Science fiction has had much to say about substances that people could take to make them smarter. In the past few years, several substances, including some nutrients available without a prescription, have been shown to improve some aspects of their user's cognitive performance. Some of these "smart pills" are prescription drugs that have been around for decades and have been safely used by many millions of people throughout the world for medical conditions. Beginning with this column, we will explore some of the most interesting of the extant smart pills.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve drugs for the increase of intelligence. They approve drugs only for the treatment or prevention of diseases, not for purposes of improving the normal human condition. Normal intelligence and normal aging are not diseases, and hence, there are no drugs approved for increasing intelligence or retarding aging.
Manufacturers of drugs that have the ability to increase human intelligence are forbidden by FDA edict from informing either the public or doctors of this fact. This has inhibited the investment of scarce research and development money in intelligence-increasing drugs. Nevertheless, because there are also international markets for such products, research is being done in this area.
Intelligence is a broad term referring to various types of cognitive processes—most commonly, learning and memory. Different smart pills affect different aspects of intelligence and affect them differently at high and low dose levels. There is an optimal dose level for each individual (sometimes dependent on other conditions, as well) that must be determined by the individual performing careful, systematic self-experiments. At the optimal dose, the greatest improvement in the cognitive process is obtained; at any other dose level, less improvement and possibly even a decrement is the result.
In the past few years, much has been learned about how intelligence works, that is, the underlying biochemical structure in our brains that allows us to think, remember, dream, have emotions, and so on. Even though our level of understanding is still crude, it has resulted in a recent explosion of new drugs that increase human intelligence in clinical trials and animal intelligence in experiments.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other. As we age, the levels of many neurotransmitters decrease, and sometimes the receptor sites for these chemicals become fewer in number or less sensitive to the neurotransmitter. Acetylcholine is one of these neurotransmitters. It is used by the brain in areas that are involved in long-term planning, concentration and focus, controlling the rate of stimuli entering the brain, motor activity, learning and memory, stimuli input during sleep, sex, and other functions. It is a very primitive neurotransmitter. Frogs and even insects have it, too.
Acetylcholine is made by the brain from nutrients you get in your food (or from a dietary supplement). Choline (found in fish, for example) and lecithin (contains phosphatidyl choline) are the usual dietary starting materials from which acetylcholine supplies in the brain are derived. Deaner®, a prescription drug made by Riker Laboratories, increases brain levels of acetylcholine, but it is not known yet how it does so. All three of these—choline, lecithin, and Deaner® (or deanol)—have been shown in a number of separate human clinical trials to increase intelligence, especially in tasks involving concentration and focus.
In one double-blind study, MIT students given 3 grams of choline a day had improved memory performance: they learned longer lists of words than control students receiving a placebo (inactive substance). "Double-blind" means that neither the person administering the drug nor the students knew whether any particular subject was receiving placebo or active material. This helps to prevent expectations, hopes, and wishes from altering how people perceive the drug effects.
In another study, a single 10-gram dose of choline improved learning lists of words. Similar results were obtained in a human study in which subjects were given 80 grams of lecithin. Deaner® has been shown, in animals, to increase brain levels of acetylcholine and can be expected to have the same effects in people.
In studies in older people, Deaner® has sometimes improved memory and sometimes not. We think these inconsistent results occurred because there are non-acetylcholine-dependent memory problems and because there are nutrient factors required by the brain to convert the choline and possibly Deaner® to acetylcholine, namely vitamins B-1 and B-5. These experiments ought to be tried again, this time with supplements of these vitamins. Even in studies where there was no significant improvement in memory of older people with Deaner®, there were some reports of an improved mood and better motivation to remain active, rather than just rolling over and dying.
Possible side effects of these cholinergic (acetylcholine-increasing) substances include stiff muscles or headache, occasional fishy body odor (due to the bacterial breakdown of choline in the gut). Yogurt or fiber can often take care of the fishy smell. Reducing the dose will rapidly relieve headache or stiffness. These are annoying, not dangerous, side effects.
There are many over-the-counter and prescription drugs that affect cholinergic tracts in the brain. One of the most common is nicotine, which acts to stimulate certain types of cholinergic receptors. It is not widely realized that nicotine is a stimulus barrier—a substance that enhances the brain's ability to control stimulus input from the environment. We all have special filters in our brains to preview incoming data because if all the details our senses actually detect were to be made available to our conscious minds, we would be overwhelmed by a torrent of mostly unimportant data. (This effect is dramatic with LSD.)
There is a certain threshold level of stimulation to which our brains pay attention; this differs from individual to individual. In animal studies, nicotine increases the response to electrical stimulation set at just above the threshold in those animals who respond at a low rate and decreases the response in those animals who respond at a high rate, thereby acting as a modulator of sensory input. In overstimulating environments that are commonly found in modern cities, it is not surprising that many people use nicotine to help them cope. If you do smoke tobacco, though, we suggest you try choline as a much safer replacement.
In future columns, we will be telling you about other smart pills that you can buy right now to increase your intelligence. We will also give you a little preview of some astounding new smart pills that are not yet available but that hold out the promise of even more remarkable increases in human intelligence. The world will never be the same!
A list of scientific literature on this topic is available through REASON. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and ask for H&W references, September.
Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw are consulting scientists and authors. Their book, Life Extension, was recently published by Warner Books. Copyright © 1982 by Sandy Shaw and Durk Pearson.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Health & Welfare: Smart Pills Revolution".