x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A bright future

How close to the truth is Hollywood's take on smart drugs? We look at the research into brain-boosting pills.

Bradley Cooper plays a writer who starts taking smart drugs that allow him to use 100 per cent of his brain in the film Limitless.
Bradley Cooper plays a writer who starts taking smart drugs that allow him to use 100 per cent of his brain in the film Limitless.

Sold with the subtitle: "One pill. Anything is possible," the new film Limitless promises to deliver Hollywood's slant on smart drugs. The action-thriller, in UAE cinemas now, features Bradley Cooper as a writer who takes a trial drug that enables him to use 100 per cent of his mind.

After popping the super-boffin pill - called NZT - Cooper's character becomes an ultra-confident memory man with a laser-like focus that sees him rocket to the top of the financial world. Of course NZT isn't readily available over the counter - its side effects include moral decay and an overwhelming dumbness as the effects wear off - and pretty soon it's on the radar of those who'd kill to get their hands on it, such as Carl van Loon (played by Robert De Niro).

While this designer neuro-enhancer has fantasy powers (Cooper learns to speak Italian overnight and writes a novel from scratch in four days) the motivation for the movie is a little more grounded.

The fact is, there are already some medications that have acquired a reputation for boosting concentration and helping people work more productively. Provigil is a compound containing Modafinil, a stimulant that affects the neurotransmitters in the brain - the ones that deal with attention and memory skills. Smart drugs such as Modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall were designed with other purposes in mind (all are medications prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit disorders). But their ability to rewire a user's grey matter and help people to study harder for longer led to them becoming marketed online as smart drugs.

"It's fair to say that these medications can give you 'an edge'," explains Professor John Harris, the director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester in the UK. "Modafinil, for example, can help you to do whatever you're doing more efficiently, but the 'smart drugs' tag is misleading because these really won't make you any cleverer."

Harris points out that the invigorating effects of smart drugs are not too far removed from those of caffeine and even exercise - or simply studying hard, which can have a similar memory-enhancing effect to smart pills. "Research among London taxi drivers has shown that by studying their city road routes in a process called 'learning the knowledge' they actually enlarge a part of their brain called the hippocampus," explains Harris.

In Limitless the NZT drug not only makes those taking it brainier, but it also gives them the power to speed-learn, to absorb instantly and process mathematical problems, as well as being able to recall in a single moment everything they've ever read.

In this case, Harris points out that artistic licence has been taken on a very long taxi journey. "The idea that you can engage 100 per cent of your brain is complete fantasy. For starters there are issues such as cognitive overload which mean it just couldn't happen. We know that we only use some parts of our brain some of the time - but there's a reason why that's the case and there's a reason why we forget things - if you could recall everything that ever happened, that you'd ever read or heard, you'd be paralysed."

While the idea of having total recall is best left to film fiction, pill power in the near future may still have some startling, life-enhancing effects.

Ampakines are purported to be the next generation of smart drugs. These chemicals boost the activity of glutamate - a neurotransmitter that makes it easier to learn and encode memory and enhance communication between the connections in the brain. According to the scientist who discovered them, Gary Lynch at the University of California in the US, ampakines are designed to overcome some of the chemical imbalances that can occur in the brain with certain diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's, as well as combating jet lag.

But ampakines are also an attractive prospect to those seeking a brain boost. Trials carried out on 16 men aged between 18 and 45 at the University of Surrey in the UK using an ampakine called CX717 resulted in subjects scoring better in memory, reaction time and problem-solving tests when compared with those taking placebos. Not only did the lab rats score higher but they did so without side effects such as overstimulation and sleeplessness.

Fears that ampakines and the like could become "as common as coffee" have led to warnings from the British Academy of Medical Sciences and from Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University's psychiatry department, about their regulation. There have even been calls for universities to consider drugs testing to restrict their usage while one UK government think-tank - Futurelab - reported that brain-enhancement drugs may have to be subsidised so that wealthy children do not gain an unfair advantage over their poorer classmates.

In principle, Harris is a fan of smart drugs and instead suggests that a reality check is in order. "Taking one of these pills won't turn you into a genius if you weren't one before you took it," he says.

Beyond those drugs that shape the way we focus, research continues into other "pharma smarts" that can literally change the way we look. Research carried out by Professor Moise Bendayan at the University of Montreal in Canada looking into the hormone leptin - which regulates when humans feel hungry - has lead to the first clinical trials of an appetite suppressant pill. Meanwhile, the Franco-American firm Cerenis Therapeutics reported no ill effects from early trials of a drug that mimics the body's natural bad cholesterol remover. The drug, with the rather un-catchy working title CER-001, could be available within three years.

To what extent these pills live up to the 100 per cent of brain capacity billing the film Limitless portrays is debatable. But as research continues into the way our minds work, neuroscientists such as Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US speculate that we may soon see bespoke cognition-enhancing drugs - for anyone from fighter pilots to brain surgeons - fine-tuned to suit specific tasks.