Possible Medical Application of a Smart Drug

Cognitive enhancers, also known as nootropics, are a category of drugs with the ability to increase mental performance. Many rave about such “smart drugs” helping them to study, take tests, or increase work performance. Ginkgo biloba, piracetam, and vinpocetine are some popular cognitive enhancers, all with varying mechanisms of action in the human brain. For example, Ginko biloba increases blood circulation; the simple idea regarding its effect is that increased blood circulation results in a more energized brain. Still, the FDA has not yet confirmed how effective any of these “smart drugs” are; as a result, cognitive enhancers are presently deemed supplements.

However, even without the verification of the FDA, cognitive enhancers have supporters in the scientific and medical community. Psychiatrist Daniel G. Amen in Magnificent Mind at Any Age, states that after taking images of thousands of patient’s brains, the most “beautiful” brains are those on ginkgo biloba. He also routinely suggests to his patients that they take piracetam or vinpocetine to increase mental acuity. Particularly, vinpocetine, derived from periwinkle leaves, has been proven by researchers to stimulate brain plasticity.  Plasticity is the ability of our brains to allow our nerve cells to grow and change in response to memory retrieval, learning, and development.

Since vinpocetine has been proven in studies to enhance the plastic functions of the normal brain, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University hypothesized that it may also aide in correcting developmental impairments such as those brought on by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Researchers Alexander Medina and colleagues created a study that examined brain plasticity in ferrets emulating FAS. The scientists tested to see how each ferret’s brain would respond to having only one working eye. In past studies on cats, suturing one eye shut demonstrated that the cells of the working eye take over the inactive brain cells of the sutured eye. The process is much like a person who gains better hearing as a result of being blind. Accordingly, researchers prepared two groups of FAS ferrets, one that underwent no treatment and one that received a dosage of vinpocetine.

Medina’s study found that the group of FAS ferrets receiving no treatment did not show the plasticity typical of normal brains; that is, they were unable to take over their deprived brain cells. However, ferrets emulating FAS and undergoing vinpocetine treatment remarkably functioned like normal brains; the working eye was able to assimilate the cells of the closed eye. Since enhanced nerve cell growth was shown in such a dramatic example as the ability of one eye to become stronger when another eye is blinded, the researchers concluded that vinpocetine could potentially aid more subtle brain defects like the impairments brought on by FAS.

These findings suggest the first clinical application of cognitive enhancers. However, being the first study on the topic, this research must be taken speculatively. Vinpocetine supporters have claimed in the past that the drug could potentially treat the brain degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s disease. However, a recent Cochran review deemed results from such studies to be negligible. Still, FAS is very different from Alzheimer’s disease.

Due to vinpocetine, the unfortunate child of someone who abused alcohol would not have to needlessly suffer because of his or her parent’s carelessness. This infliction that has been without possibility of medical treatment now has a potentially viable solution in drugs used in the past as mere study aids.


Amen, Daniel G. Magnificent Mind at Any Age: Natural Ways to Unleash Your Brain’s Maximum Potential. Harmony. 2008 Dec 2.

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Medina AE, Krahe TE, & Ramoa AS (2006). Restoration of neuronal plasticity by a phosphodiesterase type 1 inhibitor in a model of fetal alcohol exposure. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 26 (3), 1057-60 PMID: 16421325

Molnár P, & Gaál L (1992). Effect of different subtypes of cognition enhancers on long-term potentiation in the rat dentate gyrus in vivo. European journal of pharmacology, 215 (1), 17-22 PMID: 1516646

Szatmari SZ, & Whitehouse PJ (2003). Vinpocetine for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (1) PMID: 12535455

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a honors student at Temple University studying many aspects of neuroscience including neuropharmacology, brain plasticity, and abnormal psychology.
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