In the past 5 years or so, there has been a huge increase in lifestyle use of prescription drugs that can enhance cognitive function in various ways. These so-called “smart drugs” include the stimulants methylphenidate (better known by its trade name, Ritalin), which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and modafinil (also known as Provigil), used as a treatment for narcolepsy.
Off-label use of smart drugs is particularly prevalent among students, who face increasing pressure to improve their academic performance. They therefore take these drugs in an effort to focus their attention for longer periods of time and boost their overall productivity.
According to a 2008 survey conducted by the journal Nature, the use of smart drugs is increasing among academics, too. One in five of the approximately 1,600 researchers who responded to the survey said that they had used smart drugs – with Ritalin being the most popular – to focus their attention, memory or concentration.
Is it okay to boost brain function in this way? The question has divided the scientific community. Some researchers say ‘no’ for safety reasons: we still don’t know the consequences of taking smart drugs for long periods of time, and youngsters are particularly at risk because their brains continue to develop well into early adulthood. And the ease with which anyone can buy smart drugs online also raises concern.
Some object to cognitive enhancement on ethical grounds: it may increase the inequalities already present in society, because not everyone could afford to buy the drugs. And what about those who object because they think it would give an unfair advantage? Would they feel pressured into popping brain-boosting pills just to keep up with the others?
Others say that enhancement is not a dirty word, that more research should be done, and that the public should work together with scientists and policy makers to regulate the use of smart drugs. They emphasize the potential benefits that cognitive enhancement could bring to society. Recent research shows, for example, that smart drugs can improve the performance of sleep-deprived surgeons and nightshift workers. The U.S., British, French and Chinese military forces now use Modafinil routinely to combat fatigue in troops, and the drug has also been shown to improve some aspects of cognitive function in psychiatric patients.
Last year, the Wellcome Trust commissioned the second wave of its Monitor Survey, which was designed to assess the UK general public’s level of awareness and attitude toward this controversial issue. This is the most representative such survey to date, and included responses from nearly 1,400 adults and 400 young people aged 14-18.
The results show that opinion is similarly divided: About one-third of adults and young people said that long-term use of smart drugs to improve focus, memory or attention, or occasional use to improve exam performance or something similar, was acceptable, while about one-third said that it was unacceptable.
The results also suggest that the use of smart drugs is less widespread among the general public than within universities, with only 29 adults (or 2% of the total sample) and 9 young people (or 1%) saying that they had ever taken prescription medications for that purpose.
What’s your opinion? Join the debate using the Wellcome Trust’s Big Picture app.
Stress hormones released by a pregnant mother can cause the placenta to shrink and can directly affect the developing brain of the foetus. Now, researchers have identified the mechanism through which stress may damage an unborn child in the womb. An enzyme in the placenta of the mother and the brain of the foetus acts as a barrier to protect the unborn baby from chemicals released in times of stress. But during periods of prolonged stress – such as anxiety and depression or due to a traumatic event such as abuse – levels of the hormones can soar and are believed to overwhelm the protective barrier, resulting in a host of problems. The damage may make the child more likely to develop mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia.
Professor Megan Holmes of the University of Edinburgh has been looking into the mechanisms involved. She identified that an enzyme in the mother and baby, called 11-β HSD2, works by mopping up stress hormones called glucocorticoids (GCCs) and converting them to their inactive form. Using pregnant mice genetically engineered to lack the enzyme, her team showed that the increased exposure to GCCs (like cortisol) resulted in smaller pups, which went on to exhibit the signs of mood disorders. The mothers also had smaller placentas which meant a reduced flow of nutrients to pups in the womb – which could directly contribute to their mental condition.
When the team blocked the enzyme in the brains of the developing pups, but left the enzyme barrier in the placenta, the baby mice still showed some signs of damage. This indicates that both sites, the placenta and the foetal brain, play a role. The team are looking to see if one of the two sites has an overriding effect, although it’s thought to be a combination of the two.
This enzyme barrier is crucial during pregnancy as it maintains the difference between the relatively high levels of stress hormones in the mother and the low levels in the foetus. If too much GCC reaches the foetus it can affect the development of growing tissues. For instance, if the developing brain is exposed to cortisol it can cause the young cells to stop dividing and to start maturing instead. Although this is a key step in the normal developmental process, if it happens too early things can go wrong and it can result in faulty wiring of the brain. “The neurons may not be in right place yet and may be differentiating too soon” says Holmes.
