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A 'Brain Power Pill' May Be Close to Reality


By Karen Weintraub / USA Today

Limitless, a TV show airing on CBS this fall, features a pill that dramatically boosts the lead character’s brain power.

On the medication, Brian Finch, played by Jake McDorman, can remember everything he reads, sort through reams of data as fast as a computer and estimate the speed of a slowing train so precisely that he plants himself inches beyond where it stops.

Although no one is close to making such genius pills, there is growing scientific interest in figuring out how far the limits of human intelligence can be pushed.

Several scientists say they appreciate the fact that movies and TV are taking on issues like neuroenhancement.

“I think we have a lot to learn from good fiction,” says Martha Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Brain sci-fi can help us see how specific changes in brain function might play out.”

The series, based on a 2011 movie of the same name, doesn’t spend much time on the science of how Finch’s brain changes when he pops the fictional pill NZT. But the writers did consult a neuroscientist.

Ricardo Gil-da-Costa, co-founder of the consulting firm Neuroverse, encouraged the team to focus on the idea that NZT could improve the connections between different parts of the brain — and not to repeat the misconception that we only use part of our brain’s potential.

Craig Sweeny, the show’s executive producer, says his one concern about featuring NZT is that people will think it’s a real thing.

“There are people who sell stuff labeled NZT and neuroenhancers. This stuff is out there,” Sweeny says, noting that he believes it’s ethically wrong and dangerous to sell such unproven drugs. “I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to take it.”

CBS has committed to producing 13 episodes of the show, which premieres Sept. 22, and will remain in production through the end of the year. If it is well-received, Sweeny says, he expects the network will commission nine to 11 more episodes.

Sweeny says he and the writers focused more on what they could persuade the viewers to believe than on what might actually be possible.

In real life, scientists are closing in on ways to enhance the human brain. A handful of researchers are studying the potential of using electrical currents, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, to improve problem-solving abilities.

One recent study in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology  showed that a drug called modafinil, which is used to help people with narcolepsy stay awake, increases attention span and performance, which makes it the first proven neuroenhancing drug.

Caffeine doesn't count, says Ruairidh Battleday, one of the researchers on that study. It enhances brain power in the short term, but people quickly get used to it and then need it simply to function normally. Stimulants like Ritalin haven't shown a definitive improvement in intelligence tests and have much more serious side effects, he says.

It’s even tough to show improved brain power, because basic cognitive tests were designed for people with disabilities and can’t detect advances in normal brain function, says Anna-Katharine Brem, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and a visiting faculty member at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

But scientists are still a long way from truly improving brain function, Brem says, or even understanding what the side effects of such enhancement might be. (In the TV show, Finch at first suffers terrible side effects from NZT, looking like a heroin addict after his second dose. Then he gets a shot that gives him all the benefits of the drug with none of its side effects.)

There may also be a trade-off to extra brain power. When pushed to focus more, for instance, the brain might lose some of its creative abilities, says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Beth Israel and Harvard Medical School.

“There is some evidence that the brain may be a net zero-sum operator, but it’s not easy to prove,” he says.

Neuroenhancement also poses major ethical questions, says Stanford University law and bioethics professor Hank Greely. Providing an unsafe or ineffective drug would be immoral, as would forcing people to take pills that changed their mental abilities, he says.

Someone could gain an unfair advantage from neuroenhancers — such as with steroids in sports, Greely says. Or a drug might be able to bring people of lower intelligence up to the level of their faster-thinking peers, which would be an ethical plus. Today's rich kids — with years of accumulated advantages — are essentially neuroenhanced compared with poor children, he says.

Researchers who study neuroenhancement aren’t ready to start popping pills themselves. Today’s approaches offer too few benefits, and too many risks, several say.

Greely, who is in his 60s, says what he’d really like is a drug that would give him back the recall for names that he had in his 20s.

“If I could take a safe pill that could make my memory what I remember it being,” he says, “I’d be there in less than a minute.”



 

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