Limitless: A Look Into The Scene of Cognitive Enhancement
The advances in neuroscience and pharmacology today are so vast that perhaps one day — in the future — we might be able to selectively enhance certain aspects of our intelligence and/or personality.
The past ten years have brought booming attention to “cognition-enhancing” drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall and Provigil, the first two used for attention deficit disorder, and the latter for narcolepsy and excessive daytime sleepiness. The prospect of such drugs were vast. People want drugs that can enhance their ability to focus at information at hand and learn at greater speeds. An ideal pill for a student enrolled in a demanding program, wouldn’t you say?
The thing is, though, cognitive enhancement per se is very, very difficult. A review-article presented in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior January  this year looks at different aspects of cognitive enhancement and deliberately critiques the current drugs ability to do so.
First, the article tries to draw attention to how we define a cognitive enhancer. In neuroscience several different parts of the brain need to work in harmony before an efficient state is achieved. Does a cognitive enhancer improve all aspects of intelligence, that is, cross-cortical and even cross-hemispheric communication? Looking at the brain as a network of electric potentials, might upping the voltage allow for faster and better transmission of signals?
How do drugs that we — today — denote cognitive enhancers, actually work? This article is a reflection of my take on cognitive enhancers, while also including my personal conjecture in regards to future cognitive enhancers; what is to be expected?
Efficiency vs. Capability?
One question of importance when speaking about cognitive enhancement is the question of whether a proposed pharmacological agent enhances the efficiency or the capabilities of our current mental abilities? In one scenario, a cognitive enhancer may just enhance the efficiency by which we learn, that is, reduce errors and or the time needed to learn the given material. In another scenario, a cognitive enhancer may actually enhance our current mental capabilities, thereby making it easier for us to actually relate to the material. Say we are given a novel to read and analyze, and we wish to really understand it. Enhancing the cross-hemispheric connectivity and turning the activity in our visual cortex up a notch may be just what we need to really, really understand what we are reading. Being able to see the scenes played out in our head, in such vivid detail, that we become it with the book and time simply passes without us even noticing. Is that what cognitive enhancers does? Warp the time-space continuum, and make us completely entrenched in the task at hand? It may be that by enhancing the very specific areas we use for specific tasks, our ability may be significantly enhanced.
Cognitive Enhancers Available Today?
Ritalin, a notorious drug for hyper-kinetic disorder or ADHD, has become a very, very well-known drug because of its purported effects on human cognition. Drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall (another drug used in the treatment of ADHD) are very popular amongst students enrolled in challenging curricular. The idea is simple. A drug that enhances one’s ability to work for extended periods of time, focused at a task at hand, may effectively enhance all aspects of human cognition, right? Well, that is the purported effects, but what does the evidence tell us?
Given the fact that our performance in mental tasks follows an inverted U-curve relationship response between arousal levels and performance, (see my post on this phenomenon here) the fact that a psycho-stimulant , such as Ritalin or Adderall increases our performance shouldn’t be surprising. The surprising thing is, though, that while the active constituent of Ritalin, methylphenidate may enhance our ability to focus on simple tasks it may not be able to enhance our ability to solve problems requiring selective attention. Most striking, however, was that tests showed that methylphenidate didn’t improve learning or IQ-dependent tests such as Raven’s progressive matrices, but merely enhanced arousal for a given task without affecting underlying neurobiological cortical networks underpinning intelligent problem-solving.
Provigil, another potential cognitive enhancer, indicated for treatment of narcolepsy and excessive daytime sleepiness have shown some efficacy in improving sustained attention in healthy individuals, but nothing really conclusive have come up. The literature on modafinil (the active constituent of Provigil) and cognitive enhancement is conflicting. Some studies shows increased performance, whereas others don’t. One reason for such discrepancies is that we all have different neurological milieu, and therefore also react differently to drugs. Moreover, the problem with drugs such as Provigil, Ritalin and Adderall is that we know almost nothing about their exact mechanism of action, and therefore we cannot say anything conclusive.
Limitless, Is This To Be Expected?
A novel by Alan Glynn The Dark Fields, which also examines the aspect of cognitive enhancement, has now been made to a movie Limitless by Neil Burger. It is about a young copywriter, who in his path to become a successful writer, stumbles upon a top-secret drug which gives him godlike mental abilities. His life changes dramatically from barely being able to write a word in his book to finishing it in three days. Not only his ability to learn has been transformed, but his whole identity. He can now do what he wants because he has the energy, power and mental ability to do so. All that from a tiny pill.
The movie is a perfect example of what sort of ethical dilemmas such a drug instills. Being able to accomplish such great feats in such minimal amount of time is what we all wish for; the panacea over all panaceas. I do not believe that there is such a magic pill or panacea pill out there, and I do not believe that there is going to be — for now. But in time, our ability to understand the underpinning of human intellect may evolve and become more advanced that such a drug may become the future. I can’t say how reality will pan out, but one thing is for sure: only our imagination is the limit.
That said, I think we are going to see some pretty awesome results with histamine H3 receptor antagonists along with ampakine glutamergic modulators, showing theoretically promising results for sleep disorders, memory consolidation, spatial-memory, social-recognition, working-memory capacity and attention.
- Gary Lynch, Linda C Palmer, and Christine M Gall, “The likelihood of cognitive enhancement,” Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior (January 6, 2011), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21215768.