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Sharper minds

December 20, 2004|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

Donepezil, sold under the name Aricept, also has been found to boost the brain function of healthy people. The drug increases the concentration of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, boosting the power of certain electrical transmissions between brain cells.

In a 2002 study, 18 pilots with an average age of 52 were put through seven training flights in a simulator and taught a complex set of piloting skills over 30 days. Half took a low dose of donepezil; the other half took a placebo. At month's end, all were tested on the skills they had learned.

The pilots on donepezil retained more of the skills than those who took the placebo. On the most challenging parts of the test, an emergency drill and a landing sequence, their performance was notably superior, according to results of the study published in the journal Neurology.

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Botox for the mind?

Some scientists predict that the development of even more-effective brain-enhancing drugs will usher in an age of "cosmetic neurology."

"If people can gain a millimeter, they're going to want to take it," said Jerome Yesavage, director of Stanford University's Aging Clinical Research Center and an author of the donepezil study.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Brain-boosting drugs -- An article on drugs that enhance mental performance in Monday's Health section said James L. McGaugh was director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine. He is the former director. Dr. Michael Rugg is the director.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday December 27, 2004 Home Edition Health Part F Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Brain-boosting drugs -- An article on drugs that enhance mental performance in the Dec. 20 Health section said James L. McGaugh was director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine. He is the former director. Dr. Michael Rugg is the director.

Judy Illes, a psychologist at Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics, said mind-enhancing medicine could become "as ordinary as a cup of coffee." This could be good for society, helping people learn faster and retain more, she said.

But it also raises questions: Will the rich get smarter while the poor fall further behind? (Drugs such as modafinil can cost as much as $6 per dose.)

Will people feel compelled to use the medications to keep up in school or in the workplace? In a world where mental function can be tweaked with a pill, will our notion of "normal intelligence" be changed forever?

Mirk Mirkin of Sherman Oaks, 77, a retired marketing manager, would like to regain a bit of his old intellectual nimbleness. A member of Mensa, a society for people with IQs in the top two percentile of the nation, Mirkin is bothered by what he laughingly calls "senior moments," such as when a name stubbornly eludes him.

If a pill could halt the march of forgetfulness without uncomfortable side effects, he would probably take it, Mirkin said.

Mirkin, who proctors tests for admission into Mensa, said he would not object if younger people took such pills to pump up their mental muscle for the test. "If they physically can handle it and want it bad enough, why not?"

Many college and graduate students want an edge bad enough to take Ritalin, even if they do not suffer from attention deficit disorder.

At campuses, test sites and, increasingly, workplaces across the country, people are popping "vitamin R." Some users persuade a doctor to prescribe it; others get it from friends who have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.

The growing demand for Ritalin, which can be addictive, has prompted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to classify it as a "drug of concern."

On the Internet chat board of the Student Doctor Network, college students preparing for medical school admission tests frequently discuss the benefits of taking Ritalin or similar drugs on exam day.

Some students think they have no choice. "You figure you're being compared to people who are on Ritalin," said one Los Angeles student who frequents the site and recently asked a relative to supply the drug. "I just figured it would be more fair if you're on the same level."

Eventually, ambitious parents will start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children, said McGaugh, the UC Irvine neurobiologist.

"If there is a drug which is safe and effective and not too expensive for enhancing memory in normal adults, why not normal children?" he said. "After all, they're going to school, and what's more important than education of the young? And what would be more important than giving them a little chemical edge?"

Defense Department scientists are pursuing just such an advantage for U.S. combat forces. The Pentagon spends $20 million per year exploring ways to "expand available memory" and build "sleep-resistant circuitry" in the brain.

Among its aims: to develop stimulants capable of keeping soldiers awake, alert and effective for as long as seven days straight. The armed forces have taken leading roles in testing modafinil and donepezil as performance enhancers for pilots and soldiers.

On the horizon are other potential smart drugs, each operating on different systems in the brain. If they progress through tests of safety and effectiveness, the first of them could be available as early as 2008. (See "What's on the horizon?" at right).

Three companies are among the leading contenders in the race to develop drugs for memory and cognitive performance: Memory Pharmaceuticals Corp. of Montvale, N.J.; Cortex Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Irvine; and Helicon Therapeutics Inc., founded by Tully, the geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

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