Memory pills to help you get ahead
DRUG companies are developing a series of potentially memory-enhancing pills that it is claimed could soon be adapted to help people get ahead at work or in exams.
The new medicines are currently aimed at treating Alzheimer’s disease but could be licensed for over-the-counter sales in a few years.
One new memory drug is being developed by the British-based multinational Astra-Zeneca in collaboration with Targacept, an American company. Epix Pharmaceuticals, also from the United States, is developing a second. Both have “cognitive-enhancing effects” which are aimed at treating patients with age-related memory loss.
But Steven Ferris, a neurologist and former committee member of the Food and Drug Administration, America’s licensing authority, said there was nothing to stop mild versions being cleared later for use as “lifestyle pills” by healthy consumers.
“My view is that one could gain approval, provided you showed the drugs to be effective and safe,” said Ferris. “It could be a huge market.” There is plentiful anecdotal evidence that mind-improving drugs are being taken in Britain by healthy users. They include Provigil, which was developed for narcolepsy, a condition in which sufferers keep falling asleep unexpectedly. Students also use the drug to stay awake.
People are also using Adderall XR and Ritalin, treatments for attention deficit disorder, to promote concentration, and Inderal, a medicine for high blood pressure that can also calm people down.
Tamryn Shean, 23, an engineering student at Cambridge University, used to take Ritalin to treat attention deficit disorder and said she had noticed her performance decline after she stopped. She plans to start using it again to help with her academic work. “It’s not a good idea to take the strong ones without prescription, but come exam time everyone’s pumped up with pills,” said Shean.
The Department of Health said it was not illegal to buy the medicines over the internet, but it was not recommended.
Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge, said: “It’s hard to quantify the scale of the phenomenon but it’s definitely catching on.
“For many, enhancement is a dirty word, but the benefits are clear. The reality is we’re not always at our best. After being up at night looking after the kids or travelling, many people would love to have something to sharpen them up. It’s not taboo to drink Red Bull [a caffeine-rich energy drink]. The principle with cognition enhancers is not so different.”
A spokesman for Shire, the British company that manufactures Adderall XR, acknowledged many of its customers were likely to be healthy.
“The perception is that it’s youngish people between 18 and 35 or professionals who use it - people who are starting new jobs and want to perform well,” he said. “We get a lot of calls from college campuses asking about it.
“There are risks though. It can raise blood pressure, people shouldn’t do it.”