Future Tech: Smart pills

Tablets to top up on brain power? T3 investigates...

Future questions answered, definitively

We’ve all been waiting for certain tech to be invented and, largely thanks to Hollywood, our hopes have been built and built but constantly dashed. So fed up without any actual answers, we’ve took it upon ourselves to answer 10 of the classic tech questions once and for all.

We've already taken a look at the possibility of driverless cars the notion of flying cars, and food in a pill. Next up under the microscope: Smart pills.

What's the big idea?

To feed the mind, quite literally. Drugs are emerging that have a proven impact on your intellect, manipulating hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain to improve memory, verbal fluency and concentration. Also emerging is a willingness to pop these smart pills to increase your exam grades or give a better presentation.

What's happening right now?

Prescription drugs like Aderall and Modafinil, which have been shown to have positive cognitive effects can now be purchased on the internet. “I know academics who use them to beat jet lag,” says Professor Barbara Sahakian, who studies the drugs at Cambridge. “In the UK, an informal survey found that 10% of students were also using cognitive enhancing drugs.” There seems to be a strangely relaxed attitude towards them. But since there is no way of knowing exactly what drugs you're getting online, Sahakian thinks that before they become legitimised, Big Pharma has to prove there are no long-term medical consequences.

What's the hold up?

There are no long-term studies on what smart pills do if taken regularly, but the biggest questions are ethical, not medical. “A <Nature> survey found that most people believed you shouldn't give these drugs to children,” Sahakian says. “Nevertheless, 30% said they would feel coerced to give them to their own children if they knew that everyone else in their class was taking them.” If you got a job on the back of a smart pill, would you be required to keep taking them?

When could we see it?

New drugs are already being designed, but you're not likely to see conversational Mandarin ever come in pill form (although if brain-computer interfaces take off, you might be able to download it). However, Sahakian thinks a pharmacy shelf that contains pills for numeracy, creativity or attention is possible in the coming decades. “We have an ageing population. People might have to keep working for longer because the retirement age is being increased and pensions aren't performing as well as we'd like. It could actually give us a competitive advantage.”

Timeline: 2025

Stay tuned to T3.com for more future tech questions answered

- Future Tech: Will we ever see driverless cars?

- Future Tech: Will we ever see a flying car?

- Future Tech: Food in a pill: One meal all in one?