But Holmes’ work suggests that stress exposure doesn’t just impact the brain in the womb, it can have an effect in adolescence too. Puberty is another key point in the timeline of the brain’s development, as it’s when existing connections and networks are strengthened or weakened. It’s a time when the brain is particularly sensitive to environmental factors, including stress.
In experiments, adolescent rats were conditioned to associate a flashing light with an electric shock and then had their brains scanned using functional MRI (fMRI). When they were shown the cue of a flashing light their emotional fear pathways were activated. In rats that had been stressed, the amygdala – the part of the brain which deals with fear and emotion – was overactive compared with rats that hadn’t been stressed. This indicated that the way in which the brain processed emotional stimuli had been changed.
The results suggest that the early teenage years are another critical period in the brain’s development in which stress could have an impact on the network of connections. The rewiring of emotional response pathways in the brain could result in long-term problems with mood disorders and emotional behaviour.
Presenting these findings at the British Neuroscience Association’s Festival of Neuroscience conference in London last month, Professor Holmes said that she hopes to use the animal models to uncover more about the pathways involved and to find more accessible targets for treatment. “We think this a really good translational model, so we can do the same tests or comparative tests to what are done in patient populations.”
It’s not all just mice and rats either, the damaging effect of stress hormones on the developing brain has demonstrated in human studies. Trials showed that the children of women who suffered from anxiety or depression during the pregnancy were more likely to develop the mood disorders themselves. In a telephone interview, Professor Vivette Glover, of Imperial College London, explained to me that in pregnant mothers with anxiety, production of the enzyme 11-β HSD2 decreases and this could expose the unborn baby to more cortisol. “The first thing is to look after pregnant women better,” said Glover. Although whether or not it’s a case for drug treatment isn‘t clear at this stage, “it’s an interesting idea”, she added.
Although genetic predisposition and environmental factors play a strong role in influencing the risk of developing mood disorders, this research hints at the potential for early therapeutic intervention. Currently, targeting 11-β HSD2 directly for drug treatment is difficult, so clinical trials may not be on the horizon just yet. “At the moment our intention is to use our models to see exactly which pathways are changing through development,” said Holmes, “and to try and find an alternative target that’s more easily targetable therapeutically.”
- Holmes M (2013). Perinatal programming of stress-related behaviour by glucocorticoids. Abstract presented at BNA 2013, London.
- O’Donnell, K., Bugge Jensen, A., Freeman, L., Khalife, N., O’Connor, T., & Glover, V. (2012). Maternal prenatal anxiety and downregulation of placental 11β-HSD2 Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37 (6), 818-826 DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.09.014
- Giedd, J., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N., Castellanos, F., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., Paus, T., Evans, A., & Rapoport, J. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: a longitudinal MRI study Nature Neuroscience, 2 (10), 861-863 DOI: 10.1038/13158
It starts with a bit of chaos. Makeup artists slap thick pale, foundation onto women’s faces as the stylists produce a cloud of hair spray. Everybody is wriggled out of their ordinary jeans and t-shirts and into finery; long ball gowns or tight fitting suit jackets.
This is how The Salon Project begins. It’s an immersive theatre piece that has formed part of the Wonder Season at the Barbican this month. It’s intended to re-enact the salons of Paris at the turn of the 20th century, where people gathered to hear influential speakers, share ideas and rub shoulders with the intellectuals of the time. To create this open environment and sense of drama, the audience doesn’t sit in chairs, but are dressed up in period costumes and encouraged to interact and discuss throughout the night.
Inside, the Salon is a perfect white room, on which to paint your own imaginings. In the corner of the room is a pianist playing period music on a grand piano. A gramophone DJ creates a landscape of ambient noise. Two actors strike up the first debate on animals, and how we should treat them.
A grandfather clock chimes and the audience is told to close their eyes. The atmosphere is as if everyone is saying a silent prayer, and when we open them the room is full of nude models engrossed in smartphones, laptops and other bits of technology. It’s a bizarre and surreal experience and the audience is offered no explanation.
“Who is the real you out of costume?,” asks one of the actors. The Salon is a breathing space. To free your mind and explore the ideas you push aside in daily life.
The Salon is, after all, about more than pretty faces. John Bowers, Professorial Research Fellow at the Interaction Research Studio, Goldsmiths University of London spoke about the future from the perspective of the 19th century. The lie detector, colour photography, teabags, ecstasy and translucent concrete all fall within a long list of inventions in the past 100 years. He said new inventions don’t just invent an object; they reinvent us by fulfilling a need or want we didn’t know we had. “Let us play about with history and invention and our imagined fundamentals of desire,” he says when contemplating the future.
