Better nootropic cognitive enhancers coming
Modafinil is but one of a dozen or so “neural enhancers” currently available in pharmacies that scientists say could enhance athletic performance. Popping FDA-approved Parkinson’s meds and antidepressants might not seem like cheating, but studies suggest that a positive mental attitude improves mental focus, contributing to superior performance. Extra serotonin may foster a more positive mood, while both dopamine and norepinephrine seem to enhance motor control and muscle reaction time.
“Within the next few years, we’ll see the second generation of these drugs,” says Mark Gordon, an endocrinologist in Los Angeles. “Like all second-generation drugs, they will be stronger, longer-lasting, and have fewer side effects.” The pharmaceutical industry makes a fortune on these drugs, so nearly every major company has a brain booster or two in the works.
In lab tests, two injections of one mysostatin blocker produced a permanent 50 percent muscle gain in mice. “Just about every major pharmaceutical company is developing a myostatin-blocking drug to treat muscle-wasting diseases like muscular dystrophy,” Lee says. Because these medicines will use traditional antibody-based drug-delivery methods, a myostatin inhibitor could be on the market in five years.
“Developing techniques that really work has been much harder than people first thought,” says Theodore Friedmann, director of the Human Gene Therapy Program at the University of California at San Diego and a consultant for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). There have been a few successes with gene therapy—in 2000, scientists “cured” severe combined-immune-deficiency syndrome in nine infants. It may take five years to work out issues for reliable enhancement.
Stem cell therapy and Engineered Stem cells
The potential uses of stem-cell therapy seem endless: from treating cancer and neurological diseases, to increasing muscle mass and bone density in the weak, to cultivating new organs in petri dishes.
“We can already make adult stem cells form muscle,” says Chris Evans, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School. “But how to deliver stem cells to the appropriate muscle, and how to get that muscle to integrate these newcomers and gain additional function, remains a mystery.” Scientists expect this barrier to fall in a decade.
Similarly stem cells can be made to form brain cells.
Getting into the Zone
Athletes get the “in-the-zone” feeling where they have the sense that they can accomplish anything. When Boston Celtic Larry Bird talked about the game seeming to actually slow down during crunch time, helping him to read defenses more clearly and feel more fleet-footed, he was probably experiencing a natural dopamine high. Dopamine increases muscle-reaction speed and alters the perception of time. But these flow states, as they’re known among psychologists, are probably triggered by a surge of several mindscrambling, euphoria-inducing, reflex-quickening neurochemicals, such as norepinephrine and serotonin.
In 2004, neuroscientist Arne Dietrich, then at the Georgia Institute of Technology, identified anandamine—the body’s version of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana—as the chemical most likely responsible for flow states. This theory received a boost this spring, when scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany found elevated levels of endorphins in the brains of test subjects. These molecules are too big to penetrate the blood-brain barrier on their own, so the current thinking is that anandamine ferries them in and that it’s the endorphins that provide the actual high. Still, most scientists think there are other neurochemicals in play, and figuring out the exact combination may take years.