Tweaking Your Neurons

"Four shots in my Americano, please. I’ve got a presentation due tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. and I haven’t started it yet. I’ll probably be up all night.” The poor Starbucks barista is probably covering her ears. Caffeine and nicotine, which work by tweaking our neurons — in the case of coffee, by inhibiting our inhibitory neurotransmitters — are the most commonly used cognitive enhancers today.

I currently use a very powerful drug called caffeine to aid in my non-creative work, and for creative work I do not need additional help,” says Bruce Katz, an adjunct professor of Computer Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of Neuroengineering the Future: Virtual Minds and the Creation of Immortality. (See the accompanying h+ interview with Dr. Katz.)


I currently use a very powerful drug called caffeine to aid in my non-creative work, and for creative work I do not need additional help,” says Bruce Katz, an adjunct professor of Computer Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of Neuroengineering the Future: Virtual Minds and the Creation of Immortality. (See the accompanying h+ interview with Dr. Katz.)

Today, a new breed of cognitive enhancers — neuroenhancers, or “smart drugs” — is starting to appear with increasing frequency on university campuses around the world. Nature reports that students are striking deals to buy and sell prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin — not to get high, but to get higher grades, to provide an edge over their fellow students or to increase in some measurable way their capacity for learning. These transactions are crimes in the United States, punishable by prison.

“Society must respond to the growing demand for cognitive enhancement. That response must start by rejecting the idea that ‘enhancement’ is a dirty word,” argues Henry Greely, a Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law at Stanford University.

Modafinil — a banned stimulant in competitive sports — enhances academic productivity and significantly reduces the need for sleep to a couple of hours per night while improving working memory. A University of York web site describes three students — Charles, Nick and David — who each took a 200 mg tablet of Modafinil. According to Charles, “After an hour, none of us felt any different. But then I started to feel markedly more alert. I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a placebo, but then Nick became uncannily good at computer games, beating his friends three times in a row at Pro Evo. It was no coincidence.”

Modafinil has proven so popular in the academic pressure cookers of Oxford and Cambridge that close to one in ten students have admitted taking prescription medication such as Modafinil without a prescription. The academic uses range from increased alertness during exams to stimulating thought processes when writing essays or take-home exams.

“It’s not the mind-expanding sixties anymore,” comments Margaret Talbot in a recent New Yorker article. “Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited for the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become, and the more we need help in order to focus.”

In short, many of today’s students would rather drop Modafinil than LSD to maintain a competitive edge. But do drugs like Adderall, Ritalin and Modafinil really enhance intelligence, increase focus, and boost creativity? Bruce Katz comments, “As far as increasing intelligence, this is a… difficult matter. For example, simply increasing the brain’s learning rate may speed up the acquisition of new concepts, but will also increase the rate of catastrophic forgetting of older concepts. Intelligence and wisdom is not just about knowledge acquisition, but in applying this knowledge in the right contexts.”

h+ contacted Zack Lynch, author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World, to ask him about this new neuro frontier. “Neurotechnology is the broad term for drugs, devices and diagnostics focused on the brain and nervous system,” he says. “Neuroceuticals is a term I coined to describe future neuropharmaceuticals that have very low if any side effects, so that they may be used by healthy humans. There are three categories of neuroceuticals: cogniceuticals for memory, emoticeuticals for emotions, and sensoceuticals focused on sensory systems.”

Network with synapses

Why Do You Think They Call It Dopamine?
At the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a handful of young people who had just fallen madly in love volunteered to have their brains scanned to see what areas were active when they looked at pictures of their sweethearts. The LA Times reported that the brain areas that lighted up were precisely those known to be rich in dopamine. Dopamine is the key chemical in the brain’s reward system, a network of cells that is associated with pleasure — and addiction. The “feel-good” chemical has long been understood to play a big role in the excitement of love. Brain cells also release it in response to cocaine and nicotine.

Dopamine agonists — drugs that mimic the effects of dopamine — are also used to treat Parkinson’s. In some cases, Parkinson’s patients can benefit from deep brain stimulation (DBS), a procedure in which surgeons implant electrodes in the brain to regulate the body’s movements, similar to the use of a pacemaker in the heart.

h+ Neuro columnist James Kent does not find much benefit from over-the-counter or legal cognitive enhancers. “Everybody has a slightly difference pharmacological profile, and I tend to function best with increased dopamine modulation. And all the drugs that increase dopamine supply are illegal or are prescription ADHD drugs like Adderall. I was medicated with Ritalin for most of my childhood for ADHD so most of my life has been an experiment in pharmacological cognitive enhancement.” He goes on to say that he does not take prescription medication and he has found that (for him), “medical marijuana and caffeine are better options for modulating focus than pharmaceuticals.”

Will Block is a researcher, writer and speaker specializing in the life extension, life enhancement and cognitive enhancement aspects of nutritional science. In a backwards-and-forward looking multimedia article entitled “From Grain to Grin – Nootropics: Past, Present, and Future” on the Better Humans website, Block describes the history and importance of nutritional supplements and other cognitive enhancers. Nootropics (from the Greek words nous or “mind” and tropein “to bend/turn”) includes vitamin supplements and functional foods that are purported to improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence and focus. A good example is Ginkgo biloba: an alleged memory and concentration enhancer cultivated in China for over 1500 years.

