Why Real Smart Drugs (Probably) Won’t Exist

Today’s smart drugs weren’t created for cognitive enhancement. Drugs like modafinil and methylphenidate were created to treat real cognitive disorders. At best, these drugs have questionable effectiveness for enhancement. If the best option for smart drugs are drugs that were never intended for enhancement, when can we expect pharmaceutical companies to develop, test and market real smart drugs for cognitive enhancement?

Regulatory environment
The main blocker to targeted CED development, at least in the US and EU, are the regulations pharmaceutical companies must operate under. Regulations in these companies generally support the development of drugs to treat deficiencies or, as in the case of drugs like Viagra, restoring function. The development of drugs specifically to enhance a function, like cognition, is unlikely to get support from regulatory bodies. Without that support, there is little value in drugs companies allocating resources in drugs that won’t come to market.

Of course the EU and US aren’t the only regulatory environments. Brazil, China and especially Russia appear to have more lax regimes. CEDs developed there will certainly make their way into other markets, either legitimately or illegitimately. The safety of these drugs, particularly in the form of long-term side effects, will likely remain an open question. An all too likely outcome may look like this:

Brains are complicated
Putting aside the regulatory challenges, is it even possible to create CEDs that are both beneficial and lack side effects? Technologies like fMRI are improving the understanding of the brain, but that’s a long way from effectively influencing brain function.

It’s easy to dismiss how complicated it is to manipulate brain function. Don’t. Many of today’s therapeutic drugs have mechanisms that are only lightly understood. And this is for drugs used to treat deficiencies, when variations from the norm can be detected. There’s still little idea of what levers to pull to enhance already normally functioning brains.

That said, breakthroughs and insights occur regularly. New technologies may surpass what fMRI can tell us; or new substances may greatly improve working memory or executive function with little to no negative side effects. Our own sappho juice may be just around the corner.

 

Repost: Everything about Microdosing

By Carolyn Gregoire Long before microdosing was being touted as the Silicon Valley life hack du jour, Dr. James Fadiman was investigating the potential mind-enhancing effects of ingesting psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, more commonly known as magic mushrooms. In the 1960s, Fadiman conducted pioneering psychedelic research, including one study in which he gave […]

via Everything You Wanted To Know About Microdosing (But Were Afraid To Ask) — It’s Interesting

Improving Your Working Memory with Dual N-Back Training

The Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (which is excellent, btw) recently published an article on improving working memory that’s gotten quite a bit of attention over the last few days. It’s also generated a fair amount of hype. The short version is the dual n-back test improved the working memory of participants by 30% over the baseline. Training using the dual n-back test was twice as effective as a competing method, the complex span test.

Working memory is temporary storage for data requiring immediate retrieval. Like a memory cache on a computer, working memory comes into play when remembering a phone number, directions, or the names of the six people you just met at a cocktail party.

In the experiment, 136 young adults trained with their respective methods for 30 minutes a day, five days per week. In the complex span test, trainees have to remember the location of an item while being distracted by another task. Figure 1 gives an idea of what this test looks like:

Figure 1: Representation of the complex span test.

complex_span_test

Trainees using this method were less effective an improving working memory than those training with the dual n-back test. The dual n-back test consists of visual and auditory components (hence the “dual”) where the user has to remember both the letter spoken and the location of the square on the screen “n” spaces back. For example, if asked to recall the spoken letter and square location from two letters ago, that’s a 2-back test. Three letters ago, 3-back, and so on. Figure 2 depicts what the dual n-back test looks like.

Figure 2. Dual n-back test.

dual_n_back_illustration

Importantly, the researchers have no idea why this method works better than others. Researchers determined dual n-band trainees had an increase in alpha band brain activity, which correlates to attention, memory and executive functions.

The researchers also tested intelligence before and after the training period, hypothesizing that training would improve overall intelligence. Unfortunately, no such improvement was found. Today’s brain training is narrowly focused on improving a specific skill set rather than improving general intelligence.

However, this memory training method gives me hope that I’ll finally be able to remember names the next time I’m at a cocktail party.

Why Smart Drugs Will Start in IT

Note: This was originally published on my work blog.

After seven months of work, my research on cognitive enhancement drugs (CEDs) in IT finally published. It published as part of Gartner’s annual Maverick project, which is a bit like an incubator for fringe research topics. Even publishing as Maverick, there are bound to be questions about the real likelihood of CEDs entering the IT department. That’s not unreasonable, and there are some interesting indicators. I’ll refer to two.

