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SMART drugs to make people think faster, improve their memory and reduce tiredness will be commonplace within 20 years, according to the government’s chief scientific adviser.
Sir David King told ministers at a presentation in Downing Street that a new generation of “recreational psychoactive substances” could be given to healthy people to enhance their lives.
He said that brain enhancing chemicals could also “revolutionise” treatment for mental disorders and create new treatments to fight drug addiction.
King’s report adds to calls from scientists for the removal of restrictions on “cognitive enhancers” which have been dubbed “cosmetic neurology” or “nip and tuck” for the mind.
It also cements King’s reputation as an increasingly influential figure in the government — a civil servant who is unafraid to speak his mind on topics ranging from climate change to drought and drugs.
Ritalin and Modafinil, the first generation of mind enhancing drugs, were originally intended to treat disorders but have since been adopted by people from across the social spectrum because of their ability to enhance performance.
Ritalin was originally intended as a treatment for children and adults with hyperactivity problems, but has since been adopted by students to help them to concentrate. A study in America last year revealed that 20% of healthy American college students use Ritalin before exams.
Modafinil is generally prescribed for the treatment of narcolepsy, a condition which causes people suddenly to fall asleep. It is now becoming popular for its ability to help people to think clearly and make decisions when tired.
Scientists are keen to see restrictions removed on more drugs to make them available without prescription.
Dr Andrea Malizia, a consultant senior lecturer in the Department of Psychopharmacology at Bristol University, is calling for Donepezil, an Alzheimer’s treatment, to be more available. Donepezil has a “remarkable impact” on a wide range of functions, including memory, concentration and the ability to learn.
“The potential for these drugs is enormous. People already buy vitamins and take caffeine to improve mental functions but these drugs will offer a whole new dimension,” said Malizia.
“Studies have shown that people who take these drugs are able to memorise more words than they normally could — and increase their general brainpower.
“We have used them to treat mental disease with great effect, but there is obviously the market for healthy people to take them just to get smarter.”
Other scientists remain concerned about smart drugs. Dr Paul Howard-Jones, neuroscience and education network co-ordinator at Bristol University, said that the drugs needed to be carefully regulated.
“The [smart] pills are likely to be available to the general public in a few years. But we do not know how they will be regulated — it may be that they are only sold on prescription, or it may be that they are sold on supermarket shelves like vitamin pills,” he said.
“There could be restrictions placed on their sale, but that might mean people buy them illegally. I would call on people to start discussing their impact — before they start causing tremendous problems in society.”
This concern was also raised by King during his cabinet briefing. “Should we change regulatory structures to enable new procedures in non-medical psychoactive substances?” he said.
“Are ‘cognitive enhancers’ a great market for social opportunity or destabilising and divisive?”