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Memory Pill on the Way, but So Are Problems

February 11, 1986|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

Good news for victims of Alzheimer's disease, stroke and encephalitis.

Not to mention students cramming for exams, champion chess players, potential Nobel laureates and just plain folks who keep losing the car keys.

The memory pill is on its way.

Or so said James McGaugh, professor of psychobiology and director of the UC Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, who spoke last week in the Science Lecture Hall.

For three decades, McGaugh's research has involved the effects of drugs and hormones on memory. He is currently a consultant to several pharmaceutical companies in the United States and in Europe.

"Every major drug company in the world I know of has a program to develop compounds to improve memory in humans," McGaugh said. "My guess is that sometime within the next two decades, one of those companies is going to hit it."

That drugs can influence learning and memory in laboratory animals is not new, McGaugh said.

"That's been known for about 70 years," he noted, rattling off a list of names of a dozen central nervous system stimulants including Adrenalin, strychnine and amphetamines. "But most of these drugs are poisons, highly toxic even in very low doses, so they're only useful in research (with animals). What's needed are safer compounds, shown to be equally or more effective in humans. So far, pathetically little evidence about any influence at all in human subjects has been documented."

Raises Ethical Questions

Poisonous as they are, these drugs are predecessors of a hoped-for compound whose impact will raise at least as many ethical and practical questions as steroids in the field of sports, and almost certainly alter some of our notions about self-discipline and productivity.

McGaugh offered a forecast as encouraging as it was unsettling.

"Given the really serious development that has taken place in the field in the last decade, given the energy and money that's being pumped into the field, given the physiological possibility, it will happen--a drug will be produced. New compounds have already been synthesized, many in some stage of clinical investigation.

"But when it happens, there will be a Pandora's boxful of problems for society to deal with. We would be well advised to begin thinking about these problems now."

A question-and-answer period following the lecture focused on some of the problems that McGaugh said can be anticipated.

"The one that perplexes me most is the question of what the target group will actually be," he said. "That billion-dollar figure is an estimate based on the use of these compounds by people who have bona fide memory disorders.

"But what do you suppose the real market will be? Who do you suppose will really use these drugs? Who faced with an important exam would ignore the existence of these compounds? Who, like myself, faced with the problem of giving a lecture would forgo the opportunity to take something so as not to have to use notes?"

Development of such a drug would mean big business, as was reflected in a recent article chronicling the drug companies' search.

"Fortune magazine was very interested and for a very simple reason," McGaugh said. "There's a fortune to be made.

"It's estimated that if there were a drug effective in improving memory, there would be a minimum profit of a billion dollars a year. And that would only be for the first to come along, and on the assumption--which of course may or may not be valid--that the drug would only be taken by people who have disorders of learning and memory."

Question of Side Effects

McGaugh cited Valium, both "the most widely used psychoactive compound and the most widely abused psychoactive compound," as an example of the impossibility of totally monitoring the use of such a drug.

The inevitable question of side effects was also raised: According to McGaugh, the hidden consequences of taking memory- and learning-enhancement drugs pose an especially difficult problem.

"It's something of an embarrassment to everybody in the field," he admitted. "If you administer a drug which (damages) the nervous system and yet the animal is then trained, you can have a hard time showing that there's anything wrong.

"The brain compensates very quickly. Just to say that the animal's learning and memory is OK doesn't mean the brain is OK--the subject may in fact now be a very different animal. Certainly we see this with amphetamines, which enhance memory under certain circumstances. The brain up-regulates, it down-regulates--it does all kinds of things to compensate for chemically induced changes--none of them good."

Would Target Use

Whatever the hidden consequences of enhancing memory with drugs--and the possibilities in that jungle of electrical pulses and neurotransmitters we call the brain are endless--McGaugh says they must nevertheless be weighed against the benefits for those with crippling memory disorders.

"My appeal would be that when these drugs are developed, they should be used only for a very specific target population. They should be used to make people with Alzheimer's more tractable for a longer period of time. They should be used to make people who have had strokes more effective in daily activities than would otherwise be possible.

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