Neuroenhancement, neurohacking, and nootropics: The hype, and why natural alternatives are one step ahead.

Nootropics, neuroenhancement and neurohacking; the latest buzzwords in the health industry, and they’re causing quite a stir. We are now on the verge of enhancing our cognitive abilities, ahead of natural evolution.

Nootropics are substances that improve cognitive function, including memory, creativity and motivation. To be honest, we’ve been using them for some time now. Just have a cup of coffee and you’ll feel the effects on your energy levels, concentration, and memory. Nootropics also produce mood enhancement, reducing feelings of apprehension and anxiety. Pharmocological nootropics include the infamous Modafinil (a drug primarily used to produce wakefulness in narcolepsy and other sleep disorders), antidepressants, beta-blockers, acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and illegal drugs such as amphetamine and cocaine (2). But all of these come with a long list of unpleasant side effects (including addiction), and are certainly not the only option for neuroenhancement.

Dresler et al (2019) suggest that neuroenhancement strategies fall into 3 separate categories.

  1. Behavioural – This includes activities such as meditation, sleep, exercise, and/or learning a second language.
  2. Biochemical (Nootropic) – Pharmaceuticals, certain nutrients, and herbal neuroenhancements fall into this category.
  3. Physical – Implants, wearables, magnetic and electric brain stimulation, acoustic and optical stimulation are included.

You might be thinking that the first two categories seem like old news. You wouldn’t be wrong. However, this goes to show that all the hype around “neurohacking” might be just that and not much else. The third category however, is a little more interesting. Deep brain stimulation, currently only on offer to those with certain conditions, falls into this category. Watch this space over the next 5-10 years though, because companies like Google and Apple are all over neurohacking/neuroenhancement with intent to augment our cognitive ability and reality.

If neurohacking sounds like a quick means to an easy end, sadly, it’s not. It seems that gains produced from any of the methods mentioned above never stimulate all cognitive processes at once, with some enhanced at the expense of others. However, the concept still holds potential. Future use of neuroenhancers may be fine-tuned to the task at hand, rather than producing an all-encompassing state of cognitive stimulation. (1). Unsurprisingly, the ethical implications of altering the human brain are very diverse and hotly debated.

Natural solutions to support memory, cognition and enhance brain biochemistry

Of course, it wouldn’t be my blog without a decent plug for the benefits of natural medicine in this space. It’s fair to say that naturopaths, herbalists and nutritionists have been using herbs and nutrients to support brain biochemistry for decades. Herbs used traditionally to support the health of the brain and nervous system go back centuries – for example, consider Bacopa monnieri, an Ayurvedic herb traditionally used for improving memory and concentration.

In recent years, research has supported the use of certain amino acids as nootropics, including those that regulate the production of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a compound that increases the synthesis and repair of neurons. L-Theanine, a compound found in green tea is one of these (2). Tyrosine, an amino acid, is another. Gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) is an endogenous neurotransmitter that is available as a supplement, commonly used by those who suffer from anxiety,

There are plenty of companies jumping on the neurohacking bandwagon, but don’t be fooled, there are no quick and easy fixes – at least, not without disadvantages. The best nootropics are the ones that we should already be using every day: a good night’s sleep, nourishing food and daily exercise. That’s not to say that taking advantage of herbs and nutritional remedies to support our natural biochemistry is a bad thing; but get the basics right first.

(1) Dresler, M., Sandberg, A., Bublitz, C., Ohla, K., Trenado, C., Mroczko-Wasowicz, A., … Repantis, D. (2019, March 20). Hacking the Brain: Dimensions of Cognitive Enhancement. ACS Chemical Neuroscience. American Chemical Society.

(2) Wexler, A. (2017). The social context of “do-it-yourself” brain stimulation: Neurohackers, biohackers, and lifehackers. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11.

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