Look Ma, No Drugs! (Or Nutrients)
Neuroceuticals and nootropics are not the only way to enhance intelligence or creative faculties. The concept of entrainment involves “the interaction and consequent synchronization of two or more rhythmic processes or oscillators.” For example, studies show that trance music has the same effect on the human mind as military drums, causing listeners to dance in unison with simple movements including head bobs, light bouncing/ jumping and humming. A similar reaction is reported for the locking of step and inhalation cycles in jogging (“runner’s high”), or between respiration and heartbeat in high performance swimmers.

Most brain functions can best be described as cooperative, synchronized activity of large, distributed ensembles of neurons, and a large part of this synchronized activity is of an oscillatory nature. These autorhythmic oscillatory properties of neurons in the central nervous system are a consequence of their electrochemical properties. The cooperative and oscillatory activities of these neurons can be seen as the basis for the timing of sensory-motor coordination and trance phenomena.

Meditative practices and the use of biofeedback tools such as the Proteus Light and Sound Machine induce the oscillatory properties of neurons. Kaleidoscopic patterns of color are seen behind closed eyelids and synchronize with pulses of sound. The combinations of flickering color and sound pulses have an effect on brainwaves. Both ancient meditative practices and new biofeedback technologies are now being analyzed in dozens of studies using computerized electroencephalography (EEG), EEG topographic brain mapping, positron emission tomography, regional cerebral blood flow, single photon emission computed tomography, and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.

Image courtesy of Mason Bryant

Intel Inside and Out
A more radical neuroengineered future is suggested by the increasing use of sensory and motor prostheses — brain implants — to deliver input to and output from the nervous system. Cochlear implants to aid the deaf are a good example. Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California defines another class of prostheses aimed at restoring cognitive function by replacing circuits within the brain damaged by stroke, trauma or disease. Work has begun on a proof-of-concept device — a hippocampal prosthesis that can mimic the function of a region of the hippocampus — a part of the brain responsible for the formation of memories.

Such prosthetics may ultimately become the substrate for the mind itself. Bruce Katz comments, “The alternative is to free the mind from limitations of the brain by the addition of prosthetic devices and ultimately uploading it into digital form. While it is unlikely either of these and especially the latter will occur in the next few decades, this remains the ultimate goal of enhancement.”

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Jamais Cascio argues that “the age of the cyborg and the super-genius has already arrived” in the form of netbooks, iPhones and other forms of access to the Internet… “it just involves external information and communication devices instead of implants and genetic modification.” The bioethicist James Hughes of Trinity College refers to all of this as exocortical technology, but like Cascio, you can just think of it as “stuff you already own.” For many, a smart phone or laptop has become an exobrain with access to much of the information in the world’s libraries.

Zach Lynch: There are thre categories of neuroceuticals: cogniceuticals for memory, emoticeuticals for emotions, and sensoceuticals focused on sensory systems.”

Bruce Katz suggests that cognitive enhancement is a kind of evolution, but not in a traditional sense, “because with cognitive enhancement we will be taking the first significant steps towards being a self-modifying system.” He points out that ordinary evolution develops at a glacial pace, and it is not at all clear that evolution can take us much beyond where we already are “in the smarts department.” He describes how the path from early hominids to Homo sapiens — when walking upright freed our hands for tool construction — encouraged a larger frontal cortex both for the manufacture and use of these tools, “But walking upright also means that there are limits on the size of the birth canal before locomotion is seriously disturbed. This is why human birth is so painful relative to other species — our brains are already too big for our bodies.” Hence, he says, “we should not expect to see hypercephalic beings, giants heads perched on slender bodies, walking around in 10,000 years, unless of course we are able to produce them ourselves.”

Smarts and Consequences
There are obviously profound societal consequences in using neurotechnology by healthy humans to improve their performance. Some of us will be enhanced, while others won’t. Zach Lynch, however, is optimistic. “Like any new set of tools developed by humans, there are both positive and negative potential uses of these tools. However, if we look broadly at human history we can see that newly developed technologies have extended life spans, improved living standards and made it possible for more of us to live happier lives. We should expect this trend to continue as we move into the Neuro Revolution.”

“It makes no sense to ban the use of neuroenhancers,” says Margaret Talbot. “Too many people are already taking them, and the users tend to be educated and privileged people who proceed with just enough caution to avoid getting into trouble. In a consumer society like ours, if people are properly informed about the risks and benefits of neuroenhancers, they can make their own choices about how to alter their minds, just as they can make their own decisions about shaping their bodies.”

James Kent takes it a step further, “Right now we are transitioning away from counterculture championing of cognitive enhancement and into these memes being adopted by the mainstream media. Soon the general public will be demanding consumer-level cognitive enhancement. It is only a matter of time, but it will probably take another generation or two to sort it all out.”

This will likely be only the first — and perhaps the most significant step — in the emerging world of neuroceuticals, nootropics, entrainment and neuroprosthetics to boost human intelligence and creativity. Bruce Katz believes it will lead to a positive feedback loop — enhanced intellectual capacity will lead to greater inventiveness, which will lead to better means of increasing intelligence, which will lead to even more powerful enhancement techniques. At some point in this development, he speculates, “We will bear as little resemblance to plain old vanilla Homo sapiens as a man does to a mouse.”


You may also like...

Leave a Reply