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Supercharge Your Body. Upgrade Your Brain. Be Bulletproof.

EDITOR’ S NOTE The world that homosapiens evolved to live in has changed so rapidly in recent years that our own evolution, a much shower process, has failed to keep up. We’ve developed various systems to combat this over the years but none has emerged as intrusive as the field of biohacking - the art of artificially advancing evolution with the help of new technologies. While this term includes everything from implants to genetics, this magazine is narrowed to focus on biohacking the mind, and two technologies that are gaining popularity right now in the push to better our brains - tDCS (a device that sends electrical currents through the brain, said to enhance the connections and speed of neurons) and Nootropics (neuroenhancing / neuroprotecting drugs). Both have attracted a substantial DIY community in part owning to the easy dissemination of information via the Internet, and so far have proven to be both legal and safe within reason. While many academic studies have been carried out, the vast majority of data is coming from individuals experimenting outside the constraints of the formal scientific community. Humans have always been intrigued by the possibility of using new technologies to better themselves - it seems tDCS and Nootropics (as well as biohacking in a broader sense) is the latest iteration of this trend, and one that won’t be passing anytime soon.

Lydia O’Callaghan


Why Cognitive Enhancement is in Your Future (and Your Past) Ross Andersen 2012 The Atlantic


You Need To Get Into Flow: Concentration At Its Best Dianne Schilling 2013 Forbes

14 Biohacking: Technology & the Next Stage of Human Evolution Kyle Pearce 2014 DIY Genius



Nootropics and the Human Lab-Rats of Reddit Sarah Zhang 2015 Gizmodo


Get Ahead in Silicon Valley: Take Nootropic Brain Drugs ZoĂŤ Corbyn 2015 The Guardian


A Guide to Different Types of Nootropics From



How Adding Iodine to Salt Boosted Americans’ IQ Lisa Raffensperger 2013 Discover Magazine


Google Trends



Electrified: Adventures in Transcranial DirectCurrent Stimulation Elif Batuman 2015 The New Yorker


tDCS Timeline


tDCS Montage


Jumper Cables For The Mind Dan Hurley 2013 New York Times




Why Cognitive Enhancement is in Your Future (and Your Past) Ross Andersen



It could be that we are on the verge of a great deluge of cognitive enhancement. Or it’s possible that new brain-enhancing drugs and technologies will be nothing compared to how we’ve transformed our minds in the past. If it seems that making ourselves “artificially” smarter is somehow inhuman, it may be that similar activities are actually what made us human. Let’s look at the nature of the new technology. Last week a team of ethicists from Oxford released a paper on the implications of using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) to improve cognition in human beings.  Recent years have seen some encouraging, if preliminary, lab results involving TDCS, a deep brain stimulation technique that uses electrodes placed outside the head to direct tiny painless currents across the brain. The currents are thought to increase neuroplasticity, making it easier for neurons to fire and form the connections that enable learning. There are signs that the technology could improve language acumen, math ability, and even memory. The Oxford paper argues that TDCS has now reached a critical stage where its risks must be carefully considered before the research goes further. Of course, not everyone is convinced that the technology will pan out. Some remain skeptical of TDCS, calling

it a fad, the latest in a long series of “neuro-myths” that bubble up when scientists distort or embellish their findings in the name of publicity. But even if brain stimulation fizzles, the questions raised by the Oxford paper are going to be with us for a long time. That’s because TDCS is just one of many promising new technologies that neuroscientists hope will enhance cognition, including smart pills, genetic engineering, and brain-to-computer interfacing. As deep brain stimulation has become the flavor du jour in neuroscience, bioethicists have increasingly given it a starring role in the thought experiments they use to tease out the philosophical dilemmas posed by cognitive enhancement. Allen Buchanan is one such bioethicist. As a Professor of Philosophy at Duke University and a consultant to the President’s Council on Bioethics, Buchanan has written extensively about the ethical implications of human enhancement. In his most recent book Better Than Human he makes a sustained philosophical case for pursuing human enhancement, arguing that its critics often proceed from a deeply flawed understanding of human nature. Last week I spoke with Buchanan at length about the ethics of deep brain stimulation, the history of cognitive enhancement, and what a world of cognitively enhanced human beings might look like.


Some have argued that enhancement, cognitive or otherwise, is somehow antithetical to human nature. Part of your response to that argument, if I understand it correctly, has been to say that the drive toward enhancement is actually very much a part of human nature. Can you elaborate on that a bit? Buchanan: I think that any appeal to the notion of human nature, on either side of the enhancement debate, is tricky and problematic and has to be handled with care. Yes, in one sense we might say that it’s part of human nature to strive to improve our capacities. Humans have done this in the past by developing literacy and numeracy, and the institutions of science, and more recently we’ve done it with computers and the Internet. So, yes, if an alien were looking at humanity and asking “What is human nature?” one of the ingredients is going to be that these beings seem quite concerned with improving their capacities and they seem to have a knack for doing it. On the other hand, sometimes people say that we shouldn’t engage with these technologies because we could somehow damage our nature or interfere with our nature, and in doing so they seem to have a kind of rosy pre-Darwinian view about human nature and about nature generally. They tend to think that an individual organism, a human being, is like the work of a master engineer---a delicately balanced, harmonious whole that’s the product of eons of exacting evolution. Now that’s one account of human nature, but I want to contrast it with another one from Charles Darwin who wrote in a letter to Joseph Hooker: “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature” and by the works of nature, he’s talking about us. And so these are two quite different views about nature and about human nature, and if you begin with the first one, the sort of rosy and pre-Darwinian view, then you’re almost bound to


conclude that anything we try to do to improve ourselves is bound to be a disaster, that any form of intervention is going to end up looking like reckless, foolhardy behavior. On the other hand if you take the Darwinian view and think of human beings as being like any other organisms---sort of cobbled together beings, products of mutation and selection and the crude development of ways to cope with short term problems in the environment, then you’ll be more open to the idea that we should at least consider the possibility of improving ourselves. Humans have done enhancement in the past by developing literacy and numeracy, and the institutions of science, and more recently we’ve done it with computers and the Internet. The list of design flaws in human beings is pretty long, as it is in other organisms, and so to think that somehow we’re at the summit of perfection and that we’re stable is to have the wrong idea of human nature. The misleading assumption is that if we don’t interfere, we’re going to continue the way we are, and of course that goes completely contrary to everything we know about evolution. In fact it might turn out that the only way to prevent us from going extinct, or to prevent some great worsening of our condition, is to enhance some of our capacities. When I was a child, which was quite some time ago, in textbooks in public schools you often saw this depiction of some sort of primordial being pulling itself out of primordial soup, sort of a half fish half mammal sort of thing, and then just to the right of that in this line of development, there would be an apelike creature walking on all fours, then you see a Neanderthal walking partly upright, and then you see a human being walking fully upright, and then that’s the end. There’s no indication that things could get better or worse after that. And that’s the picture that we’re the summit of the evolutionary process and of course that’s really just importing the old pre-Darwinian view and giving it a superficial coating of Darwinian terms. Human enhancement has been a frequent subject in popular culture, even if its treatment there has often been superficial. Have films like Gattaca or Limitless primed the public for thinking about the ethical implications of these technologies? Buchanan: It’s interesting you mentioned both Gattaca and Limitless because they’re quite different. Gattaca is, in a way, representative of the majority of films that tackle these topics, which tend to be very dark. They tend to play on the anxieties people have about these technologies, and they tend to take a very negative view of their

