On 24 May 2000 Timothy Gowers of the Clay Mathematics Institute of Cambridge, MA announced seven prize problems in mathematics; each with a prize of US$ 1 million. In 2002, secretive Russian math’s genius, Dr Grigory Perelman, solved the Poincaré Conjecture.
In 2014, the Navier-Stokes Equations were solved by Professor Terence Tao of MIT. And now the Mills-Yang conjecture has given way before the three-year probing of ex-pop-star, Britney Spears.
How is it possible?
“Britney is quite gifted academically, but – obviously – not well known for her mathematics skills,” says Dr Michael Diabate of Cortex Pharmaceuticals.
“About five years ago, we discovered a unique pharma supplement that can unlock tremendous mental potential.”
The drug, code-named MX824, works by targeting glutamate in memory-forming brain circuits. The drug is an extension of Cortex’s first blockbuster CX717, which cures Alzheimer’s disease and has become a popular drug among academics and wealthy students. “MX824 goes further; by actively stimulating the cerebral processes, it allows significant mental acuity.”
MX824 is not cheap, requiring ongoing treatments costing US$ 4,000 per day. Fewer than 100 people are thought to be on the drug. Spears is reported to have started taking it four years ago.
Spears’s coup is the best advertising that Cortex could have hoped for. “We have been overwhelmed with requests. Universities are to fund treatment for their top academics. Corporations want to treat their top researchers and executives,” says Diabate.
For the moment, genius is limited only by the amount you are willing to spend to attain it.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
In the seminal short story, Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, Charlie Gordon documents his experiences following surgery designed to enhance his intelligence. Charlie gradually becomes one of the most intelligent people on earth before tragically suffering a reversion and dying. Keyes, however, had tapped into the curious pursuit of cognitive enhancement that has driven scientists to take unusual risks with their own lives.
On 19 April 1943, Swiss chemist, Dr Albert Hofmann of the Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, intentionally ingested 250ug of Lysergic acid diethylamide; LSD. Its hope as a mind-enhancing steroid has proven a disappointment, despite energetic disciples such as Timothy Leary.
However, the pursuit of synthesized drugs that would provide cognitive enhancement is still an area of tremendous activity.
The most popular of mental stimulants is still coffee, and the caffeine it contains. A survey by Nature, in 2008, indicates that large numbers of scientists take cognitive enhancers in order to concentrate and focus. Schizophrenics smoke a lot because nicotine controls their condition. Cancer patients often take marijuana to reduce pain and increase their appetite. And this is without discussing the vast number of athletic performance enhancing steroids.
Biotechnology promises to unlock a more focused crop of treatments that will offer tremendous enhancement to the mental acuity of its beneficiaries. When this happens, society will have to cope with the legal and social implications of such treatments, as well as the drugs itself.
2001 – 2008: Cognitive Enhancement goes to war
In 2001, on the eve of the US-led invasion into Afghanistan, soldiers are fortified with more than just guns and bullets. Many, especially the pilots, are on Provigil produced by Cephalon in the US. The drug is designed to treat narcolepsy but allows pilots to stay awake, and operational, for up to 85 hours at a time.
What works for the military soon becomes popular elsewhere. Scientists and stressed executives are soon pushing cognitive enhancers into off-label areas of use. Provigil is popular, but so too is Ritalin (usually prescribed for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder), Aricept (used to treat Alzheimer’s disease), and Adderall (used for both narcolepsy and ADHD).
2010: The rise of the Ampakines
One of the most widely awaited drugs is released in May 2010. Some analysts are reminded of the queues that first greeted the release of Apple’s iPhone in 2007. Ampakines are a class of compounds which enhance attention span and alertness, and facilitate learning and memory. CX717 by Cortex Pharmaceuticals was originally designed for those suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. It does that job extremely well. But that isn’t the reason why so many are running to their doctors for prescriptions.
Ampakines have few side-effects, do not cause sleeplessness and are found to be beneficial in a wide range of cognitive enhancements.
“Of course, we did realize that there would be tremendous off-label interest in our product,” says Dr Roger Stoll, CEO of Cortex. “We just didn’t realize how much.”
