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Ampakines can generally be defined as molecules that alter brain chemistry. This alteration of brain chemistry reportedly results in an increased attention span, better memory and learning power, and the ability to stay awake and alert. Ampakines are also being investigated as potential treatments for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, debilitating mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or severe depression, and Parkinson’s disease.
Glutamate is a crucial molecule in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter, or as a molecule that transmits signals throughout neurons. This molecule interacts with the glutametergic AMPA receptor to control processes like forming memories, learning, and communicating with other areas of the brain. Many neurological disorders with a variety of different symptoms are associated with problematic glutamate signaling, such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, indicating the importance of proper glutamate functioning.
Ampakines are named due to their ability to interact with the glutametergic AMPA receptor and enhance its function. In this way, they also enhance the activities of glutamate in the brain. There is great hope that the potential ability of ampakines to replace abnormal glutamate functioning will help people with neurological disturbances.
Several studies have been conducted on human subjects and showed that people who took an ampakine drug had better concentration and wakefulness under exhausting conditions than did subjects who took a placebo. This study also showed that although ampakines and stimulants such as caffeine and amphetamines appear to have a similar surface effect, the overall effects of these different drugs are much different. Ampakines can apparently produce mental wakefulness without the bad side effects usually associated with stimulants, such as trouble sleeping and shakiness.
The military has expressed interest in ampakines. These drugs might introduce a way for soldiers to remain alert and focused under adverse conditions. Military-ordered tests conducted on monkeys showed that well-rested monkeys could not perform as well on tests as monkeys that were extremely sleep-deprived but given an ampakine drug.
In addition to their potential role as a military drug or as a drug to relieve the symptoms of numerous neurological disorders, they might also help increase learning ability. For this reason, ampakine drugs are often jokingly referred to as “smart pills.” By enhancing memory formation and neuron communication, they could potentially enhance the depth and pace of learning. Finally, ampakines might serve as a completely new kind of aid for people with sleep disturbances; rather than serve as a drug to induce sleep, they would instead serve the purpose of erasing the adverse effects associated with lack of sleep.