StreetTalk: Memory Drugs: "Viagra for the Brain"

Memory-enhancing drugs are in the pipelines of several biopharmaceutical companies, and Alzheimers and MS patients may be the first beneficiaries of the technology
Nov 01, 2005
Volume 18, Issue 11

Brian O'Connell
If the 1990s were the vanguard of the sexual stimulant revolution, will the 2000s go down in history as the age of the memory-enhancing drug?

An impressive line-up of biopharmaceutical firms think so. Companies like Memory Pharmaceuticals, Sention, Saegis Pharmaceuticals, and Cortex Pharmaceuticals all have memory-enhancing programs in the pipeline.

Imagine, as The Washington Post put it recently, a pill that not only banishes the senior moments of aging baby boomers, but drugs that could improve the SAT scores of your high school teenager by 200 points or more.

The life sciences industry is tantalizingly close to pulling it off. And if they do, the stock of companies like the ones listed above will go through the roof, just as the makers of Viagra and Levitra did (Pfizer and GlaxoSmith Kline, respectively).

Is it time to get in to the memory drug market now? Hard to say. But it is growing increasingly clear that clinical researchers are beginning to crack the code surrounding the molecular details of how memory works.


According to a recent article on, much of the hard work in decoding memory neurons has already been completed. "(Life sciences firms) have taken a crucial first step: identifying the genes and proteins inside brain cells that regulate memory formation," says the article. "They are tantalizingly close to creating a kind of Viagra for the brain: a chemical that reinvigorates an organ that has faded with age. This new generation of drugs could mend memory loss in the seriously ill or the merely absentminded."

According to Eric Kandel, the founder of Memory Pharmaceuticals who has been working on memory-enhancing drugs since the 1950s, the end is in sight for a solution.

"My friends keep asking when the little red pill is coming," he tells "If we continue making the kind of progress we are now, we will have drugs for age-related memory loss in five to ten years," he says. And it could come sooner. Researchers at New York-based Helicon Therapeutics say they hope to launch human trials for memory improvement drugs by 2007.

The list of markets for memory-enhancing drugs is long and lucrative enough to make the most cynical Wall Street trader drool. Imagine the four million Americans suffering from Alzheimers disease steadily getting their memories back? Or about head trauma sufferers or stroke patients who couple memory drugs with cognitive therapies to regain their memories and recognize their loved ones once again?

According to the website, roughly one third of all people age 60 and over suffer from memory and recall woes. And the good news that more Americans are living longer has an unpleasant side effect — about one quarter of people age 85 and over are afflicted with dementia, which the site defines as "the loss of memory and cognitive function and an inability to understand words, carry out motor activities, and recognize or identify objects."

Then there is the mother lode. Memory drugs could be manna from heaven for those 76 million baby boomers who would welcome a drug that forestalls the onslaught of memory loss and the onset of one of aging's most nefarious side effects – if only to remember where they left their Viagra.

James McGaugh, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine tells, "Drug companies won't tell you this, but they are really gunning for the market of unimpaired people — the 44-year-old salesman trying to remember the names of his customers."