Drugs for Better Chess?

12/21/2004 – A new generation of "smart pills" are here. An article in the Los Angeles Times talks about new drugs that help with performing mental tasks. Researchers even use games to measure the improvement from these "cognitive enhancers." Are you a few pills away from being a Grandmaster?

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New smart pills are here

A story at the Los Angeles Times by Melissa Healy discusses a new generation of drugs that have been shown to be effective in improving cognitive performance. Some excerpts from this fascinating article follow. Would a chessplayer taking such drugs be like a weightlifter taking steroids or should anything go as long as it's physically safe?

Many currently contend that since no drug has proven to help play better chess, drug-testing chessplayers is ridiculous. Yet we all know even common caffeine in a couple cups of coffee can make you sharper and stave off tiredness in a long game. It's very unlikely that any drug will ever make a 1600-player into a GM (sorry), or even turn a GM into a super-GM. But it seems inevitable that these drugs will have a positive effect on the play of at least some chessplayers.

Sharper minds

By Melissa Healy, Times Staff Writer

December 20, 2004

Participating in a research project, Stenger downed a green gelatin cap containing a drug called modafinil. Within an hour, his attention sharpened. So did his memory. He aced a series of mental-agility tests. If his brainpower would normally rate a 10, the drug raised it to 15, he said.

"I was quite focused," said Stenger. "It was also kind of fun."

The age of smart drugs is dawning. Modafinil is just one in an array of brain-boosting medications — some already on pharmacy shelves and others in development — that promise an era of sharper thinking through chemistry.

These drugs may change the way we think. And by doing so, they may change who we are.


The new mind-enhancing drugs, in contrast, hold the potential for more powerful, more targeted and more lasting improvements in mental acuity. Some of the most promising have reached the stage of testing in human subjects and could become available in the next decade, brain scientists say.

"It's not a question of 'if' anymore. It's just a matter of time," said geneticist Tim Tully, a researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., and developer of a compound called HT-0712, which has shown promise as a memory enhancer. The drug soon will be tested in human subjects.


Cambridge University psychologist Barbara Sahakian considers modafinil (marketed commercially under the name Provigil) especially intriguing. Its developers aren't sure exactly how it keeps drowsiness at bay. But even in healthy people, the medication appears to deliver measurable improvements with few side effects.

In a series of experiments in 2001, Sahakian and colleagues found that in games that test mental skill, subjects who took a 200-milligram dose of modafinil paid closer attention and used information more effectively than subjects given a sugar pill.

Confronted with conflicting demands, the people on modafinil moved more smoothly from one task to the next and adjusted their strategies of play with greater agility. In short, they worked smarter and were better at multi-tasking.

"In my mind, it may be the first real smart drug," Sahakian said. "A lot of people will probably take modafinil. I suspect they do already."


Judy Illes, a psychologist at Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics, said mind-enhancing medicine could become "as ordinary as a cup of coffee." This could be good for society, helping people learn faster and retain more, she said.

But it also raises questions: Will the rich get smarter while the poor fall further behind? (Drugs such as modafinil can cost as much as $6 per dose.)

Will people feel compelled to use the medications to keep up in school or in the workplace? In a world where mental function can be tweaked with a pill, will our notion of "normal intelligence" be changed forever?


Eventually, ambitious parents will start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children, said McGaugh, the UC Irvine neurobiologist.

"If there is a drug which is safe and effective and not too expensive for enhancing memory in normal adults, why not normal children?" he said. "After all, they're going to school, and what's more important than education of the young? And what would be more important than giving them a little chemical edge?"


The side effect that most neuroscientists fear is not physical discomfort, but subtle mental change. Over time, a memory-enhancing drug might cause people to remember too much detail, cluttering the brain.

Similarly, a drug that sharpens attention might cause users to focus too intently on a particular task, failing to shift their attention in response to new developments.

In short, someone who notices or remembers everything may end up understanding nothing.

Read the full article at the LA Times website


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