Source: New Scientist
Date: 5 May 2005

New drug offers jitter-free mental boost

A new class of drug may increase alertness without any of the jitteriness of over-stimulation, suggest the results of a small clinical trial released this week.

A compound dubbed CX717, a member of the new class called ampakines, significantly improved performance on tests of memory, attention, alertness, reaction time and problem solving in healthy men deprived of sleep.

The study was carried out by Julia Boyle at the Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey, UK, and her colleagues on behalf of Cortex Pharmaceuticals Inc., based in Irvine, California, US.

During the trial, 16 healthy young males were randomly assigned to take either 100 milligrams, 300 mg or 1000 mg of the drug, or given a placebo. By the end of the experiment, each volunteer had been assigned to all of the experimental groups, thus producing his own control scores.

The volunteers were hooked up to EEGs to measure brain wave activity and were put through a battery of tests. The first round of each session was after a good night’s sleep. Thereafter, they were tested every few hours throughout a sleepless night and into the next morning, during a total of 27 hours without rest.

The researchers found that the drug significantly improved performance on tests. And taking more of the drug improved performance for longer.

Short half-life

Ampakines work by binding to particular receptors in the brain, called AMPA-type glutamate receptors. This boosts the activity of glutamate, a neurotransmitter, and makes it easier to encode memory and to learn. And because of their short half-life - hours in this case - ampakines have few side effects.

The drug, which will have to undergo further clinical trials before being approved, is being considered as a possible treatment for narcolepsy, jet lag, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even Alzheimer’s disease.

But it clearly has effects in the healthy population as well. “It generates a state of cortical wakefulness without stimulation,” says Gary Lynch at the University of California at Irvine, who invented ampakines.

Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, US, sees no particular problem with people using such a drug to combat age-related memory loss. “Stimulating your brain with a reminder on a handheld digital device doesn’t seem that different to me from stimulating your brain with a drug,” he says.

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