social consequences. Gattaca, for instance, paints a fairly grim picture, because it looks at the effects of genetic engineering on human beings simply in terms of its potential for creating a caste system, and I just think there’s more to it than that. Limitless on the other hand, at least as I saw it, seemed to be much more positive and seemed to convey that people could have quite legitimate interests in cognitive enhancement technologies, and that the people who desire these technologies aren’t just cranks or people who have inappropriate desires. One of the most common objections to cognitive enhancement--one that Gattaca addresses in the context of genetic engineering--stems from the fear that cognitive enhancements might exacerbate social inequality by disproportionately advantaging elites. You have argued, persuasively I think, that some examples of previous cognitive enhancement technologies, like literacy and mobile phones, have diffused rapidly across classes after some initial period of monopolization by elites. Are there good reasons to think cognitive enhancement will follow suit? Buchanan: I think that it depends on which kind of cognitive enhancements you’re talking about, especially which modes of technology are being used. If you’re thinking about something like surgical procedures for implanting genetically engineered tissue into someone’s brain, or if you’re talking about very high tech brain to computer interfacing technologies or the genetic engineering of human embryos, presumably those technologies are going to be very expensive and won’t be available to a lot of people. So if that’s the direction that we go, there might be very serious problems of inequality. On the other hand cognitive enhancements like TDCS and cognition-enhancing drugs may become inexpensive fairly quickly, and in turn might diffuse much more rapidly than literacy did. This is especially clear in the context of prescription drugs. Right now if you go to Wal-Mart there are over one hundred and thirty drugs that used to be on patent and have now gone off patent and gone generic, and a month supply of each of these drugs is only four dollars. Now that’s a lot cheaper than the cognitive enhancement drug that you get at Starbucks. So yes in the future there might be a period when these drugs are on patent, and are expensive, but when they go off patent they could become very inexpensive. And also it’s important to bear in mind that this may not be something where access to the market is an issue at all. If it turns out that some safe version of TDCS has dramatic cognitive benefits, then governments may view these as very important for


national productivity and they may subsidize them in the way they now subsidize education for the very same reason. Cell phones are another example. No one dreamed that cell phones would become available so rapidly to hundreds of millions of people around the world. But some technologies do diffuse slowly, and where they diffuse slowly there’s a potential for problems of inequality. Assuming then that some cognitive enhancements will spread rapidly across socioeconomic lines, is there a fear that they might make society more likely to produce certain outliers on the continuum of human personality-say, evil genius figures capable of horrific atrocities. If this technology increases the set of highly intelligent individuals within a certain population, won’t it also increase the chances that those individuals will overlap with the small set of homicidal, or even genocidal maniacs within a population? I’m thinking of someone like Pol Pot with the intellectual capacities of a figure like Richard Feynman. Buchanan: At present we don’t know enough about the connections between intelligence and personality to know how serious a risk that is but I think it’s a risk worth considering. I mean there’s another way to look at this, and that is that there is a general problem here. We’ve developed technologies, which are so powerful and so readily accessible that a very small number of people can use them to create great harm, and that’s just due to the success of science. Even today, without a tremendous amount of specialized knowledge, people may be able to produce lethal viruses that we don’t have much immunity to, or a small terrorist group can acquire some plutonium and put it in a municipal water supply and kill lots of people. So in one way this is a more general problem about how powerful our technologies are and the fact that they can be used for good or for ill by small numbers of people--people who are not subject to the discipline of large organizations like states, who aren’t subject to the logic of deterrence that state actors are subject to. Now the other side of this coin is that if there’s a general ramping up of intelligence, then presumably there’s also going to be a lot more people who are very intelligent and who have good motivations, and who will be committed to trying to constrain the bad apples and prevent them from doing damage. You also have to consider the possibility that cognitive enhancements may go hand in hand with moral enhancements. There’s a great debate as

to what extent bad behavior results in part from flawed cognitive processes, but even if improving our intelligence is not by itself is not likely to make us behave better, it may turn out that some of the same knowledge we’re using to make cognitive enhancements---knowledge about the relationship between our brains and behavior--- may allow us to develop what some people have called “moral enhancements.” And if that happens, that may be something that will at least reduce the kind of risk that you’re talking about, because you’re right that people who have a super-developed intelligence along with a moral sensibility that’s dwarfed in comparison could be a real problem. It strikes me that the development of “moral enhancements” would probably rip open five or six new subfields in bioethics. Buchanan: Oh I agree and it already is, and it’s very tricky. Cognitive enhancement is something that’s relatively easy for people to understand, because it’s easier for people to see what’s controversial about it because it’s easier to see what counts as a boost in cognitive performance. When it comes to moral performance, we have all sorts of problems that have to do with disputes about what a moral improvement is, what the moral virtues are, and that sort of thing. We also have interesting precedents, interesting examples of existing morally enhancing technologies, like religion, social morality, institutionalized morality---there’s no question that these have increased our capacity to interact with each other. Even legal systems have been moral enhancements in some respect because they’ve enabled us to control our aggressive impulses, to find ways of settling disputes that are more morally acceptable. People who have a super-developed intelligence along with a moral sensibility that’s dwarfed in comparison could be a real problem. And it might turn out that there are some biochemical interactions that might stimulate our moral imagination, increase our empathy towards others, or, in the cognitive dimension, might improve our powers of moral judgment and reasoning. There’s a lot of interesting literature now on what are called normal cognitive biases, cognitive flaws in cognitively normal people. Some of these


cognitive flaws might have bad moral consequences in certain contexts, and so it’s possible that by reducing some of those we might make ourselves better off also. Putting aside the outliers, the extreme personalities, some neuroethicists are worried about what they call ‘’hyper-agency,’’ the notion that as human beings become more able to control their lives and themselves, they also become less constrained by traditional limits, and that human wisdom will ultimately be insufficient to manage that kind of freedom. Buchanan: Look, I think this is a genuine problem. It’s the old problem of hubris, and it’s important to recognize that it doesn’t just apply to cognitive enhancement or even biomedical enhancement more generally, it applies to all human interventions, technological or social or economic or political. One thing I would point out is that even though the worry about hubris is a serious one, it’s hard to see how it could be a conclusive argument against biomedical enhancements across the board. Instead it’s like all genuine concerns---it has to be given due weight and then balanced against the potential benefits of these technologies. So while I think we should take the problem of hubris seriously, I also realize that it’s not a local problem for biomedical enhancements, it’s something we face everywhere and that consequently, it can’t be a conversation-stopper. We have to take a more fine-grained approach, because there’s no sort of general answer to the question “how should we go slow” or “how we should use due caution” for all of these different technologies. Different modes of enhancement in different contexts are going to have different risk benefit profiles. A lot of people worry that the widespread use of cognitive enhancement will mean raised standards in the classroom and in the workplace. And while that may turn out to be a net positive for society, there is a fear that individuals who would rather not participate in cognitive enhancement will be forced to just to keep up with their enhanced coworkers, and that such pressures would constitute a kind of soft coercion. Buchanan: That does worry me; I think it’s a very reasonable concern. Now, again, it’s not a conversation stopper, it’s not something that would lead to the conclusion that we shouldn’t develop these technologies. I think the situation you’ve described is quite widespread in sports.

