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Cambridge Neuroscientist Professor Barbara Sahakian discusses her research in BBC2's Horizon programme ‘Pill Poppers’

The BBC 2 Horizon programme 'Pill Poppers' (broadcasted on the 20th January, 2010) questioned our pill popping culture, presented the benefits and side effects of prescribed drugs, the potential for addiction and our fight against natural human evolution.

The programme featured Cambridge Neuroscientist Professor Barbara Sahakian (Department of Psychiatry) discussing the increasing prevalence of cognitive enhancers used by healthy people to boost their memory and attention.

This insightful, and at times alarming, programme described the clinical serendipitous process of drug discovery: exemplified by the accidental discovery of Viagra by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer: originally developed for angina but with the surprising side effect of penile erection, 6 tablets of Viagra are now sold for penile dysfunction every second. But are such drugs really necessary for so many people?

Horizon explored the questionable safety of taking a pill when the side effects can, in some cases, only be identified after the drug is licensed and in wide spread use (for example, the antidepressant Seroxat was found to result in increased risk of anxiety and suicidal tendencies for some patients. This side effect was only discovered after the drug was prescribed to thousands of people).

The programme featured Cambridge Neuroscientist Professor Barbara Sahakian (pictured left, working at the Department of Psychiatry) discussing the increasing prevalence of cognitive enhancers, such as modafinil and methylphenidate, being taken by healthy individuals to improve concentration and memory. Barbara presented research being conducted here at Cambridge aimed at improving our understanding of how cognitive enhancers exert their effects.

Methylphenidate was originally prescribed to children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to improve their concentration. It is now being bought, over the internet, by healthy individuals to improve their cognition, and reported to be taken by 1 in 10 students at the University of Cambridge. 

Barbara’s group studied the effects of such cognitive enhancers on behaviour and the flow of blood to the brain. Her research demonstrates that cognitive enhancers such as modafinil do improve spatial working memory in healthy volunteers, in addition to increasing efficacy in neural networks in the brain. But Barbara questions the societal long term effects of such cognitive enhancers - will they actually enhance our lives? Or simply turn us into a 24 / 7 society and disrupt our work, life balance further?

Horizon additionally presented the current revolution in medicine – pills prescribed for those potentially at risk, but not yet presenting, diseases (such as Statins - prescribed to lower cholesterol and decrease the risk of strokes and heart disease for those at risk of developing these conditions). But how do you define who is at risk? How do you define 'normal'? And do the side effects outweigh the potential benefits?

As a society we are increasingly resorting to a quick fix pills. But is this wise? In correspondance after this programme Barbara points out that "alternative methods for improving our cognition and quality of life exist - including physical exercise (such dancing, jogging, walking) or keeping ourselves mentally active (for example learning a new language, gaining information technology skills and taking a stimulating continuing education course)".

The Horizon programme concluded by presenting the last pill we may take in our lives – a pill designed to kill you, taken as and when you decide - a chilling thought.

To watch this informative Horizon episode on BBC iPlayer please click here (available until the 7th April, 2010).

Article written by Cambridge Neuroscience Coordinator, Dr. Hannah Critchlow.


Posted on 22/01/2010

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