Pill for Memory

Jun 26, 2012 by

Pill For MemoryMuch of modern neuroscience in the field of memory and recall is geared toward developing what would essentially be a pill for memory: a drug that would enable people afflicted by degenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, or even milder cognitive impairments, to preserve their capacity to remember. At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, although drug therapies do exist which can slow the progress of the condition. Another concept that has been advanced is a pill for memory enhancement in people with a normal ability to remember, but who want to temporarily enhance their memorization and recall skills: students studying for an upcoming exam, for instance. The idea of using such memory enhancement pills to increase normal cognitive function is problematic for some researchers, and the wave of the future for others; of course, the use of herbal medicines such as ginkgo, brahmi, and celastrus seed to improve memory has also been going on for millennia in different parts of the world apparently without ill effects.

In Western medicine, studies with mice have discovered a certain protein in the brain, released when the animals undergo stress, also affects chemical communications between neurons. Researchers have pointed to the actions of this protein as a possible link in the progression of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative neurological diseases, and have demonstrated that mice with a genetic mutation that blocks the expression of this protein also display improved memory. The results of animal studies like this offer hope that a pill for memory improvement and repair might be developed; one that would not just slow the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia but actually prevent and reverse the devastating effects of these diseases.

With results like these, we’re beginning to encounter the issue of normal healthy people using memory enhancer pills for a mental boost. Some researchers have suggested that certain medications that delay the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia by increasing the brain’s production of acetylcholine could also enhance recall in healthy people. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter crucial in forming and recalling memories, and many herbal memory enhancers, such as brahmi and celastrus seed, may work in part by prolonging the presence of acetylcholine in the brain. Many physicians have suggested that acetylcholine-boosting medications may also be effective in treating mild cognitive impairment (MCI) a less serious form of age-related memory degeneration. However, when it comes to pharmaceuticals, doctors tend not to recommend such off-label use of prescription memory medications by healthy people.

The drive to become better than well in the areas of memory and focus have already led people to experiment with taking powerful stimulants off-label: medications prescribed to aid those afflicted with ADHD have also proved to be a powerful short-term aid for improving concentration on activities such as study, writing and exams, which has led drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to become popular college “study aids”. Some issues with this practice are that no one is quite sure of the long term effects of taking these powerful stimulants, plus there is evidence that chronic use of these of drugs may be habit-forming and lead to side effects such as headache, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating once the effects of the medication have worn off (the so-called rebound effect).

There is one more fascinating and perhaps entirely unexpected area of memory research, and that’s in the area of forgetting. Scientists are discovering that contrary to the way we subjectively experience memories— as a seemingly pristine record of events, recorded into our brains like a movie recorded onto film— our brains actually make slight changes to a memory every time it is recalled in the present. It turns out our brains only use a handful of chemicals to store and recall memories, and blocking certain of these neural chemicals can actually interrupt not just the recall but also the basic storage of a specific memory.

The new, rapidly emerging model holds that protein synthesis of certain “recall” proteins actually occurs every time the brain retrieves a memory held in long term storage, in a process that is hard to distinguish from the original process of forming that memory. We don’t remember the same way every time, like a playing movie from a tape; rather, our brains seem to reenact our memories, like a play being performed on stage. Furthermore, in behavioral tests with mice, scientists have discovered that injecting a substance which blocks a specific protein called PKMzeta has the effect not just of interrupting the recall process but of erasing the original memory that triggered it. In other words, scientists may soon be able to develop a pill to help us forget certain memories.

As a visitor to a site geared toward helping people improve their recall, you may be wondering, “Why would anyone want to erase their memories?” Under normal circumstances, you probably wouldn’t, but the ability to selectively edit memories may prove hugely beneficial to people who struggle with trauma-induced psychological conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The latest research into psychological traumas suggests that enabling people to separate their memories of distressing incidents from the negative and debilitating emotions associated with them may be a crucial part of achieving psychological healing and reintegration.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds in terms of developing pills for memory, whether in terms of enhanced recall, concentration, or even pills that help us selectively forget memories. In the meantime, we can still turn to herbal memory enhancements that have been used safely and effectively for thousands of years to give the human brain a boost.

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