Some athletes, or even a majority of athletes, would prefer not to use enhancement drugs, but they do so in a defensive manner to prevent being put at a disadvantage when others use them. It’s also a concern with the off-label use of drugs like Adderall, drugs that have not been developed specifically for the kind of cognitive enhancement they are often used for. It would be better if we would bring these cognitive enhancement drugs out of the closet, and do regular clinical double-blind trails with them. The worst case scenario is where large amounts of people feel this pressure to use a drug even though they would prefer not to do it, and it’s happening in a kind of unregulated context as it is now (with Adderall) and many people may be led to set aside reasonable worries about bad side effects because of this pressure, this soft coercion you’re talking about. We have a huge unregulated experiment going on in this country, and in many other advanced countries I suspect, where a large population of university students are using these drugs, and that’s unfortunate because it might be that five years from now or ten years from now it’s going to be discovered that these drugs have some large scale adverse effect. It would be better if we would bring these cognitive enhancement drugs out of the closet, and do regular clinical double-blind trails with them, and genotype the people that take them and later if there’s an adverse effect, see if it only affects people with a certain genotype, and be in a better position to prevent the wide diffusion of these drugs before they’re safe. Again, though, it’s not confined to cognitive enhancement drugs or biomedical enhancements; I’m sure there are lots of people who used to be able to qualify for a job without an advanced degree, and now they have to have an advanced degree, and so they’re “coerced” into getting that degree whether they think it gives them that much benefit or not. Similarly, if you’re raising a child in a society where literacy is a necessary condition for any job worth having, you’re going to be under pressure to make sure your child learns how to read and write. So these aren’t necessarily bad things, they’re only bad if they lead people to disregard reasonable worries about the risks of these technologies. Some of the films about cognitive enhancement make it look pretty dull in practice. I remember seeing Limitless and thinking “so this guy ramps up to these breakout levels of raw intellect and creativity and the best he can do is a Wall Street job and a fancy car?” And that’s an extreme example---there have been other, deeper explorations of enhancement, particularly in the superhero genre---but on the whole it seems like the


subject has been treated pretty unimaginatively. What have you thought of that’s really far out there, culturally or intellectually, that cognitive enhancement might bring about? Buchanan: While I do think Limitless was more sympathetic toward these technologies than most pop culture representations of them, there’s no question it was a little disappointing in terms of what was considered to be a fantastic improvement in the quality of this individual’s life. I think one thing that Limitless missed is the interactive benefit of these enhancements. Cognitive enhancements in particular tend to have what economists call network effects, meaning that the value of you having the enhancement increases as more people have it. Think about having a computer. If you have a computer, that’s good you can do a lot of things with it, but part of what makes having your computer so valuable is that hundreds of millions of other people have computers. Similarly with literacy, if you were the only person who knew how to read certainly that would give you some advantages, but you wouldn’t have nearly as rich a world as the one we live in where billions of people are literate. So, I think perhaps one of the problems with Limitless was that it portrayed this guy by himself having much more developed cognitive capacities than other people, so it overlooked the fact that if lots of people have cognitive enhancements, there might be completely new forms of interaction, new kinds of social relationships, new forms of productivity and human flourishing, or new kinds of intrinsically enjoyable activities that we just don’t have access to now. I have an analogy for this, and the reason it’s an analogy is that by the nature of the case it’s hard for us to imagine what these new forms of interaction will be, and how rewarding they might be, but here’s the analogy. Consider two card games: one is the child’s game of “go fish” and the other is contract bridge. Now it might turn out that in the future if huge numbers of people are cognitively enhanced, they will look back at the kinds of activities that people in our world perform and say “that was like children playing go fish.” Think about the kinds of interactions that we now have, and the kinds of enjoyments and productivity we can have because of the Internet. If you try and ramp that up, if you magnify it by many orders of magnitude, you might begin to get an idea of how human life could be if many hundreds of millions of people were cognitively enhanced.

Because TDCS is thought to pair especially well with active learning, it’s been suggested that it might be grafted on to media devices of one sort or another. Some have even imagined that in the future iPads and Kindles may come with these electrodes attached, so that you could read in some heightened state of neuronal connectivity. If such a technology were to become safe and available, what would be the first thing you’d read while attached to it? I’ve actually heard that the people using this stuff in labs are using it on themselves the way in the way that the rest of us use coffee breaks Buchanan: It’s funny; I’ve actually heard that the people using this stuff in labs are using it on themselves the way in the way that the rest of us use coffee breaks. But that’s a good question, I might go back and try to read an organic chemistry text that I had a lot of trouble with as an undergraduate. Or maybe I’d try to read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in the original German and see if it’s still as impenetrable to me as it was thirty years ago. You’re obviously someone at the outer edge, the innovating edge, of a particular field. I’m curious as to whether you’d want to use cognitive enhancement technologies in order to go deeper in that field, or would you try to expand your range of abilities, like you mentioned with the organic chemistry. Buchanan: I think that’s a question that many people are facing on a smaller scale, because as information becomes available more readily through the Internet, more forms of independent learning are available, and as people live longer, at least people in relatively affluent societies, they’re facing this question. They may have specialized in something for most of their productive life, but now they realize they have another twenty years--I’m 63 years old right now, and I’m sort of thinking about what I want to be doing for the next fifteen or twenty years, however long it is that I’m going to be alive. And that’s a real question, the question of whether I should keep hammering away at the things that I do and try to do them better, or whether I should make some kind of radical change and go into some new area, or a diversity of areas, and I think that if the technologies we’re talking about are developed it’s going to add to the scope of that kind of choice, and I think that’s probably a good thing.

PROCESS twelve

You Need To Get Into Flow: Have you ever been so engrossed in an activity that you completely lost track of time? What an incredible feeling it is to “come to” and realize that for an hour or more you achieved perfect concentration, your thoughts and emotions precisely channeled, totally aligned with the task at hand. No preoccupation, no anxiety, no blocks, nothing to impede the flow. WHAT IS FLOW?

Researchers describe flow as a unique state of concentration in which action seems to be effortless. Whether painting, writing, planning, scheming, inventing, or running a 10K, you feel alert, unselfconscious and totally absorbed in the present moment. Flow is a state entered when you are performing at your peak or stretching beyond former limits. Emotions are positive and energized, yet your attention is so focused on the task at hand that you may not be aware of feelings at all except in retrospect. Everything but the task is forgotten—time, surroundings, even yourself. Awareness and action become one. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has studied and written about flow, compares it to what sports psychologists call reaching the “zone,” a state of transcendent absorption that seems to push champion athletes beyond former limits. The primary difference between flow and the zone is motivation. The point of reaching the zone is to win. Achieving flow is usually an end in itself. Daniel Goleman suggests that flow is “emotional intelligence at its best.” Not only are feelings incredibly positive (rapture, spontaneous joy), all of the usual emotional static is absent. In flow, senses, feelings, actions, and thoughts are perfectly attuned and you respond to feedback from the task or activity itself. The painter communes with the painting, the writer “becomes” her heroine, the architect moves about inside the building on her drawing board, the rock climber is part of the mountain.