The first is a quote from an engineer at Uber. The context is a Buzzfeed article about the impact of Uber’s culture on employees: “If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?”

It’s a good question. The reality is, in most companies, the engineer is at fault.

The second example is much more recent. Deeplearning.ai, a startup in the AI space recently posted a job description stating the employee would be expected to regularly work 70-90 hours per week:

Deeplearning job posting

Are those working hours sustainable? Can you reliably produce high quality work when working 11-12 hours per day? (Although with 24 hours in a day, working just 12 hours could be considered only working half days.) It’s not unreasonable to assume that, with these expectations for working hours, some form of cognitive enhancement is expected, if not demanded.

Don’t dismiss this as some Silicon Valley anomaly. Every company feels the pressure to digitalize, probably because of the work of some Silicon Valley startups. This increases pressure everywhere, especially in IT as it bears the brunt of the transformation effort.

Work pressures are only one reason people take smart drugs. Others include interested experimenters, who I call “pharmanauts” in my research, as well as others. But the people taking prescription drugs for cognitive deficiencies they may not have just to survive punitive work culture is the most dangerous scenario for both the employees and the employer.

If you’re working in tech and are either taking CEDs or thinking about it, I’d like to hear from you. Please respond in the comments and I’ll respond to you privately.

And if you’re a Gartner client interested in this research, you can find it here: Maverick* Research: Cognitive Enhancement Drugs Are Changing Your Business

Should Cognitive Enhancement be Compulsory?

Research supporting the use of cognitive enhancement in healthy people is, at best, inconclusive. But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which some type of cognitive enhancement is effective at maximizing executive function and working memory with little to no negative impact. This scenario is admittedly far-fetched, but it introduces interesting questions: If cognitive enhancement methods are effective, should certain professions be required to use them? This is the question posed in a 2014 research document.

As the authors point out, progress in science and technology has already impacted countless jobs and created new obligations to use practices and methods that improve outcomes. The counter argument is that these innovations, like antiseptics, are external. They don’t force a professional to alter his or her brain chemistry to possibly deliver better outcomes.

If cognitive enhancement were safe and effective, should those enhancements be used in every situation? Would you want a cognitively enhanced surgeon or pilot?

Linking Mindfulness with Cognitive Performance

Mindfulness has been a hot topic lately. Even the Harvard Business Review recently published on the topic. I’ve also been thinking about mindfulness and how it might relate to cognitive and athletic performance. The most current research I’ve found explores the link between mindfulness and cognitive performance and attempts to build on previous research work. I’ve attempted to summarize the journal article below.

What is mindfulness?

There are varying definitions, but arguably the most common is “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgementally.” (Kabat-Zinn). Mindfulness is a state of awareness, but is also viewed as a skill that can be improved. Using the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), mindfulness is an aggregate of five factors: observing, nonjudging of experience, describing, acting with awareness, and nonreactivity to inner experiences:

  • Observing: aware of and recognizing thoughts and feelings
  • Nonjudging of experience: objectively considering thoughts and feelings without assigning value
  • Describing: recognizing and labeling the thoughts and feelings an individual experiences
  • Acting with Awareness: staying present and aware in the moment; disregarding distractions
  • Nonreactivity to inner experiences: ability to remain calm and objective when facing thoughts or feelings that may prompt an emotional response

How does mindfulness relate to improved cognitive performance?

Despite the belief that mindfulness impacts cognitive performance, few studies sought to determine the relationship. Earlier mindfulness studies that attempted to link mindfulness to cognitive performance were specific to intensive mindfulness training in the context of mediation, but links either weren’t found, or no significant difference was discovered between test and control groups.

By contrast, the Klein and Lancaster study explored dispositional, or inherent, mindfulness, rather than the effectiveness of mindfulness training. Specifically, the study researched if:

  • higher observational characteristics would predict improved perceptual ability
  • higher nonreactivity scores will relate to improved cognitive flexibility
  • actiing with awareness and describing facets would not impact cognitive capabilities

Unfortunately the study was unable to reproduce the mindfulness work of previous studies. The study also found that nonreactivity, not observability, was a better determinant of perceptual abilities. Further, none of the five facets of mindfulness was associated with cognitive flexibility. While additional research should be performed, the connection between mindfulness and cognitive performance and enhancement looks tenuous at best.