A drug commonly prescribed to Alzheimer's disease patients boosts perceptual learning in healthy adults, neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have found.
In a new study, researchers found that study participants showed significantly greater benefits from practice on a task that involved discriminating directions of motion after they took donepezil, sold under the brand name Aricept, compared with a placebo.
Neither the researchers nor the participants knew whether they were taking the placebo or donepezil, a cholinesterase inhibitor that enhances the effects of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain.
Cholinesterase inhibitors act by blocking an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine.
Acetylcholine is known to play an important role in mediating visual attention and, in animal studies, has been found to promote changes in the brain that are associated with learning.
Donepezil, like other cholinesterase inhibitors, is used to treat early stages of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Previous research on donepezil has focused primarily on its beneficial effects on quality of life and clinical symptoms in patient populations.
However, little was known about the specific cognitive processes that are enhanced by this drug.
"We wanted to better understand the biological mechanisms that underlie the ability to learn new tasks and to shed light on which specific neural processes are being enhanced by donepezil," said the study's principal investigator, Michael Silver, UC Berkeley assistant professor of optometry and neuroscience.
"This is the first study to show that donepezil can enhance learning of a new skill, even in normal, healthy people."
The study has been published online in the journal Current Biology.