Brain Hacking: Are We Meant to Be Limitless?

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Electrocuting your brain, compounding chemicals at your kitchen counter, chewing coffee cubes. These are just some of the examples of how desperate we have become as a culture to obtain an edge, whether it be enhancing memory, attention, motivation, creativity or a combination of these. We are obsessed with boosting our brain power and exploiting its untapped potential.

There is a whole culture of folks devoted to developing and marketing gizmos and gadgets galore to very hungry millennials who are increasingly feeling the pressure of maintaining a competitive edge in the workplace.

Enter nootropics a new brand of artillery that has emerged to enhance cognitive function. They fall under the umbrella of lifestyle drugs. The term "lifestyle drug" is a way of defining a drug that is a choice because it might improve your life, function or appearance, as opposed to a drug you might take because you need to cure something or manage an illness.

A quick Google search for Nootropics reveals 744,000 websites that offer supplements, discussion forums, articles on what is clearly a very hot topic. The main purpose of these drugs is to enhance productivity and sharpen focus, and it is all the rage especially in places like Silicon Valley. The added benefit is that they are not supposed to trigger the jittery sensation that results from consuming excess coffee or taking a prescription stimulant medication, such as Ritalin or Adderall.

Some people share recipes on the Internet for turning their own homes into personal compounding pharmacies. The ingredients are only loosely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (like almost all dietary supplements thanks to Dietary Supplement and Health Act of 1994) and therefore would not be difficult to procure.

And if that s not your thing, you can always purchase them over the counter through companies like Nootrobox which claims to have nutrients for your brain. The following is from its website:

Nootropics describe a broad classification of compounds with cognitive enhancing properties, with minimal side-effects, that are appropriate for long-term use. These compounds can include synthetic analogs of naturally occuring chemicals, neurologically active compounds already produced in the human body (such as neurotransmitters), and chemicals found in nature some of which we already consume in foods such as B vitamins, caffeine, and L-theanine.

It all sounds pretty benign, right? The truth is, we don t know. And just like anything else that has not undergone clinical trials, it would be impossible to say that these we ll call them supplements won t have deleterious side-effects. There are no clinical data to support that such supplements do augment our cognitive capacity.

A good point is made by Steven Novella, in an article published in Science-Based Medicine.

Enhancing acetycholine (the primary neurotransmitter involved in memory formation) may enhance memory, but what if there is already plenty of acetylcholine and the limiting factor in memory function is something else entirely? This is probably why we cannot extrapolate from a disease state to a healthy state the limiting factors on function are likely different."

But that doesn t mean we shouldn t do our research. I m all for pumping up my brain.

Some people wouldn t mind playing guinea pig and trying out untested concoctions on themselves. The problem is that I've got one brain and it s a pretty important organ and before I go around tinkering with things, I d want to make as certain as possible that what I m about to take won t cause some horrible and irreversible damage all so I can come out the winner in a rat race.