By the end of 2010 there is a six-month waiting list for CX717 and Cortex is building a second manufacturing plant.
2012: Are cognitive enhancing drugs illegal “performance enhancement”?>
The debate around biological enhancement is not new. The first legislation regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs were laid down in 1967 by the International Olympic Committee. A multi-billion dollar industry has grown up around this decision; from the drug-dealers who supply athletes with steroids, to the law-enforcement agencies and laboratories that attempt to halt the practice.
It has been a losing battle.
In 2012, after Michael Morales, a 15-year-old school-boy in California goes on to win the US National Spelling Bee, parents of Lisa Noble, the runner-up, reach for their lawyers. Morales is taking AmpiPlus, a competitor to CX717 produced by Indian generics company, Ranbaxy. “It is outrageous that this child should be allowed to win when he is clearly getting a performance enhancement from the drugs,” argue Lisa Noble’s parents.
The public outrage is loud. Then it deflates as parents consider that a drug with no side-effects offers such a tremendous impact.
“It did wonders for sales,” says a wryly smiling Ranjith Gopinathan, spokesman for Ranbaxy. By the end of 2012, there are 14 different forms of Ampakines on the market with factories planned across the world.
“Look,” says Dr Stoll, of Cortex Pharmaceuticals, “it certainly helps with cognition, but it isn’t going to make you a genius. Better memory, better concentration, no problem. Solving higher physics or math’s … well, we’re still a long way from that.”
2016: The end of a legal challenge
It becomes the secret advantage. By the end of 2015 it is estimated that 15% of US school-children are on some type of Ampakine. Math’s and science scores are up. Children seem to be enjoying education.
“We’re starting to head to the top of international league tables for educational scores,” says a plainly delighted Gerald Geoffreys, of the National Science and Technology Council.
In Europe, still averse to genomics and biotechnology, the numbers are lower at just over 5% of learners. Education ministers are concerned as they note that parents seeking a better education for their children are starting to send them to the US.
“For the past five years the US has been failing to attract the brightest minds. We saw a trend for people to go to Europe, or even China, to work in high-tech pursuits. All that is changing rapidly,” says Ariel Slater of the Inter-nation Science Monitoring Group.
China responds by subsidizing a home-grown Ampakine to their top 5% of best-performing learners.
A discussion ensues at the United Nations. In December 2016, the World Health Organization sets safe standards for the use and prescription of authorized Ampakines and releases guidelines to doctors and medical practitioners.
Ampakines are now scheduled for easier access to all.
2019: Planet of the Apes
“I would like to eat an apple, please,” says the laborious printed scrawl. Not high literature, but the writer is a seven-year-old chimpanzee named Lucy.
“She’s been on MX824 for a year now,” says Dr Harold Schipman of Cortex Pharmaceuticals research labs. “Her cognition seems to have reached its apex, but this is an astonishing advance.”
The drug is difficult to produce and can only be manufactured in very small quantities. “The likelihood of us going into mass-production on this is remote. It’s just too expensive,” says Dr Roger Stoll.
When news footage of Lucy is shown, the public is terrified. “Planet of the Apes”, the 1968 film starring Charlton Heston, is immediately downloaded 20 million times from iTunes and people are terrified that intelligent apes will take over the world.
“Pretty much impossible,” says Dr Schipman, “Lucy had already been trained from birth to sign and communicate, so this simply upped the ante. She has the intelligence of a seven-year-old child and that is as good as we can get it. Plus, the results aren’t genetically inheritable. Lastly, apes don’t breed as fast as humans.”
A few very wealthy patrons approach Cortex about further development and “request” that they be given access to treatment. It is unknown how many people start taking this unlicensed drug, but it is estimated to be about seven.
One of them is Britney Spears.
2023: Britney Spears and the Millennium Maths Prize
“Quite a few of my colleagues are outraged,” says Dr Peter Kronheimer of Harvard University, “but I think it’s brilliant for all of us.”
The response to Spear’s achievement is mixed but universities and private research institutions immediately recognize the opportunity. “It’s expensive, but think of the remarkable acceleration in breakthroughs we can achieve. I can’t wait,” says Dr Frank Wilczek, Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 2004.