Drugs that enhance cognition and new treatments for addiction could be with us in less than twenty years, according to a UK government-commissioned report.

Drugs that enhance cognition and new treatments for addiction could be with us in less than twenty years, according to a UK government-commissioned report. Better treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are also on the horizon.

The predictions - made in a report entitled Drugs futures 2025? - have just been released by the government’s science-led think-tank Foresight. 

’By examining challenging issues, such as brain science and addiction, scientists can help inform government and others by building a strong scientific evidence base. This will provide the best platform to help us prepare for the future,’ said the government’s chief scientist David King, leader of the group that published the report. 

The Office of Science and Technology commissioned 15 state-of-science reviews, on topics including drug testing, genomics, pharmacology, imaging and behavioural addiction. Foresight experts aim to use these findings to inform future research, industry investment and public policy. 

The report suggests that a better understanding of the brain, including its functions and performance, capacity and limitations, and how it affects our behaviour, will have a major impact on society. 

The government will now ask the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) to look at issues relating to society, health, safety and the environment raised in the report. There will also be opportunities for dialogue between experts and members of the public on issues raised by advances in brain science, mental health treatments and addiction.

The pharmaceutical review indicates that industry is cautious about the commercial viability of addiction drugs, and is concerned about the ethics of preventative treatments. However, it predicts that drugs to enhance executive function, decrease impulsivity, and reduce stress and craving are likely to be discovered anyway. Pharmaceutical companies expect a better understanding of sensitisation mechanisms and the role of inflammatory factors to yield improved pain drugs. Improved depression and anxiety drugs may also be with us in 5-10 years.   Although the report found that industry opposes drug development for non-medical use, the boundaries between medical and non-medical are blurring, potentially in the areas of sleep, mood, stress, anxiety, impulsivity and vigilance.

New synthetic recreational drugs will continue to be developed, either in illegal laboratories or by misappropriation of clinical drugs or research. Lab-on-a-chip technology could also be used for illicit drug manufacture. Newer drugs may provide similar effects to existing drugs whilst causing less harm. Drug testing technology must also develop quickly to keep pace with these innovations.

’There will be a nervousness about the abuse potential of new mood-altering drugs, a problem that just does not arise in any other therapeutic area,’ said Ian Ragan, director of CIR Consultancy, which provides consultancy services to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. ’The non-medical use of mood altering drugs not only undermines the credibility of the companies who develop and market them, but also affects the patients who really need them.’

Other research avenues include drugs that affect glutamate, the brain’s most widespread neurotransmitter. The recent discovery of a number of glutamate moderators may lead to drugs with specific effects on the glutamate system. Neuroscientists are already exploring direct electrical brain stimulation (sometimes effective in Parkinson’s disease), the use of stem cells, and antibodies to combat dementia. The growth of new brain tissue - neurogenesis - is a more controversial issue, but could be the key to new mood drugs since the brain’s feel-good chemical seratonin may be linked to natural processes of brain repair and re-growth. Helen Carmichael