Cognitive Enhancement Weekly for March 11th, 2018

Cognitive Enhancement Weekly is a weekly email covering the latest news, events, journal articles and other content related to cognitive enhancement, nootropics, biohacking and neuroscience. If you want to get this in your inbox every Sunday, you can subscribe here

This week includes a new book on the impact of nutrition on cognitive performance, the future role of performance enhancement on the battlefield, and why you should check your terms and conditions before embedding a chip into your skin.


Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power

Dr. Lisa Mosconi’s book on improving brain function through nutrition has just been released. The book includes recipes, a nutrition plan, and health assessments. Looking forward to reviewing it later.


Performance Enhancers: From Battlefield to Playing Field

Fascinating look at the history of performance enhancing drugs on the battlefield and what the next generation of enhancement might look like: robotic exoskeletons and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). Also interesting is how the Australian Defense Force is using WADA as a jumping off point for research and policy definition.

Pill may be able to mimic the effects of exercise without having to run a single step

Compounds 516 and 14, referred to in the article, may mimic the effects of exercise by triggering a specific genetic circuit allowing patients to gain exercise-related benefits from those unable to exercise. Researchers are targeting specific kinds of muscular dystrophy and sclerosis as a path to regulatory approval, but the possibility of abuse is obvious.

Take Your Pills, Netflix — the highs and lows of ‘brain-hacking’

The FT has a take on the new Netflix documentary, “Take Your Pills,” exposing the impact of Adderall society on students. “Take Your Pills” is available on March 16th.

New Doccie Delves Deep Into America’s Massive Pharmaceutical Industry

Another Netflix documentary on doping in sport won an Oscar last weekend. “Icarus” details the Russian doping scandal and it’s pretty explosive. No one should be surprised, of course. Some of the most effective performance and cognitive enhancers are based on Russian and Soviet research.

Six Things You Learn When You Go Deep on Microbiome Research

This is a bit of a different take on biohacking, with a focus on your microbiome – the bacterial world that resides inside you. But regardless of what the article suggests, don’t start showering without soap.

The Cybernetic Implant That Attunes You to the Earth’s Poles

How useful would it be to know where magnetic north is? Useful enough to warrant a painful and invasive surgery? Then I’ve got the cyborg implant for you!

Would You Ditch the Gym for a Biohacking Facility?

In another spin-off of the Bulletproof brand, Bulletproof Labs is the company’s first biohacking facility located in Santa Monica. The approach is technology-heavy but appears to lack much in the way of technology rigor.

Authorities Deactivate Transit Pass Implanted In Biohacker’s Hand

“Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow cut a chip out of a travel card, encased it in biocompatible plastic, and implanted it under the skin on his left hand.” That clearly violated terms of use and it was disabled.

Launching Cognitive Enhancement Weekly

Since I published my research on cognitive enhancement drugs in the workplace, I’ve been looking for ways to continue my research and share what I’ve learned. With email lists making a bit of a comeback over the last year, I decided to create a curated email list. Much of my inspiration came from the work Joe Crobak has done with Data Eng Weekly (formerly Hadoop Weekly) and I’ve stolen liberally from him to get started.

If you’re interested in smart drugs, nootropics, neuroethics, biohacking and other forms of cognitive enhancement, you can subscribe to the list here:

And feel free to submit links, news, events and journal articles to me via Twitter.

Why Real Smart Drugs (Probably) Won’t Exist

Today’s smart drugs weren’t created for cognitive enhancement. Drugs like modafinil and methylphenidate were created to treat real cognitive disorders. At best, these drugs have questionable effectiveness for enhancement. If the best option for smart drugs are drugs that were never intended for enhancement, when can we expect pharmaceutical companies to develop, test and market real smart drugs for cognitive enhancement?

Regulatory environment
The main blocker to targeted CED development, at least in the US and EU, are the regulations pharmaceutical companies must operate under. Regulations in these companies generally support the development of drugs to treat deficiencies or, as in the case of drugs like Viagra, restoring function. The development of drugs specifically to enhance a function, like cognition, is unlikely to get support from regulatory bodies. Without that support, there is little value in drugs companies allocating resources in drugs that won’t come to market.

Of course the EU and US aren’t the only regulatory environments. Brazil, China and especially Russia appear to have more lax regimes. CEDs developed there will certainly make their way into other markets, either legitimately or illegitimately. The safety of these drugs, particularly in the form of long-term side effects, will likely remain an open question. An all too likely outcome may look like this:

Brains are complicated
Putting aside the regulatory challenges, is it even possible to create CEDs that are both beneficial and lack side effects? Technologies like fMRI are improving the understanding of the brain, but that’s a long way from effectively influencing brain function.