People who are performing in a state of flow make difficult tasks look easy and natural. They are focused and attentive, but completely relaxed. According to Goleman, this parallels what is happening in the brain, where even the most challenging tasks are accomplished by a minimum expenditure of mental energy. In flow, the brain is in a cool, quiet state. Where you might expect more brain activity, there is actually less. Your brain operates on four main frequencies or waves: beta (13-25 cycles per second, or CPS), alpha (8-12 CPS), theta (4-7 CPS), and delta (.5 to 3 CPS). If you’re wide awake and alert, for example talking or trying to solve problem at home or work, your brain is probably “transmitting” and “receiving” at 13 to 25 cycles per second—the beta level. However, it is probably in the alpha state that heightened powers of concentration and creativity, as well as great mental and athletic performances, are achieved. Alpha brain waves produce a conscious state of relaxed wakefulness which is characteristic of flow. British learning innovator Colin Rose says, “This is the brain wave that characterizes relaxation and meditation, the state of mind during which you daydream, let your imagination run. It is a state of relaxed alertness that facilitates inspiration, fast assimilation of facts and heightened memory.” It’s easy to get hooked on flow. Once you’ve been there, you’ll want to return. The desire to re-experience this blissful state can provide the motivation to get better and better at something, perfect your skills, take on greater challenges. I can’t think of a better, more intrinsic motivator. To flow. . . you have to grow. 

Concentration At Its Best Dianne Schilling Forbes, 2013


Jacob Sutton


PROCESS fourteen

Biohacking: Technology & the Next Stage of Human Evolution BY KYLE PEARCE ON DIY GENIUS

Our own human evolution is struggling to keep up

Fortunately, there are other ways you can more

with that of technology. Despite the fact our own

holistically hack your biology by using technology

evolution might be gaining speed, it still takes a long

to measure, improve and optimize important parts

time for a new genetic ‘feature’ to spread through

of your lifestyle like diet, exercise, sleep and your

society. Compare that to computers, the internet, and

stress levels.

mobile phones, which have spread like wildfire in mere decades. It’s not just how quickly they spread, but


that they getting far more advanced in very little time. Do-it-yourself biology experiments. Amal is just Technology is running ahead, leaving us in

one example of the many so-called “grinders” out

evolutionary dust.

there, each trying to hack their biology for personal development. Dave Asprey is another, he runs

Biohacking, according to Amal Graafstra, can be

BulletProof Executive and claims biohacking “is the

the new human evolution. We can use technology

art and science of changing the environment inside

to enhance ourselves with more clearly defined

and outside yourself so you can perform at a level

upgrades than our own bodies can supply, and

you want, it’s about owning your own body instead

much faster too. Amal became well known when he

of it owning you.” Dave has spent 15 years and over

implanted a “do-it-yourself” RFID (radio-frequency

$300,000 to hack his biology, and is now producing

identification) device in his hand that allowed him

a special blend of coffee that includes grass-fed Yak

to prove his identity and unlock doors, turn on his

butter among other endeavours.

computer and more, all by waving his hand close to the device. This is an extreme example of biohacking.


Ellen Jorgensen set up Genspace to promote

It’s also likely that this technology will bring out

grassroots citizen science and access to bio-

our competitive side. Using gamification techniques

technology in New York, she’s currently working on

people will be constantly challenged and will be able

DNA barcoding plants. Heather Dewey-Hagborg is

to share how hard they are working or how far they

creating portraits from a single hair in her project

can run on social networks, which can encourage

‘Stranger Visions.’ 3D printed organic tissue will soon

their friends and colleagues to up their game.

make it possible to have organs created on demand. The list goes on. Collecting data on oneself isn’t exactly new, but As technology changes so does the potential for new

technology is making it far easier and more versatile,

biohacks, the sky really is the limit.

to the point it can be done in the background with very little effort. Using it will allow you to become

Quantified Self

happier, healthier, and more motivated — and you’ll be able to see why.

Closely related to biohacking, quantified self is all about acquiring data related to you and your life —

The Next Stage of Human Evolution

anything from how many calories you eat to how far you walk, your blood sugar level to how long you

Biohacking and quantified self stand as two of the

sleep at night.

biggest areas of development in the near future that will push human evolution forward. We’re

Using wearable technology we can record and

already seeing how the free access to information

analyze many different aspects of ourselves, allowing

online is empowering people to study optimal

insight into our own health and well-being, showing

health and wellness, but with wearable technology

us when and how we make certain mistakes, or

the science of optimal living will become much

where we can make improvements.

more accessible to everyone.

This kind of self-observation has obvious

At this point in the early stages of the wearable

implications in health, with it possibly becoming

technology revolution we’re really only seeing the

our owna virtual doctor; but it can also be used to

tip of the iceberg. We have the ability to make

increase productivity — by finding out when you’re

improvements to ourselves and to the world around

most productive, to why and when your mind starts

us that almost defy nature and evolution. We can

to wander, allowing us to identify how to go about

take our lives into our own hands to decide what

our day in the best way possible.

is best for us in a way that’s previously only been fathomed in legends and stories.


Zach Wise


NOOTROPICS seventeen


1 2 3 4 5

enhance memory and the ability to learn help the brain function under disruptive conditions protect the brain from chemical and physical assaults increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms lack a generalized sedative or stimulatory effect (possess few-no side effects and be virtually non-toxic)

Nootropics are often purchased in powder form, correctly dosed, and put into clear pills for consumption

PROCESS eighteen


Nootropics and the Human Lab-Rats of Reddit 3/24/15 11:00am by Sarah Zhang for Gizmodo /r/Nootropics

Eric Matzner tells me he takes 30 to 40 pills a day. He is 27 and perfectly healthy. Thanks to the pills, he says he hasn’t had a cold in years. More importantly, the regimen is supposed to optimize the hell out of his brain, smoothing right over the ravages of aging, sleep deprivation, and hangovers. Not that a guy so obsessed with health drinks much anyway.

