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Ethical debate over potential 'Viagra for the mind'

Garrick Utley

By Garrick Utley
CNN Contributor

March 11, 1999
Web posted at: 10:01 a.m. EST (1501 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.


In this story:

Defining memory and its loss

Long on facts, but short on remembering the milk

What's a competitive culture to do?



NEW YORK (CNN) -- Imagine a pill that could make you remember! A drug that could prevent the normal loss of memory many of us suffer as we age.

Amazing? Yes. Likely? Yes. Scientists say a memory pill could be available within the next 10 years.

It promises to be a kind of "Viagra for the mind." With it will come life-enhancing benefits for the elderly, including the millions of aging American baby boomers.

With it will also come serious ethical and societal questions about whether memory medication should be made available to those who do not suffer from debilitating memory loss, but merely want to sharpen their edge in a hyper-competitive, information-overloaded world.

Defining memory and its loss

Until recently, normal memory loss was thought to be part of the inescapable cycle of life, like hair loss or muscles that weaken.

Brain
Some brain researchers think normal memory loss may be treatable   

And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which would have to approve any memory medication, still sees "normal" memory loss as normal, not a disease such as Alzheimer's.

That position, however, is being challenged by brain scientists who have been using the latest magnetic imaging technology to literally peer into the brain, to see what occurs when the ability to remember begins to fail.

Some of the leading work in memory has been carried out at Columbia University, where Dr. Scott Small conducts clinical studies.

"Not everyone who ages has memory loss. So this establishes that memory loss is not inevitable with aging. And if it is not inevitable, it suggests that it is a pathological process," Small said.

If memory loss is a pathological process, as Small suggests, that means it can be treated. Various approaches are being tried, including altering the brain's chemical processes.

Along with the new insights into how our brain functions, researchers are learning more about what memory is.

There is long-term memory, which can surprise us, for example, when we remember the lyrics to a song we have not heard since childhood.

There is short-term or "working" memory, which all too often can disappear in a flash, as when we forget the name of a person we were just introduced to or where we left the car keys.

There are also the motor skills we learn and retain, even if we have not used them in years or decades, such as how to ride a bike or drive a car (once we have remembered where we put those keys).

Long on facts, but short on remembering the milk

If we want to know what memory can and cannot do, there may be no better example than Tatiana Cooley, 27, a vivacious working woman in Manhattan and the USA National Memory Championship winner for the last two years in a row.

Cooley won the title by memorizing lengthy passages of poetry and complex series of numbers during a grueling competition. She discovered her ability to remember while in college, when she went into an exam and found she could recall verbatim the notes she had taken in class.

CooleyAward
Tatiana Cooley with her 1999 memory championship award   

Today, as an executive assistant in a large office, Tatiana does not have to refer to the Rolodex on her desk, as the telephone numbers are all in her head.

Still, she says, there is a big difference between her ability to memorize things and her ability to keep a simple "to do" list in her head.

"They are two different worlds," she insisted. "I'm horribly absent-minded. I live by Post-it Notes."

What's a competitive culture to do?

Cooley and her blazing memory for facts, if not life's mundane details, presents another question. If a memory pill existed today, could she or should she take it to enhance her championship skills?

Should a 17-year-old student, nervous about approaching SATs, take such a pill to have a better shot at getting into college? Should air traffic controllers take the medication to sharpen their ability to keep the skies safe?

Cooley
Even memory whizzes have to concentrate   

We live in an age, and in the United States in a society, where instant gratification is taken as an inalienable right, and peak performance is a job requirement.

Dr. Small is aware that a memory pill with no harmful side effects could, like Viagra, be used by those who may not need it, but want to add potency to their memory performance.

"I think it is worth considering in principle," he cautioned, "but one has to be very, very careful and factor in multiple ethical and medical issues."

Those issues will likely have to be addressed in the coming decade. A memory pill could arrive just in time to help baby boomers, as they move into their 60s, put off retirement and improve the final decades of life.

Perhaps one day, it might also allow us to forget memory loss.


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