Smart as You Wanna Be : Can Vitamins, Amino Acids and Prescription Drugs Really Make You More Intelligent?
AT 2 O’CLOCK ON A SUMMER MORNING, THE Smart Lounge pulsed like a human brain.
Flashes of light strobed through the cavelike cellar, and computer-generated music throbbed from enormous speakers. Mobiles and Day-Glo planets hung from the ceiling, dancing in the air currents like elusive thoughts. In one corner, a silky dome tent filled with pillows served as a kind of collective id; in another, a table overflowed with trappings of the higher mental functions: wind-up toys, kaleidoscopes and picture books.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 02, 1992 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 2, 1992 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
In “Smart as You Wanna Be” (Dec. 22), vasopressin was misidentified. It is an anti-diuretic synthetic hormone used to treat diabetes insipidus.
People clustered around the lounge in cells, clasping clear plastic cups full of bright orange liquid, shouting at each other above the music. Sometimes part of one group would spin off toward another, quick as a neural impulse; but the largest cluster hovered around the bar, where a hand-lettered sign cautioned prospective drinkers: “WARNING! YOU MAY WAKE UP!”
Flitting among these groups--a plastic starfish covering each breast--Neysa Griffith, alias Earth Girl, deftly avoided the TV cameramen and sound technicians who had descended upon the event. A statuesque woman of 21 with auburn dreadlocks, Earth Girl--along with her friends and business partners, the Foxy Seven--had set up the lounge, a sort of counterculture chautauqua, beneath Big Heart City, a giant discotheque on San Francisco’s Mission Street.
“We’re evolutionary agents,” Neysa announced to me, “who are here to help fix the planet. We’re here to seed new thoughts and assist humanity through its waking-up process. The drinks"--she held out a goblet of orange fluid--"are just a small part of that process.
“This is Earth Girl’s Energy Elicksure,” she said, handing me the cup with a smile. “We call it ‘the activation formulation for the communication generation.’ ”
The Smart Lounge, along with a handful of similar venues in England and the Bay Area, represents the cutting edge of a new phenomenon: smart drinks and smart drugs. While the drinks consist mainly of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients intended to stimulate brain function, the drugs--including Hydergine, Piracetam, vasopressin, vincamine and Dilantin--are more complex compounds, with more specific (and supposedly more dramatic) effects. Popularized by a few recent books on the subject--such as “Smart Drugs & Nutrients,” by John Morgenthaler and Ward Dean--the drinks are available over the counter, but the drugs are available only through physicians or through medical outlets abroad.
Opposed in principle to the ‘60s rallying cry of “turn on, tune in, drop out,” proponents of this new version of chemical consciousness-raising say it is intended to increase intellectual acumen, sharpen memory and improve concentration. Lacking the rush or buzz associated with alcohol, pot, LSD or cocaine, the smart drugs and drinks are taken for their purported “clean windshield” effect: a supposed ability to clear away the cobwebs in our cluttered, muddied minds.
The claim has many scientists shaking their heads. The evidence that any of these drugs or nutrients can really make anybody smarter, they say, is highly questionable, and often based upon misconceptions about how the brain actually works.
But like many people who first hear about these “cognitive enhancers,” I had one initial question: Where can I get some? As a kid, I had heard that the average person uses only 4% of his or her brain; for years, I wondered what it would be like to use 5%, 10% or even more. The Smart Lounge, I decided, might provide a chance to find out.
Certainly, no amount of professional nay-saying could dampen the mood beneath Big Heart City. Couples danced under pulsing strobe lights, smart drinks steady in their hands. A man with green hair pored intently through a book about space travel, pausing now and then to inhale from a glass atomizer. Neysa’s formulations, meanwhile, were selling like franks at a ballpark. I finished my Energy Elicksure and ordered a cup of Psuper Psonic Psyber Tonic, which glowed like yellow neon. Both tasted of citrus with a slightly metallic tang.
“Drinking is such a social icon,” Neysa observed, looking around at her customers, “that it’s probably bred into in our genetic codes. From soma to Stoly: Drink something and alter your consciousness! But the way people are altering their consciousness now is killing them--or putting them deeper into sleep than they were before.
