Time for a clever pill

Shake off that hangover drowsiness with the help of an experimental drug

Last weekend was exhausting. I stayed out late on Friday and Saturday nights. I drank too much. On Sunday, I got up early and drove a long way to see a football match. My team lost. By Monday, what I really wanted was some CX717.

I can't have it right now, as CX717 is an experimental drug. Its developer - Cortex Pharmaceuticals of California - is keeping a tight hold on it. Clinical trials are being run to test its safety - thousands of them at any one time - yet there is a buzz about CX717 already. It'll be years before it hits the market, but people, including me, want it already.

We want CX717 because it appears to wipe out that slow-thinking drowsiness that a lack of sleep brings on. It's early days, but initial experiments show that sleep-deprived monkeys given CX717 perform as well on cognitive tests as those who had slept soundly. The results are exciting enough to have landed Cortex research papers in top-ranked scientific journals. Humans seem to benefit as well, and none of the experiments has revealed any serious side-effects.

Results like this are enough to have investors throwing millions at Cortex. But there is another side to the drug that could turn it into an even bigger earner. CX717 doesn't just make you think better when you're tired. It makes you think better when you're not. In other words, it makes you cleverer.

Just how much cleverer is something that will become clear as the drug is tested. It may be little more than the sharper thinking and better recall we get from coffee. It may be noticeably more than that. In a sense it doesn't matter, because CX717 is only one of several drugs being developed to do the same thing. It's likely that at least one will clear safety testing and hit the market in the next five years or so.

So why aren't we talking about all this? There are big questions to be answered. Will employees be pressured into taking drugs in order to work longer hours? What if students want to take them but only the rich ones can afford to? Should less affluent students be given them, for example? Or should we just relax: if a drug can make us more alert without harming us, isn't that a good thing?

One reason why we're not talking about this is that CX717 is not marketed as a clever pill; it's being tested as a treatment for brain disorders, including Alzheimer's. Yet, if it gets approval, something interesting is likely to happen. Doctors, particularly in the US, could prescribe the drug for people who simply want a pick-me-up. Internet pharmacies could make it available to anyone. The same has happened with Viagra; originally licensed as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, it is now used by couples who just want more of a good thing.

But drugs such as CX717 shouldn't enter the market under the radar. As the think-tank Demos has pointed out, technologies should be discussed at an early stage of development, not moments before they are deployed. Cortex, and other drugs companies, need to come clean about their products and sponsor such a debate. CX717 sounds a good product. I'd just like to hear all sides of the story before it hits the pharmacy shelves.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war