What if you could pop a pill that made you smarter? It sounds like a Hollywood movie plot, but a new systematic review suggests that the decades-long search for a safe and effective “smart drug” (see below) might have notched its first success. Researchers have found that modafinil boosts higher-order cognitive function without causing serious side effects.
Modafinil, which has been prescribed in the U.S. since 1998 to treat sleep-related conditions such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea, heightens alertness much as caffeine does. A number of studies have suggested that it could provide other cognitive benefits, but results were uneven.
Research that looked at the drug’s effects on the performance of simple tasks—such as pressing a particular button after seeing a certain color—did not detect many benefits.
Yet studies that asked participants to do complex and difficult tasks after taking modafinil or a placebo found that those who took the drug were more accurate, which suggests that it may affect “higher cognitive functions—mainly executive functions but also attention and learning,”
a 2008 survey by the journal Nature found that one in five of its readers had taken brain-boosting drugs, and half those people had used modafinil
trials have not yet been done on modafinil’s long-term effectiveness or safety. Studies of the drug have been “carried out in a controlled scientific environment and usually only looked at the effects of a single dose,” explains Oxford neuropsychologist and review co-author Anna-Katharine Brem—so no one yet knows whether it is safe for long-term use in healthy people. Nor is it known whether modafinil might lose its edge with repeated use, a phenomenon familiar to many coffee drinkers.
Side effects are another important consideration. Modafinil has been shown to cause insomnia, headache and stomachache in some users. Although these kinds of problems may be worth enduring for a drug that treats an illness, “if you don’t have a medical condition, the risks versus benefits change dramatically,”
CHILDREN AND TEENS. Cognition-enhancing drugs could present unique risks to the developing brain. Several clinical trials found modafinil to be safe when given to children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but the trials lasted only a few months, making it difficult to ascertain the potential effects of long-term use. In a 2014 review article examining the biochemical effects of modafinil and other common “smart drugs,” researchers at the University of Delaware and Drexel University raised concerns that the use of these drugs could affect the developing brain’s ability to adapt to new situations and might increase the risk for addictive behaviors.
“There is a double standard: many developed countries host or support jurisdictions where there is an absence of financial transparency,” says Alex Cobham of Tax Justice Network.
Switzerland leads the ranking with its almost impenetrable tradition of secrecy in banking, even if – under international pressure – it has recently made some concessions towards identifying the owners of accounts linked to international tax evasion investigations.
Hong Kong follows hot on Switzerland’s heels in the ranking. The former British colony, now a special administrative region of China, is of “great concern”, according to the Tax Justice Network.
The Panama Papers reveal that nearly one third of Mossack Fonseca’s business came from its offices in Hong Kong and China – making China the firm’s biggest market and Hong Kong the company’s busiest office.
Hong Kong allows so-called bearer shares, which facilitate the movement of funds without knowing to whom the money belongs.
Within US borders and just a stone’s throw from the White House, the east coast state of Delaware is home to around 945,000 firms, which equates to almost one for each resident.
Delaware is one of four US states – the others are Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming – that have been criticised for their lax financial regulation. Many of the firms are suspected of being “ghost companies”.
Transparency International, an anti-corruption campaigning movement, describes the state as a “transnational crime haven”.
Although the Cayman Islands are self-governing, they are a British Overseas Territory.
The Tax Justice Network’s Alex Cobham suggests that if such dependencies are included in the British ranking, it would place the UK at the very top of the list.
Another UK Overseas Territory – the British Virgin Islands – features strongly in the Panama Papers. More than twice as many companies involved in the leak are registered there than in Panama.
Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics estimates that tax havens collectively hide a sixth of the world’s total private wealth.
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