“These drinks are the first time that anyone has offered an alternative to alcohol that actually takes you to another state,” she said. “They’re not beer without alcohol, or wine without alcohol. You can feel them; but they’re healthy and they have lasting effects on your well-being. They help you increase your perceptions enough so that you don’t blindly follow the haggard patterns of your forefathers.”
Maybe it was the party, or maybe it was the drinks, but I hardly noticed that it was 4 a.m. And Neysa seemed to be right: I felt no dizziness, no drowsiness, and none of the blabby, aggressive impulses I get from alcohol. By the time I left, my curiosity about these drinks and drugs--how they work, if they work and why--was completely engaged. The late-night landing at the Smart Lounge had been my first encounter with the so-called Smart Set, and I knew it wouldn’t be my last.
THE HUMAN BRAIN IS THE MOST COMPLEX SINGLE OBJECT IN THE known universe. Some compare it to a computer, but the brain’s ability to store, process and compare information makes the most advanced supercomputers look like egg timers. It may be more accurate to think of our brains as holographic processors: three-dimensional webs of data, memory and creativity, ever expanding, with each part able to access every other part almost instantly.
Still, the brain is a machine. Its “wiring” consists of billions of branching, treelike nerve structures called neurons. As a signal travels toward the end of a neuron, it stimulates the release of chemical “messengers” called neurotransmitters. These leap across a tiny gap called the synapse, and relay their information to the next neuron, causing it to fire as well. In this way, impulses sparking along our neurons motivate every thought we think, and every move we make.
Smart drugs and nutrients are intended to enhance this process. In order for a neuron to produce neurotransmitters, for example, it must have a steady supply of chemical precursors, or raw materials. The body contains many different neurotransmitters; two of the most common are acetylcholine and norepinephrine (the brain’s version of adrenaline). The precursors for these are choline (a B vitamin) and phenylalanine (an amino acid)--the key nutrients in the beverages served up at the Smart Lounge.
Smart-drink promoters say some evidence shows that after the age of about 20, the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain slowly declines. They also say that loss of acetylcholine has been shown to impair memory in humans and laboratory animals. Increasing the amount of a precursor like choline, they reason, can help the brain produce more acetylcholine. That, in turn, ought to boost brain activity and increase the brain’s ability to process information.
The most popular smart drinks are variations of the two that Neysa served up at the Smart Lounge and eventually hopes to market. Both her Energy Elicksure and Psuper Psonic Psyber Tonic are loaded with vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients associated with neurotransmitter activity and other brain operations. But it is the addition of choline and phenylalanine that earns these drinks their “smart” moniker. All of the drinks’ allegedly brain-boosting ingredients are natural substances that can be found in such innocuous foods as bananas, anchovies and Diet Coke, as well as in over-the-counter dietary supplements and bodybuilding formulations.
But the smart-drug arsenal is not limited to colorful drinks with catchy names. It also includes dozens of hard-core pharmaceuticals, some of which have rather sketchy connections to brain function. Most are medicines already used to treat specific illnesses; others are more experimental, their potential uses and long-term effects still relatively unknown.
Dilantin and vasopressin, for instance, are prescription drugs with specific uses. Dilantin, an anti-convulsant, affects neurotransmission and is used to control epileptic seizures. Vasopressin, a hormone derivative prescribed as an inhalant, works as a diuretic and is used to treat problems connected with certain forms of diabetes. But both drugs have entered the smart-drugs pharmacopoeia because of their experimental properties. Dilantin, popularized in the early 1980s by New York philanthropist Jack Dreyfus (who used the drug to combat compulsive depression), is believed to increase concentration, intelligence and learning; vasopressin has a more credible record of enhancing memory in laboratory animals and improving attention in humans.
The granddaddy of the smart drugs is Hydergine, an extract of ergot--a fungus that grows on rye--developed in the late 1940s by Albert Hoffman, the same researcher who invented LSD. Hydergine is listed in the Physicians’ Desk Reference as a drug that appears to offer “some” relief to some people with symptoms of mental decline related to aging. But smart-drug users are persuaded that Hydergine, taken on a regular basis, can actually prevent senility, regenerate lost brain cells and restore youthful vitality to road-weary cerebrums.
