Neuroenhancement's Mainstream Moment May Be Here

John Watson


March 09, 2017

In This Article

Marketing Mind Enhancement

It is these and other analyses that form the basis of the products being offered by companies such as Nootrobox®, a Silicon Valley startup that emerged in 2014 to combine and commercialize what was once largely the purview of biohacker hobbyists.

"Obviously, there's a huge universe of possible compounds," said Geoffrey Woo, CEO of Nootrobox. "There are a number of online communities where biohackers are (reporting on their experiments) with different compounds, supplements, and off-label things to enhance their productivity, cognition. We looked at all the n=1, self-experimenter information published by individual biohackers, and we collated that against the peer-reviewed literature, focusing on compounds defined by the FDA as GRAS [generally regarded as safe]."

Woo clarified, "We are not selling pharmaceuticals, we are not dealing with drugs, we are not looking at medicine. We are looking at bringing people from healthy states to enhanced states."

The business-medicine divide of this endeavor is clear when one considers that Nootrobox's original pitch was made to America in the form of the popular investment program Shark Tank. The celebrity panel took a pass, but millions of dollars of seed money arrived nonetheless from a bevy of well-known investors who have had their hands in several Silicon Valley success stories (eg, Facebook, Airbnb).[7]

Although funding is crucial, for nootropics to separate themselves from mere supplements, they must submit to traditional scientific analysis. To that end, Nootrobox is running an RCT (NCT02857829) at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. The three-arm trial will position one of the company's nootropic products against both placebo and caffeine, using a primary outcome measure of the number of recalled words in a verbal word learning task. The company expects to publish its results later this year.

The Ethics of Self-experimentation

Even if nootropic producers can demonstrate the safety and efficacy of their over-the-counter formulations, it is likely that the larger neuroenhancing movement will come under increasing scrutiny as it steps further into the spotlight.

One feature sure to disturb neurologists and regulatory authorities alike is how fundamental the role of self-experimentation remains to biohacking. Online message boards routinely feature long threads of anonymous individuals trading their experiences with chemicals, sometimes in untested combinations, right down to preferred dosages.

"The gold standard is big sample sizes, double-blinded RCTs," said Woo. "But I think there are a lot of things that are generally regarded as safe, which these hobbyists tinker with at the edge, learning and reporting in. There is clearly value for citizen science, where in a lot of ways we can distribute out research."

But the libertarian ethos upon which the biohacking community thrives may prove a poor fit for the impossibly dense and sensitive system that is our neurochemistry.

"Ingesting products that have not been subjected to randomized trials for the purpose of enhancing one's cognition is fraught with risk," said Dr Larriviere. "Cognition is the product of a complex set of systems, each with a varying degree of efficiency. Disturbance of function (even with intent of improving) can have short-term and long-term consequences. 'Crowd-sourcing' response and side effects does not prevent these consequences from occurring."


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