Drugs to boost brain power will become 'as common as coffee'

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The Independent Online

A new generation of mind-enhancing drugs that act as "cosmetics" for the brain could become as common as a cup of coffee, according to an official investigation by leading scientists.

Powerful stimulants that improve memory, intellectual agility or other aspects of mental performance will almost certainly be developed over the next 20 years.

They will have few side-effects, little or no addictive properties and could be used for non-medical purposes such as boosting exam performance, making better business decisions or even eliminating bad memories, the scientists said.

The first of these "cognition enhancers" is already being developed from research into existing drugs designed to treat medical problems.

"In a world that is increasingly non-stop and competitive, the individual's use of such substances may move from the fringe to the norm, with cognition enhancers used as coffee is today," says the Foresight report of the government's Office of Science and Technology.

"Cognition enhancers are likely to be developed to treat people who need to improve attention, memory or wakefulness and to help people to forget, sleep more efficiently and be less impulsive," the report says.

Drugs that help people to forget disturbing experiences raises the prospect of a future portrayed in films such as Total Recall orEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where characters are able to forget painful relationships, the scientists said. But the possibility raises disturbing practical, ethical and social issues. "It is possible that such an advance could usher in a new era of drug use without addiction," says the report.

Professor Trevor Robbins of Cambridge University, one of the lead authors of the Foresight report, said yesterday that two drugs available on prescription were known to have mind-enhancing properties when taken by healthy people.

Ritalin, which is given to children with attention-deficit disorder, is being used by a small number of students in an attempt to improve exam results and by businessmen to boost boardroom performance.

Modafinil, a drug designed to treat narcolepsy, is also used to improve the concentration of healthy people so they can make more accurate decisions, Professor Robbins said.

"What tends to happen is that the drug makes you less impulsive, it makes you more reflective about the problem so you take a bit longer, but you get it right," Professor Robbins said.

Research into the chemistry of the brain has already identified about 60 natural compounds that affect the mind. Further work is almost certain to produce new drugs that could enhance mental performance, the Foresight report says.

"If we ever find ourselves in a society that embraced cognition enhancers, 'mental cosmetics' could become accepted and create new expectations about the performance and behaviour of individuals and groups," the report says.

Cognitive enhancers could also be developed to help people come off addictive drugs or overcome post-traumatic stress disorder."