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Pharmacological enhancement of memory or cognition in normal subjects


The possibility of expanding memory or cognitive capabilities above the levels in high functioning individuals is a topic of intense discussion among scientists and in society at large. The majority of animal studies use behavioral endpoint measures; this has produced valuable information but limited predictability for human outcomes. Accordingly, several groups are pursuing a complementary strategy with treatments targeting synaptic events associated with memory encoding or forebrain network operations. Transcription and translation figure prominently in substrate work directed at enhancement. Notably, the question of why new proteins would be needed for a now-forming memory given that learning-driven synthesis presumably occurred throughout the immediate past has been largely ignored. Despite this conceptual problem, and some controversy, recent studies have reinvigorated the idea that selective gene manipulation is a plausible route to enhancement. Efforts to improve memory by facilitating synaptic encoding of information have also progressed, in part due of breakthroughs on mechanisms that stabilize learning-related, long-term potentiation (LTP). These advances point to a reductionistic hypothesis for a diversity of experimental results on enhancement, and identify under-explored possibilities. Cognitive enhancement remains an elusive goal, in part due to the difficulty of defining the target. The popular view of cognition as a collection of definable computations seems to miss the fluid, integrative process experienced by high functioning individuals. The neurobiological approach obviates these psychological issues to directly test the consequences of improving throughput in networks underlying higher order behaviors. The few relevant studies testing drugs that selectively promote excitatory transmission indicate that it is possible to expand cortical networks engaged by complex tasks and that this is accompanied by capabilities not found in normal animals.

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