Cognitive Commodities in the Neuro Marketplace

Scotto Ecstacy Pills. Photo: dosenation.comThe science of cognitive enhancement is evolving, which means the business of cognitive enhancement is evolving. Supplying cognitive enhancement to the masses can be viewed through the lens of any commodities marketplace. Human experience is already commoditized through drugs that pack mood and performance into portable units — pills or doses — that can be easily traded and consumed, and the drug market is one of the biggest on the planet. The same can be said for audio and visual experience. The platforms and hardware for trading audiovisual experience — TVs, computers, media players, telecomm, cell phones, software — are huge markets with influence over every facet of our lives. The media and drug markets are built upon the ideal of commoditizing consumer moods and experiences. The cognitive enhancement industry is now poised to undergo a similar market revolution.

The cognitive revolution has already begun, as concepts of enhancement move from counterculture and science fiction into mainstream media. Within the last year, the mainstream press has embraced off-label use of Adderall and similar pills as cognitive enhancers for students seeking to better their grades. Soon there will be research to confirm if students using off-label pharmaceuticals get better grades than their peers. The fact that Teva Pharmaceuticals is the corporate supplier of Adderall is rarely mentioned, nor is the fact that these “enhancement” drugs are all copyrighted blends of amphetamines and stimulants marketed to fidgety children. A similar mainstream embrace of students using methamphetamine or cocaine to get better grades will never be seen, because it‘s in the interest of the media to drive the market for regulated cognitive enhancers and beat the drum against unregulated generic alternatives. All forms of cognitive enhancement — whether a drug or a technology — will face a similar inherent media bias.

Anyone wanting to get into the business of selling moods, memories, and cognitive solutions to the public must first have the interest of the media to help shape market demand. For instance, the same neurostim device that uses electric impulses from a brain implant to treat people with Parkinson‘s Disease can be tweaked by a few millimeters and pulse rates to make cocaine addicts feel like they are high all the time. Neurostim isn‘t a cheap commodity yet, but in the future it could be. The “off label” demand for designer neurostim does not exist today, but if the implant procedure was automated and the price was reduced, it could be a very marketable alternative to long-term drug therapy. Cheap neurostim would then fuel an off-label market for cosmetic and personal use with subsidiary markets for designer software upgrades, patches, and applets to customize functionality. But first there needs to be consumer demand for the product, and that has yet to materialize.


The neurostim device that uses electric impulses to treat people with Parkinson‘s Disease can be used to make cocaine addicts feel high all the time.

The cognitive enhancement revolution may ultimately fail. Comparisons can be made to the Virtual Reality market, which promised a bold age of cyber-living but was encumbered with wonky gear and appealed only to a small number of consumers. Most people prefer watching a very large TV to being goggled into VR — the novelty of a platform doesn‘t change human preference. VR was clunky, disorienting, and it gave people headaches, motion sickness, and vision problems. Pills with worse side effects are sold by huge corporations, but ultimately VR had no real mass-market application other than coolness. The lesson here is that the success of the platform does not depend on the coolness factor, it depends on consumer demand once the technology becomes affordable. Will the average consumer embrace being implanted, or even crave non-invasive tinkering with memory and intelligence? Modern consumers have embraced taking whatever pill or procedure their doctors recommend, so all perspective next-gen neurotech should take a page from Big Pharma‘s playbook and pressure MDs to prescribe invasive cognitive solutions to patients for cosmetic and off-label purposes (and pressure insurance companies to cover the costs). Cosmetic therapeutic applications are the doorway to the mainstream consumer market. On the bleeding edge of this field, scientists are already doing research on neurostim to treat depression and sexual dysfunction. (See Resources)

X-ray of pacemakerNeural implants and neurostim, like any form of cognitive enhancement, face some challenges with regard to public opinion. The implant procedure is delicate and expensive and could have some unforeseen effects like improper healing or infection. The same can be said of cosmetic surgery or implanting a pacemaker, and the public has adopted those procedures. There are recurring problems with implant interface, hardware, batteries, and security, but the same can be said of iPhones and the public has adopted those. Mix the glamour of surgical self-improvement with the geekiness of high-tech gadget fetishism and you have a niche cosmetic neurostim market waiting to be tapped. The hardware for the neurostim platform is ultimately cheap and automating the procedure is feasible. The applications could enhance memory, intelligence, and mind-to-mind communication. Automating the neural surgery is not impossible — it just takes research grant money and investors. This may seem like science fiction, but in twenty years it may be considered essential consumer technology. It all depends on how the market plays out.

James Kent is the former publisher of Psychedelic Illuminations and Trip Magazine. He currently edits, a drug blog featuring news, humor and commentary.

17 Responses

  1. mydexter says:

    I agree – we are moving too far away from natural enhancement – regardless of what arguments this can be broken down to the very simple principle that everyone wants everything nice and easy with the minimum amount of work.

  2. I am not certain that I like the tone of the article. This is not to vilify the writer or even the content. But, when I consider all the mental health issues in the world, the grief and the loss I must argue that a holistic approach is necessary. Drug taking as a solution to peoples moods is a temporary relief, that is all.


  3. seo says:

    your point about street drugs vs. big farma is a valid one. You could look at red rice yeast vs statins as a comparison. The difference is that when it comes to my brain chemistry I’m extraordinarily conservative.

  4. stevenstevo says:

    Not sure about the whole commodity thing. I think what is meant here is commercialization, not commoditization.

    A commodity is a good, often in the maturity stage of its life cycle, that has little to no differentiation in quality–i.e., it doesn’t matter who produces it, the quality is the same. Gold is gold. Pork bellies are pork bellies.

    Technology has demonstrated varying effects on product commotidization. For example, the network effect has actually ensured that some products will never be commodities. eBay and Microsoft Windows are good examples, basically the opposites of commodities.

    Human experience is definitely not a commodity in any way. My human experience varies greatly with my neighbors. Pills and drugs are also not commodities. They are not easily tradeable because either they are illegal or they require a doctor’s prescription.

    As for off-label use of Adderall, that is college students who get a couple Adderall from their roommate to study exams. It is not some dramatic case of people changing their human experience. Adderall does not have a narcotic effect. In addition, its side effects are extremely mild, the most significant of which is weight loss. It is not addictive, and fatalities from Adderall are less than those from Aspirin.

    Marketing is important, sure, but I don’t think marketing has anything to do with Adderall–I have never even seen a single ad for it. And I don’t see how marketing will be much of a factor in the success of neural implants and neurostim. All that matters is if it produces benefits people want. For me, it’s real simple. If it will enhance my memory, I’m gonna buy it.

  5. stevenstevo says:

    “Within the last year, the mainstream press has embraced off-label use of Adderall and similar pills as cognitive enhancers for students seeking to better their grades.”

    Huh? I have read about off-label use of Adderall and the study done on it recently in several different places, and I have seen it discussed on TV, but I have definitely not seen the media “embrace” it. On the contrary in fact, the media pieces I have seen on it have been critical of off-label use of Adderall.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Adderal is no longer under patent, and generics are available. (Drugs are patented, not copyrighted.)

    You really should do more fact checking if you want to be considered a serious journalist.

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