SMART DRUGS 2
THE NEXT GENERATION
Sceptics about nootropics ("smart drugs") are unwitting victims of the so-called Panglossian paradigm of evolution. They believe that our cognitive architecture has been so fine-honed by natural selection that any tinkering with such a wonderfully all-adaptive suite of mechanisms is bound to do more harm than good. Certainly the notion that merely popping a pill could make you brighter sounds implausible. It sounds like the sort of journalistic excess that sits more comfortably in the pages of Fortean Times than any scholarly journal of repute. Yet as Dean, Morgenthaler and Fowkes' (hereafter "DMF") book attests, the debunkers are wrong. On the one hand, numerous agents with anti-cholinergic properties are essentially dumb drugs. They impair memory, alertness, verbal facility and creative thought. Conversely, a variety of cholinergic drugs and nutrients, which form a large part of the smart-chemist's arsenal, can subtly but significantly enhance cognitive performance on a whole range of tests. This holds true for victims of Alzheimer's Disease, who suffer in particular from a progressive and disproportionate loss of cholinergic neurons. Yet, potentially at least, cognitive enhancers can benefit non-demented people too. Members of the "normally" ageing population can benefit from an increased availability of acetylcholine, improved blood-flow to the brain, and enhanced oxygen and glucose uptake. Most recently, research with ampakines, modulators of neurotrophin-regulating AMPA-type glutamate receptors, suggests that designer nootropics will soon deliver sharper intellectual performance even to healthy young adults. DMF provide updates from Smart Drugs (1) on piracetam, acetyl-l-carnitine, vasopressin, and several vitamin therapies. Smart Drugs II also offers profiles of agents such as l-deprenyl, melatonin, pregnenolone, DHEA and ondansetron (Zofran). There is also a provocative question-and-answer section; a discussion of product sources; and a guide to further reading. So what's the catch? One problem, to which not all authorities on nootropics give enough emphasis, is the complex interplay between cognition and mood. Great care should be taken before tampering with the noradrenaline/acetylcholine axis. Thought-frenzied hypercholinergic states, for instance, are characteristic of one "noradrenergic" sub-type of depression. A predominance of forebrain cholinergic activity, frequently triggered by chronic uncontrolled stress, can lead to a reduced sensitivity to reward, an inability to sustain effort, and behavioural suppression. This mood-modulating effect does make some sort of cruel genetic sense. Extreme intensity of reflective thought may function as an evolutionarily adaptive response when things go wrong. When they're going right, we don't need to bother. Hence boosting cholinergic function, alone and in the absence of further pharmacologic intervention, can subdue mood. It can even induce depression in susceptible subjects. Likewise beta-adrenergic antagonists (e.g. propranolol (Inderal)) can induce depression and fatigue. Conversely, "dumb-drug" anticholinergics may sometimes have mood-brightening - progressing to deliriant - effects. Indeed antimuscarinic agents acting in the nucleus accumbens may even induce a 'mindless' euphoria. Now it might seem axiomatic that helping everyone think more is just what the doctor ordered. Yet our education system is already pervaded by intellectual snobbery which exalts academic excellence over emotional well-being. Today, exam rituals bordering on institutionalised child-abuse take a heavy toll on young lives. Depression and anxiety-disorders among young teens are endemic - and still rising. It's worth recalling that research laboratories routinely subject non-human animals to a regimen of "chronic mild uncontrolled stress" to induce depression in their captive animal population; investigators then...
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