Professor Trevor Robbins discusses whether or not drugs have the potential to improve cognition.
There probably are drugs around that improve cognition even now, but we have to be clear about what this means. There are some drugs which improve cognition in neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. For example, drugs which boost acetylcholine function and drugs that boost dopaminergic function.
There are also drugs which improve cognition in the condition we call ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Drugs, for example, such as Ritalin. Very interestingly, drugs such as Ritalin and the recent drug that has been a lot in the media and has been licensed in the treatment of sleep disorders, Modafinil. We, and others, have found that these drugs can improve cognition even in normal subjects. For example, the University of Cambridge undergraduates in laboratory tests, for brief periods. The improvements were often in isolated bits of cognition, not across the board. They may improve working memory, for example, or your ability to combat impulsivity, but they certainly do seem to produce some improvements. This gives us, in general, a promise for the potential of such cognitive enhancers in the future.
There are obviously going to be severe ethical problems associated with the use of such drugs. It might be very ethical indeed to enhance the performance of a shift worker, for example, who needs to function better in order to get through their day. Maybe it would be reasonable to take a safe drug if it helped to combat fatigue and it did not have any serious side effects.
However, imagine an examination situation. Then we have the same scenarios we do in sport. Drugs in sport is not thought to be a good thing at all, very bad ethically. So, drugs in exams, I suspect, also a bad thing.
The basal ganglia, a group of interconnected brain areas located deep in the cerebral cortex, have proved to be at work in learning, the formation of good and bad habits, and some psychiatric and addictive disorders.