PROCESS twenty

Productivity Drugs Like all categories vague and ill-defined, exactly


what counts as a nootropic can depend on who

on who you ask, nootropics could include every-

Modafinil, the wakefulness drug given to Air

atzner is the founder of Nootroo, one of the many companies now purveying noo-

tropics, or brain enhancement drugs. Depending thing from Adderall to caffeine, with an array of unregulated and largely untested chemicals like noopept in between. The idea of nootropics has been around since the 70s, but it’s enjoyed a recent swell of popularity, especially among the Silicon Valley bodyhacking and Soylent-guzzling set. It’s tempting to dismiss a lot of this stuff as pseudoscience and snake oil because c’mon, have you read anything about the supplements industry lately? But if you peer through the hype around nootropics, there is something interesting afoot, too. Online communities coalescing in forums like Longecity, Bluelight, and especially the subreddit /r/nootropics have become a massive crowdsourced science experiment. Their DIY science is very imperfect, but these self-experimenters have found a legitimate gap in the drug industry: Brain enhancement drugs for healthy people don’t fit neatly into an FDA category, giving little incentive for pharmaceutical companies to test these drugs. Self-experimenters are going where pharmaceutical companies don’t dare go—yet.

you ask. The most familiar substances are ones that have sparked the most handwringing media coverage about abuse: Adderall, Ritalin, and Force pilots during long missions. Some nootropics enthusiasts contend that drugs like modafinil—with dramatic effects and potentially dramatic side effects—do not count as nootropics. Or at least, they misrepresent nootropics, which include drugs that have a small but cumulative effect over the long term by optimizing cognition. “The right analogy is compound interest. You’re not going to make a million dollars in a day,” says Michael Brandt, cofounder of the company Nootrobox. “If you can be 10 percent more productive over the course of your 20s, the amount of throughput you can achieve is phenomenal.” Other popular nootropics include the herb Bacopa Monnieri to enhance memory, the peptide Noopept to combat cognitive decline, and L-theanine, an amino acid commonly found in tea. Nootropics could be plant-derived or synthesized in a lab. There are many, many more listed in /r/nootropics’s truly impressive FAQ for beginners. But two cognitive enhancers it recommends the most are—ready for it?—caffeine and L-theanine. In other words, coffee and tea. Groundbreaking, right?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves...

As Amy Arnsten, a neuroscientist at Yale who studies how neuromodulators affect higher cognition, puts another way: “I don’t think there’s any drug that makes you Einstein if you start out Homer Simpson.”

NOOTROPICS twenty-one

Science or Pseudoscience? If the recommendation of caffeine and L-theanine is disappointing for seekers of Bradley Cooper in Limitless-type superpowers, they do

only list vendors that have testing programs in

reveal that the /r/nootropics is pretty sober in its

our reliable supplier list as well.” Manufacturers

assessments of the science.

that falsely label their products are publicly called out in the forum. Of course, this testing only de-

Its beginners guide opens with a 12-paragraph

termines whether the labels are accurate. Wheth-

warning about the risks of tampering with brain

er the drugs work as purported is another story.

chemistry. Its scientific summaries of individual substances list studies with evidence both for

Given all the self-experimentation among its

and against their effectiveness. For example, the

members, the group is making every effort to

entry for Piracetam includes:

help its members use the nootropics responsibly. On /r/nootropics and its sister subreddit /r/

“In one longitudinal study piracetam use

StackAdvice (“stack” refers to the combo of pills),

was actually found to be associated with

users dish out advice and reports on new drugs,

increased cognitive decline over 20 years,

combinations, and dosages. “Best Noots for De-

though the authors caution drawing

pression?,” asks one user. “Does l-theanine cause

conclusions given the small sample size

dissociation?” asks another.

in the piracetam group.” The individual threads themselves are more freewheeling, but ones dealing with unproven substances get a “high risk” label. The subreddit has

The Problem of Crowdcourcing Clinical Trials

actually become a source of accountability for a

Even if we accept that individuals are free to

notoriously freewheeling industry.

take whatever risks they want experimenting on themselves, there’s still a glaring problem with

Moderator MisterYouAreSoDumb told me that a

using their results as data: the placebo effect. A

program to test the drugs was organized, which

patient given a sugar pill can almost miraculous-

would make sure they actually contain the in-

ly improve their test scores. A college student

gredients listed on the labels. A couple of well-

given alcohol-free beer will act drunk.

known vendors donated money to do the tests, which are usually done at a chemistry lab in Ten-

“Anything that isn’t placebo-controlled, it’s

nessee called Colmaric Analyticals.

probably not worth anything,” says Arnsten, the Yale neuroscientist. But that doesn’t mean

“I made it known to all the vendors that I would be anonymously getting sample from them from time to time, and testing them for purity,” MisterYouAreSoDumb said. “Now it is standard for vendors to have third party testing in place. We

PROCESS twenty-two

takers of nootropics aren’t deriving real benefits from popping pills. “A lot of my work is on how stress is impairing higher cognition. If you’re taking something and you think it is making you better and you relax, the placebo effect could be very powerful.” To be fair, Redditors sometimes do blind themselves in comparisons with placebos, and blind placebo-controlled trials have even been sporadically attempted. But a pseudoanonymous internet forum with participants flung all over the globe is not exactly the best place for trials that need to keep track of dozens, potentially even hundreds, of people. Confounding factors, aka all the outside influences that can affect the outcome of a study, are also hard to weed out in single-person studies. For example, work can be incredibly stressful

Early studies beginning 1970s found possible benefits to Piracetam, especially in the elderly, but this hasn’t always panned out with further studies. There’s no clear evidence it benefits healthy 20-somethings when taken over the long term. At the same time, most of these substances are so new that there aren’t many longterm studies, especially in healthy 20-somethings. Suppliers of nootropics are of course well poised to exploit this ambiguity. To its credit, the community is self-aware about all these problems. In one thread asking, “Is this a dangerous subreddit filled with pseudoscience?,” a user summed it up pretty succinctly:

the week leading up to a big launch, and then easygoing the week later. Depending on which week you do a brain test, your results will be very different. Clinical trials, however, enroll as many people as logically feasible, so that these confounding factors are averaged out. And it’s not as if these problems are endemic to crowdsourced research. Even science from prestigious researchers, published in legitimate journals, can be wrong. The scientific literature is littered with once-promising drugs that did not pan out. Take Piracetam, for example, the drug for which “nootropics” was originally coined.

“I think thats worth keeping in mind while browsing here - this is a labrat sub. What we do has often just been done on guinea pigs before. We are human testers for non-medical reasons and everybody must know for himself how far he is willing to go.”

NOOTROPICS twenty-three

The Self-Experiments When it comes to clinical research and regulation, nootropics largely exist in a gray area. “In the US, we don’t have categories for enhancement. Even if they have trials that exist, there is no FDA category

The current swelling of interest in nootropics might very well be a product of our time, an era obsessed with achievement and productivity. In 2008, an editorial by several top researchers in Nature advocated a responsible way to deal with what seemed like an inevitable future.

for them,” says Matzner. And he’s right. The FDA is set up to approve drugs for treating disorders. You have Adderall for treating ADHD or Modafinil for narcolepsy. It does not, however, have any framework for regulating drugs optimizing the brains of the perfectly healthy. If drug companies who don’t see a clear path for getting a new class of drugs approved, why risk all the money into developing one? Arnsten also points out that experiments usually begin in mice and rodents, whose higher cortexes are utterly distinct from ours. But no ethical review board is going to take kindly to jumping straight to human trials. Perhaps this is where large body of self-experimenters, who are willing to take the risk, comes in. At the very least, these communities demonstrate that the market for cognitive enhancers is very real.

“In a world in which human workspans and lifespans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools — including the pharmacological — will be increasingly useful for improved quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal and pathological age-related cognitive declines.”