Enter the neuroscientist. Dr Molly Crockett, resplendent in period costume regales the audience gathered about the piano on the science of moral enhancement. Could manipulating levels of chemicals in the brain have an impact on moral decision making? Putting it to the audience, she explains a number of classic quandaries in moral decision making. Do you walk past the drowning child in the lake? Do you flip the switch so the out of control train kills one instead of five? And if so, would you instead push a portly bystander onto the track if it meant saving lives of five others? Crockett explains how she uses these very moral quandaries to gauge subjects in the laboratory, and that the answers can be swayed depending on whether they have been given a drug to boost a certain brain chemical. Incidentally, the bystander is safe. Those who took the pill were less likely to let the portly man come to any harm.
So it would seem that one little chemical, serotonin, has the potential to influence our judgement in moral situations. The same is true of balance and fairness, where lowering the level of serotonin made people less likely to accept relatively fair offers.
“We care deeply about fairness,” she says, “and we care so much about it that we would rather have nothing than see an unfair proposer take the lion’s share”.
If our brain chemistry is variable, might that also mean that our mindset has a degree of flexibility and the views we may hold today could be subject to change? Dr Crockett stresses the importance of understanding that perhaps the views of other people may not always be that way, nor will ours.
“We can’t yet turn sinners into saints,” she explains, “but I’m optimistic that the more research we do into this area, the better we’ll understand what makes us decide what’s right and wrong and what actually makes us better to do right”.
And then with the sound of the clock, the illusion ends. We are ushered back to the dressing rooms, return our hairpieces and jewelry, suits and ball-gowns, and are sent back into the present.
Theresa Taylor and Ryan O’Hare
Theresa and Ryan are interns at the Wellcome Trust.
The Salon Project was part of the Wonder Season, supported by the Wellcome Trust. Read more about the Wonder season on our sister blog ThInk.
A: You get people playing Pong with their brainwaves, children decorating cardboard neurons, people giggling as they try (and fail) to touch their own noses, primal art, knitted neurons and live “brain surgery”. These were just some of the intriguing and amazingly popular activities on offer at Wonder Street Fair that resulted in lots of excited children (and adults) talking about brains.
It was back in December that we first introduced Wonder Season, a collaboration of the British Neuroscience Association (BNA), the Wellcome Trust, and the Barbican Centre. The BNA had approached us with the idea of doing some public outreach around their scientific conference and we jumped at the idea of finding creative ways to bring scientists, artists and the public together.
Wonder Season was an experiment to see if we could combine a scientific conference with a series of public events all taking place at the Barbican, one of Europe’s largest arts venues. The season attracted over 15,000 people to the various events including music, theatre, film talks and drop-in activities.
We’ve had some really wonderful feedback from neuroscientists and visitors and are conducting some more in depth evaluation and research over the next few months.
In the meantime, Wonder Season organiser Amy Sanders has this advice on how to plan and deliver a public engagement event alongside a conference:
Get your venue involved. Don’t be afraid to use their skills and expertise.
Wonder Season was a success because the Barbican programmers know their audiences and were able to help us gauge what was likely to appeal to the different types of people who come through their doors and how to market the events to them. They were also up for taking a few calculated risks and trying creative new things.
Tailor your activities. There is a huge public appetite for engaging activities that meld science and art – activities like this appeal to people who want to learn, create, question and enjoy themselves. Activities do need to be tailored to a non-expert audience – you can’t just open a poster session to the public and expect to get an audience, but that doesn’t mean that activities have to be superficial or ‘dumbed down’.
Don’t underestimate scientist’s willingness to get involved. There is huge appetite from researchers to open up their work to the public but they have different amounts of time and energy to give to public engagement. Offer opportunities for different levels of commitment – some researchers spent weeks making costumes and props and refining their street fair activities, others were able to take part in short informal discussions like Packed Lunch without needing to prepare too much.
Have the researchers present the activities. Having the actual practising scientists and researchers running the activities has enormous benefits – it gives visitors a chance to find out what research, and researchers, are really like, to ask tricky questions and have them answered by the people who really know (or don’t as is sometimes the case), and gets researchers in contact with the people who will be at the receiving end of the products of their research – lots of surprises on both sides
Hands-on activities are not just for children. Creative and ‘hands-on’ activities don’t need to be just for children, adults like to get involved too. Providing things that people of any age can do gets people of different ages interacting, and gives grown-ups the license to behave like inquisitive kids again
Variety is important. In the Street Fair we found that it really worked to have a variety of activities. We had a mix of some that were quick and easy to do (testing your reactions) and some that took a bit longer (knitting a neuron). There were some that were really active (the brain treasure hunt) and others that were more passive (watching a short film). We mixed up social activities (competing in a game of EEG Pong) with more personal contemplative ones (Sonic Tour of the Brain). Think about activities you can place in chill out areas where you can escape the noise and buzz as well as roaming activities that can go to where people are. Visually engaging activities were very popular.
