Cocktails, Neurons and Nanos: Super-cognition?

By: Pedro Gondim

Improving overall cognitive capability is becoming as simple as consuming a pill...

An interesting paradox has been the axis of much attention in the fields of pharmacy, brain research and ethics in the last few years. The advent of new technologies, particularly in the field of brain research, has induced scientists to improve the treatment of several conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, sleep disorders and dementia. However, what was primarily intentioned to provide solutions for patients with cognitive deficits has also proven functional for healthy people - not only functional, but quite efficient.

The human brain consists of 100 billion neurons linked in around 100 trillion connections. This large number is possibly due to the parallel nature of brain connections, and the multi-layered strucuture in which our most notable organ is organised. New classes of drugs - particularly 'Ampakines' - are exploring ways to achieve cognitive improvements whilst moderating the incidence of side effects. Albeit designed for combating the effects of degenerative diseases, these cognitive enhancers have increasingly gained popularity as a competitive advantage for students, executives and people who simply want to exceed their own limitations.

Ampakines

Ampakines are a class of drugs which name is originated from the AMPA receptor (protein). These receptors play a major role in the encoding of many types of memory and in inducing excitatory communication in the brain (which increases levels of glutamate-mediated communication). Because glutamate is our predominant neurotransmitter, drugs which manipulate the levels of glutamate can considerably improve cognitive skills by improving neural communication.

"Nerve cells (neurons) in the brain communicate with each other by releasing small molecules know as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters bind to proteins, called receptors, located on the surface of the receiving neurons. This binding then triggers subsequent cellular events in these neurons" (Cortex Research (www.cortexpharm.com/html/research/tech.html)).

Ampakines can provide a variety of results, often improving cognitive functions such as attention, alertness and memory.

No Need for Disease

The potential for improving memory, concentration and other important cognitive skills has been initially observed by pharmaceutical companies and military research. Nowadays, most large drug producers in the world are on their way to test Ampakines, and other 'cognitive enhancing' drug types. The military has performed several trials and it is particularly interested in the alertness effects of Ampakines, such as CX717 (developed by Cortex Pharmaceuticals). This drug could be a solution for jet pilots or special operation forces to remain alert for several days during combats - no need for much sleep, and apparently very few side effects (unlike amphetamines, caffeine and other substances which were commonly used for such purpose).

At this stage, the general public has also become aware of the 'wonders' of such drugs, and the popularity among students, executives and other professionals has increased immensely - such that many are diagnosed with some 'broad-diagnosing' diseases in order to obtain medical scripts for purchase. Consumers also use diagnosed friends to access the medicines, buy it from the internet under false allegations, or simply opt for the black market.

Other drug types, such as Mem compounds, are also being developed and undertaking trials. Although the pharmaceutical companies are producing these drugs for the treatment of varied mental conditions, it is increasingly noticeable that their popularity among superman-aspirants is producing a significant raise in revenue for major producers. Along with the expected advances in technology, ethical issues are stirring among specialists - are these drug cocktails really a good option to achieve better performance?

Future or Science Fiction?

This question is multi-faceted and particularly interesting. However, there may not be a long-term need for such discussion. Progressive development in brain research over the last few years is inducing many experts and scientists to reach for new paradigms. The exponential growth of technology is allowing brain scanning techniques to become quite powerful, and this has been used to initiate a series of cross-discipline experiments - such as the use of nanotechnology and reverse engineering in brain research.

But it does not stop there. Currently, a project entitled the 'Human Connectome' (cited in a previous article) is attempting to create a 4-dimensional map of all brain functions, while advances in physics will eventually allow further access to the mysteries of the human mind. With that in mind, experts such as Ray Kurzweil - author and scientist - predict that the human cognitive capacity will achieve enormous progress through a mix of gene manipulation and the use of artificial systems input (such as nanotechnology). These artificial systems would act as regenerative tools for damaged cells and tissues, neural communication enhancers (by converting analog communication into digital - thus achieving much higher processing speeds), and many other purposes. The advent of such technologies could convert pills and doses into obsolete cognitive tools.

In the end, the quest for superman-cognition is a matter of patience as much research is either incomplete, or uncertain. Indeed we are stepping in a new era - but the outcomes of this experience are still beyond the grasp of our human civilization.

Did You Know?

1) "The Brain's circuits are very slow. Synaptic-reset and neuron-stabilization times (the amount of time required for a neuron and its synapses to reset themselves after the neuron fires) are so slow that there are very few neuron-firing cycles available to make pattern-recognition decisions. Functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) and magneto-encephalography (MEG) scans show that judgements that do not require resolving ambiguities appear to be made in a single neuron-firing cycle (less than twenty milliseconds), involving essentially no iterative (repeated) processes. Recognition of objects occurs in about 150 milliseconds, so that even if we "think something over", the number of cycles of operation is measured in hundreds or thousands at most, not billions, as with a typical computer." (Ray Kurzweil - "The Singularity is Near", 2005, page 150)

2) "Approximately 20% of the blood flowing from the heart is pumped to the brain. The brain needs constant blood flow in order to keep up with the heavy metabolic demands of the neurons. Brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) rely on this relationship between neural activity and blood flow to produce images of reduced brain activity." ()

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