Cognitive enhancement drugs may make some of us nervous, but most of us accept caffeine as a perfectly legitimate perk-me-up. Millions of us will profess to being nonfunctional without coffee, and just a tad too much makes us jittery as hell. Nootropics may just be the next iteration of caffeine. If cognitive enhancement is the future, then nootropics users are the ones pushing it forward, DIY-style.

PROCESS twnety-four


by Zoë Corbyn for the Guardian July 2015


= Greek: “nous” (mind) + “trepein” (to bend) N O OT RO P I C S

esper Noehr, 30, reels off the ingredients in the chemical cocktail he’s been taking every day before work for the past six months. It’s a mixture of exotic dietary supplements and research chemicals that he says gives him an edge in his job without ill effects: better memory, more clarity and focus and enhanced problem-solving abilities. “I can keep a lot of things on my mind at once,” says Noehr, who is chief technology officer for a San Francisco startup. The chemicals he takes, dubbed nootropics from the Greek “nous” for “mind”, are intended to safely improve cognitive functioning. They must not be harmful, have significant side-effects or be addictive. That means well-known “smart drugs” such as the prescription-only stimulants Adderall and Ritalin, popular with swotting university students, are out. What’s left under the nootropic umbrella is a dizzying array of over-the-counter


Zach Wise


supplements, prescription drugs and unclassified research chemicals, some of which are being trialled in older people with fading cognition. There is no official data on their usage, but nootropics as well as other smart drugs appear popular in the Silicon Valley. “I would say that most tech companies will have at least one person on something,” says Noehr. It is a hotbed of interest because it is a mentally competitive environment, says Jesse Lawler, a LA based software developer and nootropics enthusiast who produces the podcast Smart Drug Smarts. “They really see this as translating into dollars.” But Silicon Valley types also do care about safely enhancing their most prized asset – their brains – which can give nootropics an added appeal, he says. One drug class heavily associated with nootropics are racetams, of which there are about 20. The original nootropic, Piracetam, was first synthesised in 1964 by a chemist in Belgium who was struck by its apparent ability to boost mental functioning in even healthy individuals and its safety. A key ingredient of Noehr’s chemical “stack” is a stronger racetam called Phenylpiracetam. He adds a handful of other compounds considered to be mild cognitive enhancers. One supplement, L-theanine, a natural constituent in green tea, is claimed to neutralise the jittery side-effects of caffeine. Another supplement, choline, is said to be important for experiencing the full effects of racetams. Each nootropic is distinct and there can be a lot of

variation in effect from person to person, says Lawler. Users semi-annonymously compare stacks and get advice from forums on sites such as Reddit. Noehr, who buys his powder in bulk and makes his own capsules, has been tweaking chemicals and quantities for about five years accumulating more than two dozens of jars of substances along the way. He says he meticulously researches anything he tries, buys only from trusted suppliers and even blind-tests the effects (he gets his fiancée to hand him either a real or inactive capsule). Not that everyone likes to talk about using the drugs. People don’t necessarily want to reveal how they get their edge and there is stigma around people trying to become smarter than their biology dictates, says Lawler. Another factor is undoubtedly the risks associated with ingesting substances bought on the internet and the confusing legal statuses of some. Phenylpiracetam, for example, is a prescription drug in Russia. It isn’t illegal to buy in the US, but the man-made chemical exists in a no man’s land where it is neither approved nor outlawed for human consumption, notes Lawler. Nootroo and Nootrobox are two San Francisco nootropics startups that launched last year. Their founders come from the tech scene and their products are squarely aimed at the tech crowd seeking the convenience of not having to build their own combinations. Each claims big-name Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors among their users, though neither will name them.

PROCESS twenty-six

Nootrobox co-founder Geoffrey Woo declines a caffeinated drink in favour of a capsule of his newest product when I meet him in a San Francisco coffee shop. The entire industry has a “wild west” aura about it, he tells me, and Nootrobox wants to fix it by pushing for “smarter regulation” so safe and effective drugs that are currently unclassified can be brought into the fold. Predictably, both companies stress the higher goal of pushing forward human cognition. “I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created,” says Nootroo founder Eric Matzner. Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, doesn’t dismiss the possibility of nootropics to enhance cognitive function in healthy people. She would like to see society think about what might be considered acceptable use and where it draws the line – for example, young people whose brains are still developing. But she also points out a big problem: long-term safety studies in healthy people have never been done. Most efficacy studies have only been short-term. “Proving safety and efficacy is needed,” she says. Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about

“I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created” - NOOTROO FOUNDER ERIC MATZNER

10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities) The Nootroo arrives in a shiny gold envelope with the words “proprietary blend” and “intended for use only in neuroscience research” written on the tin. It has been designed, says Matzner, for “hours of enhanced learning and memory”. The capsules contain either Phenylpiracetam or Noopept (a peptide with similar effects and similarly uncategorised) and are distinguished by real flakes of either edible silver or gold. They are to be alternated between daily, allowing about two weeks for the full effect to be felt. Also in the capsules are L-Theanine, a form of choline, and a types of caffeine which it is claimed has longer lasting effects. I can’t try either of the products myself – I am pregnant and my doctor doesn’t recommend it – but my husband agrees to. He describes the effect of the Nootrobox product as like having a cup of coffee but not feeling as jittery. “I had a very productive day, but I don’t know if that was why,” he says. His Nootroo experience ends after one capsule. He gets a headache, which he is convinced is related, and refuses to take more. “It is just not a beginner friendly cocktail,” offers Noehr.

NOOTROPICS twenty-seven

HISTORY OF NOOTROPICS Understanding the modern phenomenon of smart drugs has been a challenge for many people. Even the term “nootropics” seems to be alien and somewhat difficult to write or pronounce. However, the history of the neuro enhancers is a fascinating one and something that has yet to be told. The following article will provide you some background into how nootropics were originally found, why they are being used, and how it has changed over time. The nootropic scene today looks quite different from a few years ago and even more so than when first found.

Nootropics in 1970s

Nootropics Today

The first nootropic drug was found in the 1960s and utilized first as a tool to help people with motion sickness. After that episode, the drug was tested for memory enhancement. In 1971 the first studies were done on piracetam as a nootropic drug that could improve memory. With the advent of this drug, the term “nootropics” was actually coined by a Romanian doctor named Dr. Corneliu Giurgea. With his tests on piracetam, he decided to use a Greek combination of “nous” meaning “mind” and “trepein” meaning “to bend”. Literally, the drugs were able to help bend the mind.

Today, people are realizing that the nootropic drugs are far more useful and less risky than ever before. The many decades of tests have proven how important the drugs can be not only for people who want to enhance their lives, but also those who want to just be healthy in general.

Since then, the studies of piracetam have been done all around the world to focus on specific aspects. Understanding whether racetams can help to improve memory with choline, testing neuro protective benefits with Alzheimer’s patients, and much more. The tests expanded to other analogues of piracetam, such as aniracetam and oxiracetam, where studies remained equally upbeat. However, this was but a small fraction of the nootropic drugs studied over the past few decades. At first the studies were done on rats and animals to test whether it was a statistically significant improvement. Then toxicity studies came and finally they were done on willing human patients. As people have found the nootropic drugs, they have been wary without the adequate proof

Neuro enhancing drugs can be incredibly effective for anyone who is trying to get ahead in the modern world. Just a few years ago it wasn’t even that popular as it was taboo to take the drugs outside of a prescription. Today it seems a lot more interesting to get involved within the industry and even partake in the pills themselves.

