Can Drugs Make Us Happier? Smarter?


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It depends on what is meant by "happy" and "smart."

There are already drugs that brighten moods, like Prozac, and other antidepressants that control levels of a brain chemical called serotonin. While originally meant to treat depression, these drugs have been used for other psychological conditions like shyness and anxiety and even by otherwise healthy people to feel better about themselves.

But is putting people in a better mood really making them happy? People can also drown their sorrows in alcohol or get a euphoric feeling using narcotics, but few people who do would be called truly happy.

The President's Council on Bioethics said in a recent report that while antidepressants might make some people happier, they can also substitute for what can truly bring happiness: a sense of satisfaction with one's identity, accomplishments and relationships.

"In the pursuit of happiness human beings have always worried about falling for the appearance of happiness and missing its reality," the council wrote. It added, "Yet a fraudulent happiness is just what the pharmacological management of our mental lives threatens to confer upon us."

Now the race is on to develop pills to make people smarter, at least in one sense. These drugs, several of them already in clinical trials, aim at memory loss that occurs in people with Alzheimer's disease or a precursor called mild cognitive impairment.

But it is lost on no one that if a memory drug works and is safe, it may one day be used by healthy people to learn faster and remember longer.

Studies have already shown that animals can be made to do both when the activity of certain genes is increased or decreased. Dr. Tom Tully, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, created genetically engineered fruit flies that he said had "photographic memory." In one session, he said, they could learn something that took normal flies 10 sessions.

"It immediately convinced everyone that memory was going to be just another biological process," Dr. Tully said. "There's nothing special about it. That meant that it was gong to be treatable and manipulable."

But experts say that improving memory will not necessarily make one smarter, in the sense of I.Q., let alone in wisdom. "It would be a mistake to think that drugs that have an impact on memory necessarily will have an effect on intelligence," said Dr. Daniel L. Schachter, chairman of psychology at Harvard.

Dr. Tully, who is also acting chief scientific officer of Helicon Therapeutics, which is developing memory pills, agreed. "You don't think better than you did before," he said. "You just get the facts in with less practice." Still, he said, that would be significant help to students at exam time.

Any pill used widely by healthy people to improve memory would have to be extremely safe, so that the risks would not outweigh the benefit. Psychological side effects also remain a possibility.

"Is it a good thing to remember everything?" Dr. Tully asked. Could a brain too crammed with information suffer some sort of overload?

Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton who genetically engineered smarter mice a few years ago, says he is skeptical that the results can be transferred to people.

"If you look at how people improve their brain power, it's through education," he said. "That has proven to have 100 percent efficiency with minimal side effects."

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