Customize me: How an underground culture is using drugs to get the mental traits they want

This post was written during the Banff Centre's Science Communications program, which was - without doubt - one of the most influential, life-changing experiences for me. I had a lot of fun writing this piece (plus it was chewed up by three very tough editors), and hope you enjoy! Image credits:

This post was written during the Banff Centre's Science Communications program, which was - without doubt - one of the most influential, life-changing experiences for me. I had a lot of fun writing this piece (plus it was chewed up by three very tough editors), and hope you enjoy! Image credits:

I found the long-awaited parcel on my doorstep. “truBrain, access your brain’s full potential” promised the label in bright, bold letters.

I ripped open the sleek packaging eagerly. Out spilled a dozen aluminum packets, each bulging from the cocktail of pills it contained. “So I take these ones in the morning, and those at night,” I muttered to myself, reading the instruction note that had drifted onto my table. Here goes nothing.

I received the sample from a Los Angles startup that peddles an attractive idea – “cognitive optimization.” truBrain caters to a growing subculture of brain hackers who are interested in more than just mental prowess. Fundamentally it’s about customizing your brain and how you experience consciousness: for some people the goal is to increase mental horsepower, but for others it may be to enhance mood or to deal with social anxiety.

At the heart of truBrain’s formulation is piracetam, an experimental drug that launched today’s brain hacking movement. First developed in 1964 by UCB, a struggling Belgian pharmaceutical company, piracetam was unexpectedly found to delay age-related memory loss in a handful of elderly human volunteers. In a flash of marketing inspiration, Corneliu Giurgea, the company’s chief neuropharmacologist, marketed the drug as a cognitive booster to the eagerly awaiting masses.

Some research supports piracetam as a smart drug. In a 1976 paper tantalizingly titled “Increase in the power of human memory in normal man through the use of drugs”, scientists reported that a two-week regime of piracetam boosted verbal memory in healthy college students. A later study with 101 healthy elderly motorists found that a six-week regime of piracetam improved their reaction speed to roadside signs.

But the case for piracetam as a cognitive booster is far from clear-cut. Only a handful of peer-reviewed studies were performed with healthy adults, and the data is contradictory. In general, piracetam has little effect on memory in younger adults; instead, it works as a memory aid for people who are no longer at their cognitive peak – that is, elderly folks who are experiencing age-related memory loss, or patients who have suffered from strokes or brain traumas. Despite the lack of evidence, piracetam is still eagerly sought out by brain hackers who want a sharper mental edge.

The ambiguity surrounding brain hacking drugs is highlighted in a young Canadian whom I’ll call Jerry. A few years ago, Jerry began taking a piracetam derivate –aniracetam– not for his memory, but for his social phobia. “I have a fear of leaving the house and a strong sense of anxiety when I’m in a traffic jam”, Jerry said. After twenty days of taking aniracetam the anxiety disappeared, he told me. But it seemed to “flatten mood”, he added, causing a sense of dispassion towards most things in life. To combat his apathetic mood, Jerry began self-medicating with a variety of other brain-tweaking drugs. The social phobia stayed off, but even he isn’t sure what’s working – if any.

In fact, aniracetam has had a disappointing history. In the 1990s, aniracetam was prescribed for eight years in Japan under the brand name Draganon to treat emotional disturbances after displaying promising effects in animal models of mood disorders. But positive effects in animals don’t guarantee the drug’s clinical efficacy, warned Kazuo Nakamura, a neurobiologist from Nippon Roche Research Centre who had studied the drug for decades. And when re-evaluated in a rigorously controlled clinical trial in 2000, Draganon failed to demonstrate significant mood-promoting effects. It was pulled from the market shortly after.

Now, 50 years after the birth of piracetam, we still don’t know whether racetams are effective. What’s more, we don’t even know how they interact with our bodies. Racetams are strange in that they need a dose thousands of times higher than the average drug to show any effects. Most drugs, like asprin, are designed to seek out and latch onto a particular protein in the body and subsequently tweak its function. It’s a strong interaction: a tiny bit of drug is sufficient to trigger a medical effect – for example, pain relief. However, as racetams require an enormous dose to work, it’s highly unlikely that they act on a single molecule. Some researchers report that racetam directly enhance the function of brain receptors important for learning and memory. Others believe that they increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain, or that they directly boost the metabolisms of brain cells. Without understanding how racetams work, we can’t predict how they might harm.

What’s more, some brain hackers want it all. Rather than relying on a single chemical, they research and improvise drug combinations to use throughout the day. truBrain is an example of such a “stack”, blending together cognitive enhancers, nutrients and stress-relievers in every single packet. There is little, if any, data on how a cocktail of “brain boosters” interacts with our organs – could these drugs even damage brain function?

Brain hackers seem to be aware of the risks. Most seek out advice in online forums for trustworthy vendors, and some even go so far as capping loose powders into capsules to control their release. Many more delve into academic research papers, evaluating and sharing the data to help inform their drug usage. Yet all this due diligence is an illusion: brain hackers only need a shred of evidence to start experimenting on their own brains – the desire to optimize brain function is simply too strong.

I understand the allure. I caved in to the temptation of truBrain’s cocktail of pills. Did I get smarter, happier, funnier? No. Instead, I was rewarded with a week-long, pulsing headache that disappeared once I stopped the drugs. Perhaps brain boosters have benefits yet to be uncovered. For now, I remain a skeptic.