Keith Ablow
    Published March 22, 2011 | FoxNews.com
  3. EscapeDummy
    Regarding this aspect, swim thinks its true. It's been proven in many studies we tend to forget boring to bad memories (non traumatic ones), while retaining better memories of positive events, leading to the nostalgia effect. Swim also remembers hearing an interview with a woman who had eidetic memory - she could tell you what she wore, what she had for breakfast, any newsworthy stories, the weather, etc of any day named over several decades. She considered it much more of a curse than a blessing and wished she could just have "normal" memories.
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