PROCESS twenty-eight

A GUIDE TO DIFFERENT T YPES OF NOOTROPICS from There are many different classes of nootropic brain-boosting drugs that can help you improve your memory, focus better, and learn with more ease. Typically, nootropics are broken down into the following seven categories of compounds: Natural Nootropics, Racetams, Choline, Ampakines, Vitamin B Derivatives, Peptides and so-called “Smart Drugs”. Deciding which type to use is a matter of first determining your desired results and matching them to the correct nootropic. In some cases, you can use a nootropic stack to combine supplements from several of these categories at once.

Natural Nootropics Herbal or Natural Nootropics are any type of plant based or plant derived substances that have been shown to improve brain health and ability. Examples of some of the best herbal nootropics include Bacopi Monneri, Vinpocetine, Ginkgo Biloba, and Huperzine-A. In general, natural nootropics are less effective than some of their synthetic cousins, but you can stack several of these compounds together to improve your results. Natural nootropics also tend to be very safe.

Smart Drugs So-called “Smart Drugs” are often confused with nootropics but many drugs that fall into this category would not actually be considered nootropics. For example, Smart Drugs that are amphetamine-based such as Adderall are stimulants and therefore would not technically constitute nootropics. However, there are some eugeroic drugs like Modafinil that cross the divide. Modafinil is a prescription drug in the USA used to treat excessive sleepiness and fatigue. Modafinil is believed to raise levels of the brain neurotransmitter hypocretin which promotes alertness, energy, and increases motivation levels. Because Modafinil is heavily regulated in the United States and elsewhere, many people will opt instead to take the non-regulated Adrafinil as part of a nootropic stack. Adrafinil actually converts into modafinil when ingested. It is commonly used as a studying aid because it promotes wakefulness and has been associated with improving concentration in individuals with ADHD.

NOOTROPICS twenty-nine

Vitamin B Derivatives A small number of synthetic nootropics have been derived from the class of B Vitamins. For example, Sulbutiamine (also known by the trade name Arcalion) is a derivative of Thiamine or Vitamin B1. Sulbutamine is used as a treatment for fatigue, increasing energy levels and alertness. Studies also show that Sulbutiamine improves memory function by potentiating the transmission of choline, dopamine, and glutamate. Sulbutiamine has been shown to improve cognitive performance in Alzheimer’s patients, schizophrenics and in mice, though so far no studies have been conducted on widespread human usage.

Choline Choline and other Acetylcholine intermediates are frequently stacked with Racetams to get better results. Because Racetams stimulate the receptors that produce Acetylcholine, supplementing with additional choline ensures that there is enough Acetylcholine to be released when the receptors are activated. The end result is higher levels of this neurotransmitter in the brain leading to enhanced comprehension and cognitive functioning. There are a few different sources of Choline that you can use as a nootropic but some are less effective than others. For example, Alpha GPC, Citicholine, and Centrophenoxine are known to be good sources of choline to use as nootropics. These are all acetylcholine intermediates and are also much less likely to cause side effects when taken in normal dosahes. Choline Bitartrate, on the other hand, may be cheaper but does not produce as significant results and may cause more side effects such as headaches.



There are several different peptide nootropics available these days, but the most common and best performing one is Noopept. Noopept is a Russian developed nootropic which is derived from Racetams. Noopept has famously earned the reputation of being 1000 times more potent than Piracetam. This peptide is highly bioavailable and is effective at penetrating the blood-brain barrier meaning that you can take less of it and still achieve substantial results.

Ampakines are some of the strongest nootropics available and are relatively new substances in the field of brain research. Ampakines are known to be powerful AMPA and NDMA Glutamate receptor agonists which means they increase levels of glutamate in the blood. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that has an important role in synaptic plasticity, making it critical to the processes of learning and memory. Ampakines supplementation in particular is believed to have highly positive effects on increasing attention span and alertness. And unlike stimulants such as caffeine and Ritalin, Ampakines do not cause the same unpleasant side effects like restlessness, insomnia, and anxiety.

Noopept stimulates both AMPA and NDMA receptors responsible for releasing glutamate and Ach receptors which control levels of Acetylcholine. This makes it similar to both racetams and ampakines. Noopept also stimulates the release of Nerve Growth Factor which is a protein necessary for the grown and maintenance of neurons and nerve cells. All of these factors make Noopept one of the strongest nootropics available with positive impact on memory, learning, processing, alertness, motivation, and energy.


Racetams such as Piracetam, Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, and Primaracetam are weak stimulators of the AMPA receptors and are therefore sometimes considered to be Ampakines. However, substances like Sunifiram and Unifiram are much better stimulators of glutamate receptors and are much more potent than Piracetam. At this point, there has not been sufficient research into Ampakines like Sunifiram and Unifiram to determine their long-terms effects for human use. While this class of nootropics remains interesting from a research perspective, you are better off at present sticking with the Racetam Ampakines like Piracetam and Aniracetam for Glutamate receptor activation.

Racetams were the first nootropics ever invented and to this day they remain the most widely used. There are approximately twenty different types of Racetams, but the most common are Piracetam, Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, and Pramiracetam. All racetams are similar in that they share a standard Pyrrolidone nucleus chemical structure and stimulate receptors in the brain responsible for releasing Acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is one of the most important neurochemical neurotransmitters in the brain, serving to transmit nerve impulses and other signals across synapses. Your brain is essentially a network of neurons connected by synapses. With higher levels of neurotransmitters, your cognitive function speeds up causing improvements to several different areas such as motivation, learning, memory, concentration, and awareness all at once. Racetams are also neuroprotective and can speed up the rate at which brain cells are regrown and slow down the rate at which they deteriorate and die. Some racetams also stimulate Glutamate receptors making them hybrids that also belong to the Ampakine family of nootropics.

PROCESS thirty

Depression 5-HTP L-Tryptophan Mucuna Pruriens

Sulbutamine L-Tyrosine Lithium Orotate

GABA Inositol Kava

L-Theanine Phenibut Picamilon

Ashwagandha Chamomile Lemon Balm

Rhodiola Rosea Phosphatidylserine Valerian Root

Noopept Pircetam Phosphatidylserine Pregnenolone Vinpocetine Vitamin B Complex

Acetyl L-Carnitine Alpha GPC Centrophenoxine Ginko Biloba Lion’s Mane Mushroom

Acetyl L-Carnitine BCAAs Caffeine

Creatine D-Ribose Green Tea Extract Hordenine

5-HTP GABA Phenibut

L-Theanine Melatonin Magnesium

Galantamine Choline

Alpha GPC Huperzine A


Stress Relief

Brain Support


Sleep Aids

Lucid Dreaming

NOOTROPICS thirty-one

Concentration Aniracetam Noopept Pycnogenol Pregnenolone

Pramiracetam L-Tyrosine Mucuna Pruriens Modfinil

Krill Oil Citicholine Bacopa Monnieri

Ginko Biloba Panax Ginseng Phosphatidylserine Zinc

Lemon Balm Valerian Root

Ginko Biloba Kava Lavender

Chondroitin Diindolymethane Glucosamine Krill Oil Boswellia Cissus Quadrangularis

