Where Is My Intelligence Pill?
Manny Ramirez wants to come back to baseball, but it's not clear if anyone wants him on the field. Ramirez retired from baseball in 2011 after a violation while in Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment program. In other words, he was doping. His first offence was testing positive for a women's fertility drug that has been used to start testosterone production after taking steroids.
What if Ramirez had been a law student instead of a ballplayer? Doping in sports has been around since the dawn of competition, as athletes sought an edge against their opponents. But pills that offer a profound mental edge have been elusive, although they have appeared in science fiction for years. From amphetamines to stay up all night, to Ritalin for concentration, people have found medications that can offer short-term boosts for the mind, but hardly a holy grail of brain doping.
That does not mean that a pill is not coming. As researchers and neurologists try to understand the brain better to treat diseases from Alzheimer's to multiple sclerosis, drugs are emerging that could someday be the equivalent of plastic surgery for the brain.
"It's conceivable, if we had a better handle on the mechanisms of how the circuitry of the brain operates, that would be a way you could alter that," said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. "The big question, does that come at a cost?"
Like steroids, drugs that could be taken recreationally, which might allow you to learn a new language faster or study more efficiently for a test, could also have side effects. In Alexander Luria's "The Mind of a Mnemonist," the psychologist examines the case of a man who seemed to have a limitless memory, but it came at a cost. The man could instantly memorize anything but he could not make distinctions. For example, he could memorize a book but not be able to tell you what the story meant.
There are still many questions around how changes in one area of the brain affect other areas and what the long-term consequences might be. Any form of brain doping would likely fall short of being a miracle pill. A medication might help soldiers perform better under the stress of war or a law student to learn tort reform faster and more thoroughly, but no single pill that would make a person instantly smarter on various levels.
In certain situations, from ultra-competitive higher education environments to the military, small advantages can make a big difference. Chatterjee told InnovationsNewsDaily that many students already think of drugs like Ritalin as lifestyle drugs, rather than serious medications. "They call them study aids," he noted.
Chatterjee also said that, like plastic surgery, the social acceptance of the drugs available today has grown. An informal study in the journal Nature in 2008 found that one-in-five academics professors, not students had taken a cognitive enhancer to boost focus, memory or concentration, and not for medical purposes.
As the drugs develop, there will be questions as to who gets this edge. The elite in the military? Those with money and resources? But for now, a single pill is still an illusion. "It's hard for me to think of what that would be," said Chatterjee, given the state of research today. "But looking into the future is fraught with uncertainty."
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