With uncanny echoes of the modern interest in ‘cognitive enhancers’, a 1958 edition of Popular Science hails a new drug that “tunes up the brain” allowing us “to perform at peak efficiency all the time”.
The drug is iproniazid, marketed then as Marsilid. It was the first ever antidepressant, but the concept of an ‘antidepressant’ had yet to be created by the pharmaceutical companies and instead it is described as ‘psychic energizer’.
It was originally used a treatment for tuberculosis, as it stops the bacterial infection, but it was noticed that patients treated with iproniazid seemed to have a lift in mood at low doses and risked becoming confused and psychotic at higher doses.
At the time, the only widely used psychiatric drugs were tranquilisers, and the idea that a drug might be an ‘anti-tranquiliser’ was quite puzzling. It was trialled on some patients with diagnoses of mental illness patients and then marketed as a ‘psychic energizer’.
According to David Healy’s book (p66) on the history of drug treatments for depression, The Antidepressant Era, this label came from the discoverers trying to interpret its effects in Freudian terms – in which ‘psychic’ is used broadly to mean ‘psychological':
Kline and Ostow speculated that as psychic conflicts all involved the binding of psychic energy in various different ways and as a great deal of ego energy went into binding instinctual (or id) energy down to produce a range of inhibited states, it was conceivable that a drug that took energy away from the ego might lead to liberation of instinctual energy – it might be a psychic energizer.
However, the drug was rapidly taken off the market as it was found to damage the liver to the point where a number of patients died of hepatitis.
The Popular Science article is interesting because it is remarkably similar to modern day articles on cognitive enhancers – relating it’s effects to improving performance rather than treating an illness and musing over whether healthy people should take drugs to make them ‘better than well’.
Therefore, let’s imagine that a few years from now there is a psychic energizer known to be completely harmless. And suppose its effect on body chemistry is perfectly normal and natural. In that case, what about the healthy person who just want more vim and vigor to go dancing?
“Well”, Dr Kline answers, “why not?” After all, nobody sees anything wrong about a dentist working to give perfect teeth. Why shouldn’t a doctor try to give perfect metabolism?
Or perfect tits, as the comparison more commonly goes in the 21st century.
It’s an interesting insight into how the drug companies were trying to find a place in the market for their puzzling new compounds in the 1950s and another demonstration of how concerns about ‘cognitive enhancers’ are as old as drugs themselves.
Link to Popular Science article ‘New Drugs to Tune Up Our Brains’.