Recruit interested volunteers. Volunteer explainers/guides can be vital element of a successful event – they meet and greet the visitors, help them find activities that match their interests, and generally help to make things run smoothly. It’s a massive bonus if the volunteers are also knowledgeable about the subject as a conversation that’s starts off with ‘what’s going on here?’ can develop into ‘so how can I get involved in your research?’
Hopefully these tips will give you a good starting point to think about your own events. The Wellcome Trust is keen to support researchers interested in public engagement and there is funding available through our public engagement grants.
For Wellcome coverage of Wonder Season and the BNA Festival of Neuroscience conference visit ThInk, our blog about art, neuroscience and the brain or see the Barbican site for more on the Consciousness event with Marcus Du Sautoy and James Holden.
Amy Sanders is Programme Manager in Engaging Science at the Wellcome Trust.
Research is gradually uncovering the intracacies of the relationship between our bodies and our brains, and it is clear that the former has more sway over our minds and mental state than is commonly acknowledged. But in the nineteenth century there were some strong and startingly ideas about the effects of bodies and bacteria on the brain. Jen Wallis reveals more.
In 1874, doctor Samuel Wilks described a trial that took place after a man, on his deathbed, made a will in favour of his wife, ‘a person beneath him in station, and to whom it was not known at the time that he was married’:
‘In an attempt to set aside the will, a post-mortem was made, in the description of which a hesitating opinion was given as to the healthiness of the kidneys; whereat the solicitor in the action gathered information relative to the existence of cerebral disturbance in connection with the diseases of these organs, and on which he tried to found an argument as to the soundness of the testator’s mind.’
What was being suggested here was that the failure of the kidneys could lead to an accumulation of waste products in the blood, causing mental disturbance. Mental symptoms were sometimes associated with Bright’s disease (a historical term referring to inflammatory kidney conditions), which the man had apparently suffered from. Called in to give his opinion, Wilks said that the symptoms of the man were not in line with such poisoning (common signs were ‘stupor, unconsciousness, or coma’ – not leaving property to one’s wife). He did concede though, that in such cases ‘certain aberrations of mind [were] occasionally found’. Read more…
Completing the series of Packed Lunch talks at the Wonder Season, Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder and Director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic based in Soho, spoke about gambling, addiction and impulsive behavior. Emma Rhule was in the Barbican’s conservatory to hear what she had to say.
Did you place a bet on last week’s Grand National? It is estimated that over a third of British adults took a punt on the horses, while over the course of the year nearly three-quarters of Britons will indulge in some form of gambling, from the occasional Lottery ticket to online bingo. For around 1 per cent of us, however, gambling is not restricted to the odd flutter but is an uncontrollable urge.
When the National Problem Gambling Clinic opened in Soho in 2008, no one could have predicted the number of patients that would arrive. “When I planned the clinic, I thought it would be just me working two days a week. Now the team is made up of psychologists, psychiatrists, a money management expert and family therapist,” clinical neuroscientist, Dr Bowden-Jones says. With over 700 referrals a year, she believes the secret to success is to look beyond the addiction – in order to help beat the addiction, it is vital to make an emotional connection with the person.
This approach stems from her experiences growing up: “I am originally from Milan. In the 1970s, Milan was suffering from a heroin epidemic. Walking to school every morning I saw lots of addicts shooting up on the side of the road. We would go to the park and kick syringes or collect them for fun. By the time I was a teenager many of the people that I grew up with had hepatitis B or C and were addicted to heroin. Walking by, I would be told not to look, that they were bad people. I used to ask why – people are not born ‘bad’.” Read more…
BNA 2013: Festival of Neuroscience, which took place at the Barbican last week, brought together scientists from across the field for an exciting meeting of minds that combined a scientific conference with a public programme of events. A group of science writers from the Wellcome Trust attended the scientific conference. Here, Penny Bailey reports on one seminar that she chose to attend…at least, she thinks she did.
Choosing and Doing: the neuroscience of voluntary action, was a symposium convened by Professor Patrick Haggard (UCL) on Tuesday 9th April as part of BNA 2013: Festival of Neuroscience.
A strong theme emerging from the ‘Choosing and Doing’ seminar was that predictability is rarely a good thing. If a species behaves in predictable ways it puts them at a significant disadvantage – they are more likely to be beaten by competitors and eaten by predators.
Whether or not we are ‘predictable’ is also indicative of how much ‘free will’ we have. Modern neuroscience refutes Descarte’s notion of a ‘ghost in the machine’ – that we have a mind that is independent of our body generating intentions within our brain, which in turn prompt our bodies to act. The consensus now is that our mind and body are one – our mental states are purely physical.
That being the case, the debate about how much ‘agency’ we have over our actions centres largely on deterministic versus stochastic models of the brain. In a deterministic model, our future intentions can be predicted from the initial conditions or starting point and the external forces acting on us. In a stochastic model however, we demonstrate ‘spontaneous behavioural variability’ – the ability to spontaneously choose to act in unpredictable ways. The latter has an evolutionary advantage in that it allows us to elude predators, explore new environments and discover hidden resources. It also suggests we have a degree of individual freedom or agency.
Over the past four days BNA 2013: Festival of Neuroscience has filled the Barbican with an extravaganza of brain science. A lucky group of science writers from the Wellcome Trust attended the Festival. Each day, we asked them to give a short account of the seminars and lectures which they attended, to share the new research, stimulating discussions, and the unanswered questions, which they encountered. In this, the final post in our Festival bites series, Theresa Taylor gives an account of Professor David Smith’s research into the power of Vitamin B to stave off dementia and Ryan O’Hare guides us through the discussion which dominated the Workshop on Drugs in Society.
by Ryan O’Hare
The morning Workshop on Drugs in Society on Day 4 of the BNA Festival of Neuroscience delved into the shadowy world of cognitive enhancers – a minefield of neuroethics.
It’s been a long day, your deadline is looming and you need a mental boost. It’s a familiar situation, and most of us wouldn’t think twice about reaching for the coffee for a mental pick-me-up, but what about drugs?
Cognitive enhancers are increasingly being used to increase mental performance and as a ‘lifestyle drug’, with a nature survey from 2008 indicating a proportion of students and even academics using cognitive enhancements to boost their brain power. Professor Barbara Sahakian, of the University of Cambridge, spoke about the increasing incidence of these substances in everyday life. Drugs such as modafinil, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year in sales, are largely used for ‘off label’ use, that is for uses other than what they are registered and legally prescribed for. Read more…
Before becoming a writer, I spent a year-and-a-half training as a science teacher and then working at a secondary school in Croydon. During my short stint in education, the biggest buzzword was “differentiation.” We were told that any given class contains pupils with a range of abilities, and that different children have different learning styles.
This second idea was drilled into us over and over again. Some children are visual learners, who acquire and process information best through images; others are auditory learners, who learn best by listening; and yet others are kinaesthetic learners, who learn best by doing physical activities. To be effective teachers, we had to try to establish each child’s preferred learning style, so that we could tailor our teaching style and materials accordingly.
The idea of learning styles is based on the theory of multiple of intelligences, developed in the early 1980s by psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University. Gardner claimed to have identified 7 distinct types of intelligences (visuo-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical), and that this “challenge[s] an educational system that assumes that everyone can learn from the same materials in the same way”.
Gardner has been expounding his theory, and pushing for educational reforms, ever since. He has been hugely successful: the learning styles approach became enshrined by educators, and was being promoted on the Department for Education website until as recently as 2007. Today, the concept is widely accepted, and is used in schools throughout the country.
It is, however, a myth.
Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that develops over many years, leading to impairments of movement and deficits in mental functioning. It affects around 130,000 people in the UK alone, and an estimated 7-10 million worldwide. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but drugs can effectively treat the symptoms in many patients, and researchers have been working hard over the past 20 years or so to develop stem cell treatments for it.
Anders Björklund of Lund University in Sweden, one of pioneers of using stem cells to treat Parkinson’s Disease, discussed progress in this approach, and the challenges it raises, in a public lecture at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience yesterday.
Parkinson’s is caused by the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in the midbrain. These cells regulate movement, and their death leads to the tremors, muscle rigidity and bradykinesia (or slowness of movement) that are characteristic of the disease.
“The challenge is to use stem cells to replace these neurons,” Björklund said. “This will take some time, as we have to understand the biology of stem cells, and what guides repair in the brain.”