"Does Michael Jordan have age-related physical impairment?" McGaugh asks. Just as Jordan may not be as agile on the basketball court as he used to be, McGaugh says, there's strong evidence that memory processing slows with age. Any middle-aged person who has grasped for a word or a name can vouch for that. But "it's only critical if you want to appear on Jeopardy," McGaugh says.
Things get even more complicated if one considers the possibility of enhancing memory and learning in young people, McGaugh and others say.
For example, he says, if doctors took such a drug throughout their training, would they be required to continue taking it as a condition of their license to practice medicine? And what about children? McGaugh asks. "Are you going to put the pill in their lunchbox when they go off to school?" And, he asks, what if you can't afford to?
Nature Reviews Neuroscience published an article in May about the ethics of enhancing mental performance. The authors, a panel of neuroscientists and ethicists, suggest that "when we improve our productivity by taking a pill, we might also be undermining the value and dignity of hard work, medicalizing human effort" and labeling a normal attention span abnormal.
But memory researcher Mark Bear, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist, says it's unlikely that brain-boosting drugs will have much effect on young, healthy individuals whose brains have not yet begun to slow down.
"I think it's pretty clear in animal studies that treatments that will enhance memory in aged rats often will fail in young rats," says Bear, co-founder of Sention, a Providence, company that is testing two experimental drugs for Alzheimer's and other memory-robbing ailments in volunteers.
To Bear, taking a drug to counteract aging's effect on the brain isn't much different from wearing bifocals to compensate for aging's effect on vision.
Or maybe "smart drugs" are more analogous to Botox than to bifocals, another example of "the baby-boom generation wanting to maintain a youthful quality of life right into old age," says Bear, who, at 46, falls smack-dab in the middle of the boomer generation. "We really are not accepting age gracefully."
By Rita Rubin, USA TODAY