The medicine cabinet of so-called cognitive enhancers also includes Ritalin, commonly given to schoolchildren for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and beta blockers, such as the heart drug Inderal. Researchers have been investigating the drug Aricept, which is normally used to slow the decline of Alzheimer's patients. The drugs haven't been tested extensively in healthy people, but their physiological effects in the brain are well understood.
They are all just precursors to the blockbuster drug that labs are racing to develop.
"Whatever company comes out with the first memory pill is going to put Viagra to shame," said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe.
In the world of classical music, a survey conducted a decade ago revealed one-quarter of flutists used Inderal pills before some or all of their performances or in high-pressure situations like auditions. She believes use is now more widespread and estimates that three-quarters of musicians she knows use the drugs at least occasionally.
Cosmetic neurology, as some call it, has risks. Ritalin, Adderall and other ADHD drugs can cause headaches, insomnia and loss of appetite. Provigil can make users nervous or anxious and bring on headaches, while beta blockers can cause drowsiness, fatigue and wheezing.
Participating in a research project, Stenger downed a green gelatin cap containing a drug called modafinil/Provigil). Within an hour, his attention sharpened. So did his memory. He aced a series of mental-agility tests. If his brainpower would normally rate a 10, the drug raised it to 15, he said.
Cambridge University psychologist Barbara Sahakian considers modafinil (marketed commercially under the name Provigil) especially intriguing. Its developers aren't sure exactly how it keeps drowsiness at bay. But even in healthy people, the medication appears to deliver measurable improvements with few side effects.
In a series of experiments in 2001, Sahakian and colleagues found that in games that test mental skill, subjects who took a 200-milligram dose of modafinil paid closer attention and used information more effectively than subjects given a sugar pill.
Confronted with conflicting demands, the people on modafinil moved more smoothly from one task to the next and adjusted their strategies of play with greater agility. In short, they worked smarter and were better at multi-tasking.
Mem 1414, a PDE4 inhibitor, is still in clinical trials.
A pdf on brain enhancement drugs.
Wikipedia on nootropic, brain enhancing drugs
Gene therapy for enhancing memory and learning in animals