MadSci Network: Neuroscience
Query:

Re: What drugs or other methods are available to enhance intelligence/memory?

Date: Thu Feb 8 12:17:44 2001
Posted By: Alex Goddard, Grad student, Neuroscience, Harvard Medical School
Area of science: Neuroscience
ID: 980863252.Ns
Message:

Benjamin-

††††††††††† Iím afraid Iím not terribly familiar with Wilsonís work.. I saw his website, but didnít have an opportunity to delve too deep...

The answers to your questions are: there have been advances in understanding how memory is stored in the brain and how it can be improved, but certainly not to the point of miracle memory training. The problem is that there are a ton of different things to consider about this situation. Iíll go into few: first, we need to define memory; second (and perhaps most importantly), thereís biology to contend with; and lastly, we need to consider what we are really looking for with a massive memory. Then Iíll briefly talk about your second question: miracle memory pills and other bric-a-brac (the quick and dirty: nearly all are bogus!).

First, the concept of memory is really a lot more complex than most people consider. Does memory refer to being able to remember what you learned in class today (called declarative memory), or the phone number some one just mentioned to me (short term), or how to navigate to a particular classroom (spatial), or how to throw a curve ball (motor)? We generally refer to all of these as Ďmemory tasks.í But in terms of the brain, they are different processes, using different areas to encode and store the different types. I wonít go into the specifics of each of these, as volumes already have been penned on each one! Iíll refer you to a textbook as well as some websites for some details if youíre interested - see the info at the end of the message.

The important thing to consider is the biology of how the brain is organized (my second point). Iím not sure what your background is, so Iíll start from basics - you can skip over it if you already know it.... Brains are constructed of cells called neurons, and these cells can communicate with each other using chemical signals known as neurotransmitters. This second point is critical - the cells can Ďtalkí to each other. This communication is the basis of brain activity - we can measure the electrical properties of neurons and thus get sense of how cells are talking to one another. You see and recognize an object because the cells in your eyes are talking to various cells throughout the brain that can parse the pattern of photons on your retina into a meaningful image. They can do this because each cell can make many connections, on the order of a thousand. Since one cell can contact 1000 others, and more notably, each cell can receive information from 1000 other cells, massive circuits of cells are established. On the picture (courtesy of http://synapses.bu.edu ), each one of those branches gets input from many different cells - you can get a sense of the complexity of information received by one cell - now consider billions of these interconnected! We can model these complex networks of cells like electrical circuits, but we have no diagram to work with, and we barely understand the components weíre using Ė itís a little overwhelming.

ANYWAY, the reason I went through that whole, long shpeal is to stress that memory is more about the physical cellular circuit than the neurotransmitters that pass between the cells (where current drugs work). This is not to say we canít fool around with those neurotransmitters and see some results, but we need to put the question in a bit more perspective. To really make a super-brain, youíd have to reconnect the brain, cell by cell, connection by connection. Not only is that impossible when you know that there are something like 100 billion cells - but think that each one of these could have 1000 connections!(This is why I think the brain is so flippiní cool - our brains are properly set up and we can walk, talk, memorize, discuss, philosphize, create...) Furthermore, we have no roadmap to know which cell to connect to which. (This is because every brain is different - because each personís experience physically shapes the various connections between neurons in his or her brain - this creates a unique person! But this point is a giant one in and of itself which I canít go into right now.) I doubt any pill will be able to rewire the entire brain in a way that we would find totally acceptable.

OK - now that we have that out of the way - I will say that there are drugs out there that can help people with their memory, and they work by boosting the efficacy of neurotransmitters. Specifically, some enhance the effects of a chemical called Acetylcholine. They have been used for people who are suffering from diseases which cause memory loss, such as Alzheimerís disease. The drugs will work for a while Ė it does help to boost the efficacy of the circuitry that is left (as Alzheimerís causes neurons to die). But once the circuitry is decimated, no drug will do any good.

This being the case, you could make the argument that with intact circuitry, these drugs might do wonders - and they might! We also donít know how well we are utilizing the memory circuit. That is to say, we may be able to improve our memory by 10 or 15% by tweaking neurotransmitters, but would be ultimately limited by brain organization. Also, some drugs may have nasty side effects. Would you be willing to have a better memory if it meant you got sick to your stomach every 2 hours? I didnít get a great feel for the various drugs that are out there. Iíll list some of the drugs below, as well as a few links.

An important philosophical question is: what good is a huge memory? People tend to equate a greater memory with greater intelligence. These are really separate aspects of mind. Storing information (memory) is one thing; applying and synthesizing info (my definition of intelligence) is another. Granted, the more you can store, the more likely you could be to put 2 and 2 together (or energy and mc2 if youíre Einstein). But they are not mutually inclusive. Furthermore, it is possible that you could run out of space (another bio-philosophical debate). Or what if your brain were working so hard at memorizing that it essentially paralyzed your ability to do anything with it? Just some fat to chew on....

Which brings me, finally, to your question about miracle pills. As you probably guessed Iíd say, these are all clever ruses. Most have little or no scientific data to back them up. They may work by the placebo effect (a darn interesting thing Ė if youíre not familiar with it, look at http://skepdic.com/placebo.html ). If these work by placebo, what does that really mean about the human mind (a different philosophical discussion altogether)?
I would be wary of anything you hear of via mail order, e-mail, or late night TV. As a scientist with a bone to pick, Iíd also say be wary of what you read in the major media magazines and newspapers. While there is definitely progress in science, the media often spins significant findings in a way that make them to be much more than they are. If you feel you can, try to find a review in a readable science magazine (Scientific American is my favorite) and read up on an interesting topic you see in the news. Youíll get a more realistic viewpoint.

(As an aside, you can pick up on these pseudo-enhancers by their language. They generally rely more on marketing techniques than substantial evidence. Check out ďThe Science of Persuasion,Ē by Robert B. Cialdini in the February 2001 of Scientific American for description of what I mean.)

What we can infer from neuroscience research is that if exercise your brain Ė keep using it by reading, doing crosswords, having discussions, reading the Mad Scientist Network daily Ė youíll Ďoptimizeí your brainís ability to function.

Well, this has been long enough, but I hope itís been informative (and intelligible)! Please do search the archives or resubmit a question if I have glossed over too much. To sum up this minor epic: Many types of memory exist, and they utilize different brain structures and circuits, as well as using some different neurotransmitters. The current state of memory science is that we can enhance the efficacy of some of these neurotransmitters, but are fundamentally limited by brain structure and organization. Most claims of miraculous memory mixers are merely malarkey.

Alex G
cgoddard@fas.harvard.edu


The all-purpose neuroscience textbook is "Principles of Neural Science" by Kandel, Schwartz and Jessell (McGraw Hill, NY, NY). It has a lot of highly detailed neurobiology which you might find dull, but the last few chapters talk about different types of memory and brain structures involved.

An interesting interview on memory drugs: http: //www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/helthrpt/stories/s2018.htm

Some Drugs which have been tested to help memory deficits:

Huperzine - http://www.huperzine.net/
Ampalex and others: http://www.sciam.co m/0397issue/0397techbus1.html
These classes of drugs are called nootropic drugs. Some others are: DHEA, Tacrine, and Piracetam
Some links about memory:
http://s erendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/projects97/Warren.html
htt p://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/jun2000/961618758.Ns.r.html


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