The Project The memory-drug companies don't like to speculate about memory enhancement. The FDA only approves drugs to treat the sick, not to improve the well. The companies could make enough repairing Alzheimer's victims that they don't need to push a just-for-the-fun-of-it memory boost.
That said, Cortex's Rogers and Memory's Unterbeck and Kandel believe that some of these compounds will be able to do just this. "It's not a goal for us with our current pipeline of drugs targeting Alzheimer's and depression," Unterbeck says. "But at some time, it might be possible to enhance normal memory performance."
Unterbeck and his colleagues have tested some of their compounds on normal healthy mice, and, he says, "We have shown we can improve their memory function quite a bit … with no side effects." But it remains to be shown, he adds, how such compounds perform in human clinical trials that are currently ongoing in healthy volunteers.
Cortex has tested Ampalex in healthy adults, and the results are promising. For a 1997 study, it gave a single dose of the drug to a group of Swedish medical students. After taking the drug, the students improved their performance on tests requiring them to identify smells, navigate mazes, and make visual associations.
If drugs such as Ampalex or Memory Pharmaceutical's molecules are found safe for impaired brains and approved by the FDA, doctors may start ordering them for younger people who are depressed, as a supplement to the usual anti-depressants. The military may prescribe them to soldiers to help them perform better in combat stress. And if the drugs prove harmless enough, doctors may eventually hand them out to high-schoolers before their SATs, or to actors before performances, or to you.
The first memory drugs are in early clinical trials. No one knows if they are safe or what damage they might cause the brain over the long term. Data on how much they could boost memory function in healthy brains is sparse: The performance of mice and a few Swedish med students proves very little. Perhaps the drugs will not improve functioning memories, or perhaps they will work too well. Maybe patients will absorb too much information, cluttering their minds with useless details—the color of the shirt worn by a subway seatmate last Tuesday—and making it hard to focus on useful memories. We may need to forget just as much as we need to remember. (Other companies, in fact, are investigating forgetfulness drugs—compounds designed to help you lose a traumatic memory.)
If the clinical trials are a success, drugs from companies like Memory, Helicon, and Cortex might enter the Alzheimer's market in five to 10 years. But it would probably take at least a decade for any drug to filter into the mass market—just in time for Gen Y to get dosed for its MCATs and LSATs.