Collagen Conjugated Linoleic Acid Curcumin Fish Oil Flax Seed Oil L-Lysine

Alpha Lipoic Acid Astaxanthin Creatine CoQ10 Grape Seed Extract

Milk Thistle Extract N-Acetyl Cysteine Pine Bark Extract Pterostilbene Resveratrol Vitamin C

Artemisnin Astragalus Chaga Mushroom Cordyceps Mushroom Ginger

Lactobacillus Acidophilus Panax Ginseng Reishi Mushroom Turmeric Zinc


Herbal Sleep Aids

Inflamation & Joints


Immune Support

PROCESS thirty-two


Iodized salt is so commonplace in the U.S. today that you may never have given the additive a second thought. But new research finds that humble iodine has played a substantial role in cognitive improvements seen across the American population in the 20th century. Iodine is a critical micronutrient in the human diet— that is, something our bodies can’t synthesize that we have to rely on food to obtain—and it’s been added to salt (in the form of potassium iodide) since 1924. Originally, iodization was adopted to reduce the incidence of goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland. But research since then has found that iodine also plays a crucial role in brain development, especially during gestation. Iodine deficiency today is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation in the world. It’s estimated that nearly one-third of the world’s population has a diet with too little iodine in it, and the problem isn’t limited to developing countries—perhaps one-fifth of those cases are in Europe, where iodized salt is still not the norm. Iodine’s Natural Experiment

With this background, then, a group of economists saw a natural experiment: comparing the intelligence of children born just before 1924—the year iodization began—and those born just after. James Freyer, David Weil and Dimitra Politi used military data from the early 1900s 1920s, when World War II drove millions of men and women to enlist. Recruits all took a standardized intelligence test as part of their enlistment. Researchers didn’t have access to the test scores themselves, but they had a clever substitute: smarter recruits were assigned to the Air Forces while the less bright ones went to the Ground Forces.

NOOTROPICS thirty-three

This allowed the researchers to infer test scores depending on which branch a recruit was selected for. Intelligence data were paired with birthdate and hometown, since iodine levels in the soil and water vary significantly from place to place. To estimate which regions were naturally high-iodine and which were low, the researchers referred to nationwide statistics collected after World War I on the prevalence of goiter. In all, researchers had sufficient data on about 2 million male recruits born between 1921 and 1927. Stark Improvements

The economists found that in the lowest-iodine areas— the bottom quarter of the study population—the introduction of iodized salt had stark effects. Men from these regions born in 1924 or later were significantly more likely to get into the Air Force and had an average IQ that was 15 points higher than their predecessors. Nationwide, that averages out to a 3.5-point rise in IQ because of iodization, the researchers report in a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The initiative wasn’t without its drawbacks—sudden iodine supplementation among people who are deficient can cause thyroid-related deaths. The researchers estimate that 10,000 deaths in the decades after 1924 were caused by salt iodization. But on the positive side, iodine deficiency and its symptoms were vanquished almost overnight. And iodine’s mental benefits may even help explain the Flynn Effect, which observes that IQ rose about 3 points per decade in developed countries throughout the 20th century. It’s been thought that improved health and nutrition were the driving forces of the Flynn Effect. Now, it appears that iodine alone was responsible for roughly one decade of that remarkable climb. All the more reason, then, for the rest of the world to follow suit and relegate iodine deficiency to the history books. Lisa Raffensperger July 23, 2013 - Discover Magazine

PROCESS thirty-six






These charts represent the rise in Google searches of the terms “tDCS” and “nootropics” in recent times. The data also showed that “nootropics” was searched mainly in the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK, while “tDCS” appeared mainly in the US, UK, and Vietnam (skewed by the name of their soccer team TDCS DONG THAP FC)

MASTERED MIND thirty-seven





Baylor College of Medicine

PROCESS thirrt-eight

tDCS thirty-nine


“Cells that wire together, fire together” - Carla Shatz

PROCESS fourty


tDCS fourty-one

W “

hat does this part of the brain do, again?” I asked, pointing to the electrode on my right temple.

“That’s the right inferior frontal cortex,” said Vince Clark, the director of the University of New Mexico Psychology Clinical Neuroscience Center, in Albuquerque. “It does a lot of things. It evaluates rules. People get thrown in jail when it’s impaired. It might help solve math problems. You can’t really isolate what it does. It has emotional components.” It was early December, and night was falling, though it was barely five. The shadows were getting longer in the lab. My legs felt unusually calm. Something somewhere was buzzing. Outside the window, a tree stood black against the deepening sky. “Verbal people tend to get really quiet,” Clark said softly. “That’s one effect we noticed. And it can do funny things with your perception of time.” The device administering the current started to beep, and I saw that twenty minutes had passed. As the current returned to zero, I felt a slight burning under the electrodes—both the one on my right temple and another, on my left arm. Clark pressed some buttons, trying to get the beeping to stop. Finally, he popped out the battery, the nine-volt rectangular kind. This was my first experience of transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS—a portable, cheap, low-tech procedure that involves sending a low electric current (up to two milliamps) to the brain. Research into tDCS is in its early stages. A number of studies suggest that it may improve learning, vigilance, intelligence, and working memory, as well as relieve chronic pain and the symptoms of depression, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia. However, the studies have been so small and heterogeneous that meta-analyses have failed to prove any conclusive effects, and long-term risks have not been established. The treatment has yet to receive F.D.A. approval, although a few hospitals, including Beth Israel, in New York, and Beth Israel Deaconess, in Boston, have used it to treat chronic pain and depression.

“There are different kinds,” Clark said. “Sometimes, there’s a real noise. It’s rare, but it happens with dogs.” He told me a story about a dog with this rare affliction. When a microphone was placed in its ear, everyone could hear a ringing tone—the result, it turned out, of an oversensitive tympanic membrane. “The poor dog,” he said. We drove the rest of the way in silence.


rowing up in Detroit, Clark was interested in philosophy and thought he would study it in college. But, after realizing that all the questions that interested him came down to perception and the brain, he majored in psychobiology, at U.C.L.A. This was in the nineteen-eighties. “By luck, I picked a field that was about to explode,” he said. As an undergraduate, Clark took a job at a hospital, building electrodes for insertion into the brains of epileptics during surgery, to locate the epileptic regions of the brain and the regions necessary for cognitive function. The patient’s head would be sawed open under local anesthetic. Fully conscious, the patient would be shown flashcards with words or pictures while the electrodes recorded which regions responded to the stimuli. Clark was deeply impressed by how localized neuronal responses were. Sometimes, a picture of a particular celebrity would cause a single neuron to become especially active. Similar observations led scientists in a later study to posit the existence in one patient of a “Halle Berry neuron.” Just before Clark got his Ph.D., the fMRI machine was developed—a huge moment for neuroscience. The technology measures brain activity in real time, by monitoring blood flow. