There is an ongoing debate in the medical field on whether drugs can be used to enhance memory and assist humans with learning or improving skills. For instance, proponents of nootropics, also called "smart drugs," believe that we can learn languages faster or develop improved musical skills with the aid of medication. The controversial field arose after discoveries were inadvertently made with patients who were given mind-altering drugs that did not just ease their condition, but helped them to develop other skills.
A few months ago, an Atlantic report described a patient with "lazy eye" who showed signs of improvement after being given a drug called donepezil, which is typically prescribed for Alzheimer's. Even though the patient was not experiencing a memory problem, the treating clinicians sought to influence the patient's brain activity to accelerate learning as part of a clinical study at Boston Children's Hospital. "Lazy eye" can usually be solved through treatment undertaken before a person is 8 years old, but this patient did not receive such an intervention. In March of this year, the patient's mother reported that her daughter's "vision has improved markedly over the past four months" following the donepezil trial.
Another study from the Boston Children's team found that valproate, a drug intended for epileptics, facilitated the acquisition of skills for the identification of musical notes in tone-deaf subjects. However, Atlantic readers were also informed of the limitations of the valproate study: the sample size was small, and a genetic predisposition toward music might have been present among the 24 male subjects.
Are Drugs Really Effective?
The main reason why people in the medical field are promoting the use of drugs for faster language learning is because these drugs can alter brain functioning. Tests conducted on animals have shown significant memory improvement and this forms part of the basis of the belief that drugs can help people to learn—and, as discussed by experts at a Guardian panel last month, languages have been included in the discussion.
The reason why it is difficult for adults to learn something new is because there are brain functions that start to deteriorate with age. Experience has shown us that children tend to learn new skills more quickly, and this is why parents will encourage their kids to learn languages or musical instruments while their brains are immature. The fertile nature of the young brain underpins the effectiveness of smart drugs.
The Repercussions of Drug Use
As with all medication-based initiatives, negative repercussions—including those of a moral nature—have been identified in the ongoing nootropics debate. The results from exposing the brain to such drugs could go either way: humans may acquire the skills needed, or if it goes wrong, they might unlearn what they already know. Furthermore, the risks of developing other diseases and conditions are also very high. In terms of morality, prominent individuals, such as ShaoLan Hsueh—founder of chineasy.org—question the impact upon traditional notions of learning and the healthy development of intercultural awareness.
For now, doctors are focused on innovative treatment regimes rather than learning aids—mass distribution of smart drugs is still not being considered. Possibly of greater importance is the associated financial cost, as not everyone can spend a fortune to learn a language or play the piano. Perhaps the answer lies with writer Daniel Tammet, who sat on the Guardian panel and claimed that multilingualism is a greater handicap than Asperger's syndrome in some parts of the world.