Steroids. Ritalin. Modafinil. Prozac. EPO. These are just a selection of drugs that could be described as boosting the cognitive or physical performance of human beings. As part of Wired.co.uk’s Transhuman Week, we take a look at what chemical enhancements there are on the horizon.
Baylor University researchers have discovered a molecule called PKR, which regulates how neurons interact in memory-related tasks. When the molecule is genetically suppressed, another immune molecule called gamma interferon steps in. The understudy molecule is much better at increasing communication between neurons and making memory more efficient. By finding a chemical inhibitor for the PKR molecule the team realised it could generate the memory boost without using genetic engineering. They found a molecule that did the trick, and it could be used to develop drugs to help Alzheimer’s patients combat memory loss. Likewise it could be used by people who don’t have Alzheimers to turbo-charge their memories.
Live strong and long
A gene called DAF-2 has been suppressed in nematode worms through genetic manipulation to allow them to live six times longer than normal. Cynthia Kenyon, who researches ageing, and her team believe the gene may also play a key role in human ageing and may be susceptible to pharmacological manipulation — Kenyon predicts within 15 years — although that should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
In the interim, we’ll just have to make do with the human growth hormone — already popular in older male Hollywood circles, HGH plays a key role in development and healing. Patients with low levels of the growth hormone might put find it hard maintaining their body weight, so can take a synthetic version of the hormone called somatropin. The drug has been shown to increase muscle strength and aerobic endurance, especially when combined with testosterone. However, joint pain and carpal tunnel syndrome came as side effects.
Male pattern baldness affects 80 percent of men at some point in their lives and no matter how convincing the claims of various cosmetic products are, there’s very little that can hold back the hair loss. However, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have identified an enzyme called prostaglandin D2 that inhibits hair growth. Drugs that block the protein are already available on the market, being used to treat asthma and allergies, however they could be repurposed into lotions to transform wispy thinning hair into stronger, longer locks. However, it’s unclear whether it can help grow hair where “as a coot” baldness has been achieved.
Drugs that affect our perceived “moral” behaviour already exist. Anti-depressants lower aggression and can make people friendlier, and oxytocin can increase feelings of empathy (although it is a huge stretch to refer to it as the molecule that underpins human morality as neuroeconomist Paul Zak claims).
Some factions of the transhumanist community are investigating the possibility of using drugs for “moral enhancement”, or using a cocktail of drugs to change people’s emotional responses in the hope that it will somehow “improve” their moral behaviour. Clearly, we’ll need a lot more progress in understanding the incredible complexity of brain chemistry before this would be even a remote possibility. Many of the drugs in question have different effects depending on the circumstances. For example, oxytocin makes you more likely to trust members of your social group, but reduces empathy for those outside of the group.
Furthermore, it appears to presuppose an understanding of what the “right” and “wrong” emotional and behavioural response is. Despite these major challenges, it is a rich area of research, with neuroethicists exploring the possibilities of using such drugs within the criminal justice system. Could this be the late 21st century lobotomy?