Some of the other smart drugs, like vincamine, are basically vasodilators--drugs that increase blood flow, thus improving the brain’s supply of oxygen. Few studies have been performed with these drugs, though, and they are more widely administered in Europe and Latin America than in the United States.
The latest, most specialized drugs are the nootropics, an entirely new class of pharmaceuticals based on yet another neurotransmitter, the amino acid called pyroglutamate. Nootropic (pronounced new-o-tropic) means “acting on the mind.” These are substances designed to enhance cognition exclusively, with no effects on other bodily functions. The best known nootropic is Piracetam, and its family of related compounds. These drugs, according to regular users, “wake up the brain.” Piracetam, it’s claimed, improves the ability to comprehend complex sounds, visual patterns and even abstract ideas.
Though none of the smart drugs are considered addictive, these substances (with the possible exception of the nootropics) are not without their dangers and unpleasant side effects. Vasopressin, when inhaled, instantly raises blood pressure and may cause nasal congestion and headaches. Dilantin’s well-known side-effect, in high doses, is a dramatic overgrowth of the gums, and the possible loss of one’s teeth. Hydergine has a very good safety record, although some people may be allergic to it. For vincamine, there is simply not enough research to know. Regardless of any individual effects these drugs may have, the possible dangers of taking many such medicines in combination--as many smart-drug users do--are virtually unknown.
From a legal standpoint, none of these cognitive enhancers are controlled substances. Buying them, having them in your possession and taking them is perfectly lawful. The drinks are available in health food stores or through mail order; some of the pharmaceuticals may be obtained with a doctor’s prescription, though others--Piracetam, for example--are not available in the United States. But nearly all of the smart drugs can be bought over the counter in Mexico, or by mail order from outlets in England and Europe. Purchasing drugs by mail has been legal since July, 1988, when the Food and Drug Administration began allowing Americans to import drugs that are considered safe by other countries. That ruling, which came in response to pressure from AIDS activists who argued that they were denied access to potentially lifesaving substances, enables individuals to order a three-month supply of such medications, strictly for personal use.
DR. JAMES MCGAUGH, FOUNDING director of the department of psychobiology at UC Irvine, shakes his head wearily. “It’s snake oil,” he sighs. “Here’s how I feel: It’s as if I’d dedicated my life to studying astrophysics and astronomy--and the press decided to interview me for a story about astrology.”
McGaugh, 59, wears trifocals and a hearing aid but is possessed of almost youthful energy. An articulate and argumentative scientist with impeccable credentials, he has become increasingly impatient with the hoopla about smart drugs, which he considers a non-issue.
McGaugh’s current work, at UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, involves experiments on white rats; he injects chemicals known to enhance memory in animals into specific sites in the rats’ brains. The subjects are given various tests to determine whether their memories have indeed improved. Ultimately, McGaugh hopes, this information may prove helpful in treating victims of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, two lethal degenerative brain diseases that afflict an estimated 20% of the elderly. During his research, McGaugh has studied or experimented with virtually all of the so-called smart drugs on the market. With few exceptions, he has found them useless. “Some of these drugs have been around for decades,” McGaugh says. “During that time there have been a few published studies showing that they may have some mildly enhancing effects in animals. But there’s no known mechanism of action, and the effects on lab animals are, at best, weak. The effects in humans border, simply, on nonexistent.
“Sure,” he concedes, “there are a couple of studies in the literature, but not the kind of evidence you’d want to see before you recommend that anybody take these things. In science, you have to look at the balance of the evidence. My understanding of the scientific literature in this field,” he concludes, “provides no justification for the use of any of these drugs at the present time.”
There is, McGaugh allows, one exception: a medication called Tacrine, which underwent broad and intensive clinical trials a year ago. Tacrine has proved effective in improving memory in patients with Alzheimer’s, but the drug carries a sobering list of severe side-effects, including nausea, vomiting and liver toxicity.
“The primary need in neuroscience is to find a safe, effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease,” McGaugh states levelly. “If any of these drugs--Hydergine, Piracetam, vasopressin--had been found effective in any humans, anywhere, they would be prescribed for Alzheimer’s patients. And they aren’t--because they don’t work. These are ineffective drugs,” he adds. “They are not interesting. From both a pharmacological and theoretical perspective, they are boring .”
McGaugh expressed contempt for books like Morgenthaler’s, which, he claims, give articles in popular magazines the same credibility as scholarly research. Worse, they are loaded with advice and recommendations, couched in legal disclaimers. “Books like this,” McGaugh bristles, “constitute active encouragement for individuals to experiment on themselves, by taking drugs of unknown value, or unknown mechanism--and of unknown danger.”
But what about the television writer who had whipped out an entire season of award-winning scripts in 14 weeks, using Hydergine? Or the computer consultant who works 16-hour days on the choline and phenylalanine drinks? Or the saxophone player who takes Piracetam and Hydergine, and swears that his musical inspiration never stops?
McGaugh, a saxophonist himself, closes his eyes and inhales deeply. “These claims,” he says, “mean nothing. If someone tells you that drinking apple juice enables them to fly, you wouldn’t take their word for it! So why should you take the word of someone who says ‘I feel smarter and believe that I’m smarter’? Put it to an objective test. You cannot build science out of testimonials; ergo those kinds of statements are flatly worthless.”
IT IS DIFFICULT TO DISMISS THE VALUE OF THE scientific method. But it is the persuasive qualities of simple empirical data--testimonials, personal observation and experience--as well as the scattered studies mentioned by McGaugh, that have been instrumental in building a devoted following for smart drugs and nutrients. The devotees are usually bright, hip, computer-literate baby boomers and people in their twenties who see the substances as indispensable tools for coping with life in the ‘90s.
John Morgenthaler is tall and slender, with serious gray eyes and a somewhat nerdy haircut. As we sit down to lunch he opens a small yellow case, extracts a handful of pills--I count eight--and tosses them into his mouth. He washes them down, grimacing, with ice water.
“Those were multivitamins, vitamin C, acidophilus, Hydergine, Piracetam and vincamine,” he explains. “I take them twice a day.”
Morgenthaler, 31, is the co-author of “Smart Drugs & Nutrients,” a self-published compendium of the “latest discoveries in neuroscience,” which has become something of a bible for the smart drugs set. It has sold 40,000 copies in a year and is in its sixth printing. With bachelor’s degrees in psychology and computer science from UC Santa Cruz, Morgenthaler is typical, in many ways, of the kind of person to whom smart drugs and nutrients appeal. “The complexity of life has increased so much in the past 50 years that people everywhere, in all the developed countries, are suffering from information overload,” he says. Speaking in measured, clinical phrases, Morgenthaler sounds a little like Data, the personable android in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“It’s critical to survival and financial well-being that we’re able to process all this information quickly and effectively. I’ve been taking (smart drugs) for 10 years, on and off,” he says. “It’s not a scientific study; I may have gotten smarter just from growing up, educating myself and stimulating my brain. But I do stop taking the drugs every now and then, and I know that I have better concentration, attention and memory when I’m on them.”
Mark Rennie, a 41-year-old San Francisco attorney and entrepreneur who has started a company to distribute “smart” products, recalls his first encounters with Hydergine in the early 1980s. “There was absolutely a qualitative difference,” he says reverently. “My concentration vastly improved; my business intuition became much more acute. And on top of that, I was painting. It was one of the most creative periods of my life.”
Like many people his age, Rennie had felt overwhelmed by his workload and alarmed by what he perceived to be the beginning of a gradual process of mental deterioration.
“We’re in an environment where the human nervous system has never evolved to be,” Rennie declares. “On top of that, we’re in our 40s. We don’t have the energy or memory we once had. People would call me up, clients, and it didn’t track. I had nowhere near the kind of energy I had at 30 just to function--and the world was twice as complex.”
His sentiments are echoed by Ken Goffman, a gnomish iconoclast who, under the name R.U. Sirius, edits the cyber-set quarterly, Mondo 2000, which published stories about smart drugs more than a year ago. “Some of the smart drugs work, in a sense, like psychedelics do,” Sirius observes, “in that they seem to help you perceive patterns in information. They help you turn information into ideas.
“I’ve always had really bad memory and really bad focus,” he says. “I’m the sort of person who feels sleepy a lot of the time. These smart drugs and nutrients have had a lot to do with keeping me awake and active while editing the magazine. That means I didn’t have to use cocaine or amphetamines. I see these things as safer, less toxic drugs that have the effects people desire from stimulants--but without taxing their systems.”
Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, Los Angeles-based authors of the best-selling “Life Extensions,” market their own brand of smart drinks. They are suspicious of the pharmaceuticals, but they swear by the nutrients in their formulations. “Both choline and phenylalanine are involved in focus, concentration and memory,” Pearson says, “and especially in verbal behavior. If you have writer’s block, for example, they’ll blow it away in about an hour.”
Those are tantalizing words to a writer. Testimony and personal observation, I knew, had always been a valuable tool in the Eastern and “folk” medicine traditions. And no one’s experience could be as enlightening as my own. I decided to start taking the drinks and drugs myself. The experiment would be totally informal and devoid of scientific value, but it would give me a first-hand account of what these things could do.
I needed at least some basis for comparison. The day before I started taking the substances, I visited Greg Larson, a psychologist who specializes in educational and vocational intelligence testing. For three hours I stumbled through a maddening thicket of puzzles, vocabulary quizzes, math problems, reasoning tests and memory tricks.
When it was all over, Larson figured out my IQ. But he withheld the results. A month later I would take the tests again; and we would see if these so-called cognitive enhancers had managed to turn me into a modern-day Charly.
After consulting with John Morgenthaler, I settled on a daily regimen of Hydergine and Piracetam, washed down with Durk and Sandy’s Choline Cooler. Added to this mix was the occasional vincamine tablet, complemented by a few snorts of vasopressin whenever I felt run-down or hung over.
After about two weeks of this, I began to notice--or thought I noticed--some subtle but unmistakable changes. To begin with, I found that I was speaking more fluently. At 37, I sometimes get stalled in mid-sentence, unable to find the specific word I’m looking for. But suddenly, I was able to recall words at will. And not just words; telephone numbers, names, movie schedules, shopping lists and other bits of informational effluvia also seemed to spend more time in my short-term memory.
These changes, admittedly, were subtle. Maybe they were the result of the intense focus and concentration I had to muster in order to write about neuroscience in the first place. Nor was I liberated from memory lapses completely; I still wandered into rooms on errands, the nature of which slipped my mind the moment I arrived. Once, I folded up a blanket and absent-mindedly walked into the kitchen to put it in the oven.
In addition to the apparent memory enhancement, the drugs had another salubrious effect, which I almost hesitate to report. Impossible as it is to qualify, I found that my intuition--the part of my psyche that anticipates things or guesses other people’s thoughts--was sharper. Time and again I guessed, accurately, what a friend was thinking, or what someone was about to say.
Do I consider any of this scientific evidence? Not at all. But if I wanted to believe it, there it was.
THE FAITH THAT MORgenthaler, Rennie and others have in the drugs and drinks is not based solely on their experiences. There have been carefully controlled experiments on some of the substances, and there is ongoing and legitimate inquiry and theorizing about others. Some of this is cited in Morgenthaler’s book, but much more can be turned up in a search of medical libraries and databases.
Dr. Keith Conners, a psychopharmacologist based at Duke University Medical Center, is famous for the pioneering research he did with Ritalin. Between 1984 and 1989, Conners conducted three long-term studies of children with dyslexia. His findings, reported in such journals as Psychophysiology and the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, showed dramatic improvements in the subjects who used Piracetam.
“Over a one-year period,” he explains, “severely dyslexic children, treated with Piracetam, gained about 1.5 years in reading level. The improvement in the placebo group was about .4 years. This indicates to me that Piracetam improved verbal learning in children with severe visual learning problems.”
Some claim that results with dyslexia don’t count in the smart-drug debate, but Conners disagrees. “One might say,” he reflects, “that the measure par excellence of cognitive functioning is the ability to translate visual symbols into meaning--i.e., reading. We don’t know what the processes are that underlie this improvement, but they’re almost certainly related to the capability of the brain to access its verbal store.”
There are also scores of studies--many done in Europe--that report good results from using Hydergine on elderly patients with mental disorders. One appeared in the October, 1989, issue of Current Medical Research Opinion: After a six-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study (neither the testers nor the patients knew who was getting Hydergine, and who was getting sugar pills), researchers found significant improvements in cognitive function, mood elevation, and other aspects of mental health and acuity. Although Hydergine is not often prescribed in this country, according to Dr. Bell (a pseudonym), a psychopharmacologist at UC San Francisco, it “is used very widely in Europe by older people.”
Despite such positive evidence, the majority of the U.S. scientific community insists, like UC Irvine’s McGaugh, that for every claim made for Piracetam, Hydergine and the other smart drugs and nutrients, there are a hundred unanswered questions and much countervailing evidence.
When Jared Tinklenberg, a geropsychiatrist at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto, heard the theory behind the alleged brain-boosting powers of smart drinks, he simply laughed. Drinking choline to improve neurotransmission?
“No, I can’t believe that one,” he says. “These things sound convincing superficially, but our brains just don’t work that way. It’s true that, beyond 30, we just can’t process information as fast--but the amount of precursor available is not the problem. Most of us have enough choline to produce all the acetylcholine our brains need. In this case, more is not necessarily better; our limitations can’t be fixed just by turning up the gain.”
His view on the nutrients was seconded by Dr. Bell. “We know that, if you don’t have enough acetylcholine, you tend not to be very smart,” Bell said. “Whether having excessive acetylcholine makes you smarter, however, is very questionable.”
Such questions exist for Hydergine as well, according to the scientists. Even Dr. Bell, who prescribes the drug occasionally, considers it at best an enigma. In her patients, she says, the drug sometimes has a postive result and sometimes has no effect.
“There’s a question: Is it a mild antidepressant, or does it really do something for intellectual functioning?” says Bell. “That’s hard to answer, because people with mild dementia are usually depressed; and anyone who’s depressed is going to show a mild dementia. Separating the two can be pretty tricky.”
The problem stems in part from a lack of information about exactly what Hydergine does physiologically. It was originally thought to increase blood flow to the brain, but lab tests have not shown this effect in humans. Today, more than four decades after its introduction, no one knows for certain how, or if, it really works.
The workings of Piracetam and the nootropics also remain elusive. Some researchers claim that Piracetam stimulates the production of acetylcholine in the hippocampus: the part of the brain involved in regulating short-term memory and memory retrieval. Others say it somehow improves communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. None of these findings, however, are conclusive.
Most scientists will allow that the precise way that substances affect the body is, quite often, one of the last things discovered about them. (There is still no known mechanism of action, for example, for aspirin.) And some of the controversy over the workings and effectiveness of the drugs may be due to differing methods in the research. Testing standards in Europe, for example, are somewhat less stringent than they are in the United States, and the doses used in European research also tend to be higher. A European study that found positive results from Hydergine had a minimum dosage of 6 milligrams a day. In a U.S. study discrediting Hydergine, published in the Aug. 16, 1990 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, subjects were given only 3 milligrams of the drug a day.
Even if these drugs and nutrients were proved effective for people with mental disorders, does that mean they can do anything for healthy people who simply fear that a bit of their mental focus is slipping away?
Again, according to scientists, the answer seems to be no. Current medicine, they say, can do little to improve the functioning of a healthy human brain, provided it is well-nourished, well-rested and interested in its task. What’s more, there is no real evidence--despite Mark Rennie’s fears--that normal aging entails mental decline. Speed of response may slow down a bit; but wisdom and judgment often improve. As for the argument that people need smart drugs to keep up with our data-crazy world, Dr. Bell grins wryly.
“I suspect,” she says, “that an aborigine, hunting in the jungle, is probably dealing with quite as much information as a guy sitting at an executive’s desk in New York.”
Finding out conclusively what these substances can or can’t do for the healthy brain is complicated by the cultural mind-set that informs most drug research in this country. The use of drugs for diseases is all right, but the use of drugs for normal people is wrong. Although the White House has declared the 1990s the Decade of the Brain, it is unlikely that many scientists will dare to ask for grants to research the positive effects that so-called smart drugs might have on normal human beings.
“I think there’s a bias against any of these drugs being used in normals,” says Dr. Bell. “And I think there are a lot of people in the field who would like to see that bias broken down, and decent research done.
“Of course,” she adds, “there will always be rock-bound moralists who feel that enhancing yourself with drugs is bad, and that’s their privilege. But there’s a funny hypocrisy there. We drink alcohol to relax ourselves; we take stimulants like coffee, tea and chocolate; we use cigarettes when we want to be calm yet alert. We’ve always used drugs this way.”
