A “memory pill” that could aid exam revision and help to prevent people forgetting important anniversaries may soon be available over the counter.
The medicine has been designed originally to help treat Alzheimer’s disease, but could be adapted and licensed for sale in a weaker form within the next few years.
One brand of memory-enhancing pill is being developed by the multinational company AstraZeneca in collaboration with Targacept, an American company, while Epix Pharmaceuticals, also from the US, is developing another.
Both have “cognitive-enhancing effects” which are aimed at treating patients with age-related memory loss.
Steven Ferris, a neurologist and former committee member of the Food and Drug Administration in the US, has predicted that a milder version will be available for healthy consumers as a “lifestyle pill” available over the counter.
Dr Ferris said: “My view is that one could gain approval, provided you showed the drugs to be effective and safe. It could be a huge market.”
There is anecdotal evidence that mind-improving drugs are already being taken in Britain by healthy users.
Provigil, used to treat narcolepsy, is being taken by some students to help them stay awake, while Adderall XR and Ritalin, treatments for attention deficit disorder, are being used to help promote concentration.
A spokesman Adderall XR said: “We get a lot of calls from college campuses asking about it.
“There are risks though. It can raise blood pressure, people shouldn’t do it.”
The Department of Health said it was not illegal to buy the medicines over the internet, but it was not recommended.
Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge, said: “It’s hard to quantify the scale of the phenomenon but it’s definitely catching on.
“The reality is we’re not always at our best. After being up at night looking after the kids or traveling, many people would love to have something to sharpen them up. It’s not taboo to drink Red Bull. The principle with cognition enhancers is not so different.”