It’s easy to dismiss how complicated it is to manipulate brain function. Don’t. Many of today’s therapeutic drugs have mechanisms that are only lightly understood. And this is for drugs used to treat deficiencies, when variations from the norm can be detected. There’s still little idea of what levers to pull to enhance already normally functioning brains.

That said, breakthroughs and insights occur regularly. New technologies may surpass what fMRI can tell us; or new substances may greatly improve working memory or executive function with little to no negative side effects. Our own sappho juice may be just around the corner.


Repost: Everything about Microdosing

By Carolyn Gregoire Long before microdosing was being touted as the Silicon Valley life hack du jour, Dr. James Fadiman was investigating the potential mind-enhancing effects of ingesting psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, more commonly known as magic mushrooms. In the 1960s, Fadiman conducted pioneering psychedelic research, including one study in which he gave […]

via Everything You Wanted To Know About Microdosing (But Were Afraid To Ask) — It’s Interesting

Improving Your Working Memory with Dual N-Back Training

The Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (which is excellent, btw) recently published an article on improving working memory that’s gotten quite a bit of attention over the last few days. It’s also generated a fair amount of hype. The short version is the dual n-back test improved the working memory of participants by 30% over the baseline. Training using the dual n-back test was twice as effective as a competing method, the complex span test.

Working memory is temporary storage for data requiring immediate retrieval. Like a memory cache on a computer, working memory comes into play when remembering a phone number, directions, or the names of the six people you just met at a cocktail party.

In the experiment, 136 young adults trained with their respective methods for 30 minutes a day, five days per week. In the complex span test, trainees have to remember the location of an item while being distracted by another task. Figure 1 gives an idea of what this test looks like:

Figure 1: Representation of the complex span test.


Trainees using this method were less effective an improving working memory than those training with the dual n-back test. The dual n-back test consists of visual and auditory components (hence the “dual”) where the user has to remember both the letter spoken and the location of the square on the screen “n” spaces back. For example, if asked to recall the spoken letter and square location from two letters ago, that’s a 2-back test. Three letters ago, 3-back, and so on. Figure 2 depicts what the dual n-back test looks like.

Figure 2. Dual n-back test.


Importantly, the researchers have no idea why this method works better than others. Researchers determined dual n-band trainees had an increase in alpha band brain activity, which correlates to attention, memory and executive functions.

The researchers also tested intelligence before and after the training period, hypothesizing that training would improve overall intelligence. Unfortunately, no such improvement was found. Today’s brain training is narrowly focused on improving a specific skill set rather than improving general intelligence.

However, this memory training method gives me hope that I’ll finally be able to remember names the next time I’m at a cocktail party.

Why Smart Drugs Will Start in IT

Note: This was originally published on my work blog.

After seven months of work, my research on cognitive enhancement drugs (CEDs) in IT finally published. It published as part of Gartner’s annual Maverick project, which is a bit like an incubator for fringe research topics. Even publishing as Maverick, there are bound to be questions about the real likelihood of CEDs entering the IT department. That’s not unreasonable, and there are some interesting indicators. I’ll refer to two.

The first is a quote from an engineer at Uber. The context is a Buzzfeed article about the impact of Uber’s culture on employees: “If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?”

It’s a good question. The reality is, in most companies, the engineer is at fault.

The second example is much more recent., a startup in the AI space recently posted a job description stating the employee would be expected to regularly work 70-90 hours per week:

Deeplearning job posting

Are those working hours sustainable? Can you reliably produce high quality work when working 11-12 hours per day? (Although with 24 hours in a day, working just 12 hours could be considered only working half days.) It’s not unreasonable to assume that, with these expectations for working hours, some form of cognitive enhancement is expected, if not demanded.

Don’t dismiss this as some Silicon Valley anomaly. Every company feels the pressure to digitalize, probably because of the work of some Silicon Valley startups. This increases pressure everywhere, especially in IT as it bears the brunt of the transformation effort.

Work pressures are only one reason people take smart drugs. Others include interested experimenters, who I call “pharmanauts” in my research, as well as others. But the people taking prescription drugs for cognitive deficiencies they may not have just to survive punitive work culture is the most dangerous scenario for both the employees and the employer.

If you’re working in tech and are either taking CEDs or thinking about it, I’d like to hear from you. Please respond in the comments and I’ll respond to you privately.

And if you’re a Gartner client interested in this research, you can find it here: Maverick* Research: Cognitive Enhancement Drugs Are Changing Your Business