“BODY, OR MIND?” GALACtic Greg, a member of the Foxy Seven, leaned over the Smart Bar and queried the West Coast rep from a major New York publishing house.
“Mind,” the rep replied, and received a cup of lemon-yellow Psyber Tonic. Had she asked for the “body” drink, Galactic Greg would have sold her an Energy Elicksure--a mix designed to stimulate the central nervous system as well as the cerebrum. After a falling-out with their hosts at Big Heart City last August, the Foxy Seven decided to take their act on the road. The Smart Bar now travels from city to city, transforming otherwise ordinary parties into smart-drink acid tests. This particular occasion was a reception for Publishers Group West, the California book distributor that sells “Smart Drugs & Nutrients.” Huge gatherings like these--packed with young, moneyed professionals--are ideal promotional vehicles for Earth Girl’s drinks. And, at three bucks a swig, the evenings put a healthy amount of change into the Foxy Seven’s coffers.
“I want to start bringing the drinks and my crew to Los Angeles,” Neysa Griffith says. “Even though the people down there are so far gone in a lot of ways, I think they’ll appreciate us. We really are bizarre and fun and new. They’ll dig us.”
A few days before the party, and four weeks after I began taking the smart drugs and nutrients myself, I visited Larson again. Once more--this time with a vial of vasopressin close at hand--I struggled through a battery of intelligence tests.
By now, the effects I had noticed from the drugs seemed to have faded. Perhaps the enhancements had been a mere placebo reaction, or maybe my beleaguered brain, master of its own biochemistry, had compensated for the added slew of neuro-stimulants and dragged me back down to my usual level of functioning. I didn’t feel any dumber, but I doubted that my results on the tests would show an improvement.
In fact, they did: My second IQ test showed a six-point jump. After allowing for the practice effect and the standard error of measurement, the actual increase was two points. The most dramatic improvements, Larson said, were in the sections dealing with short-term memory and sustained concentration. “If these differences were to hold up in controlled experiments,” he reported, “they would probably be statistically significant.”
I was surprised by the results, and convinced that the drugs deserved further study. But how to go about it? The most striking effects may well be outside the realm of what we usually call “intelligence.” IQ tests are clunky; using them to measure things such as intuition and creativity is like trying to time a foot race with a sundial. This may be part of the reason why clinical results have been so mixed; at present, there is no way to gauge the subtle enhancements that Hydergine and Piracetam may produce in a normal human mind.
But the question of what our current, relatively primitive drugs can do is almost moot. There are over 150 new cognitive enhancers being tested by various drug companies. With luck, at least a few of these will prove useful against diseases like Alzheimer’s. And it seems inevitable that the process will go even further.
“If pharmaceutical companies are successful--as I fully believe they will be--they will finally develop a safe and effective drug that significantly improves memory,” McGaugh says.
Once that happens, of course, demand will skyrocket and those companies will have to find a way around the taboo against “normals” using drugs. In fact, they’ve already started.
“Stupidity is not a disease,” observes Mark Rennie. “Growing older and losing some brain cells is not a disease. So the drug companies have to invent a new disease. Within five years you’ll see hundreds of ‘smart-drug doctors,’ prescribing medication for ‘benign senescent forgetfulness.’ And once you get on these things,” he cautions, “you’re never gonna get off.”
James McGaugh longs for the day when effective cognitive enhancers are available. But he thinks it would be absurd for anyone without a bona fide memory disorder to take them. “Our brains are designed so that there is high correlation between the importance of events and our remembrance of them,” he says. “If you take such drugs you run the risk of losing that correlation and carrying around a lot of garbage.”
For John Morgenthaler, though, the idea of smart drugs in widespread use seems inevitable--and eminently sensible.
“Some people have argued that smart drugs, even the ones we have today, are unfair,” he says. “That kids shouldn’t take smart drugs before taking their SATs, for example. But nobody has touched on the idea that people in certain professions--jobs that require quick, precise decisions and reactions--should be required to take them.
“I kind of abhor the idea,” he says with a laugh, “of anything that would interfere with personal freedoms. But I, for one, would feel much more comfortable flying if I knew that the air traffic controllers were taking Piracetam.”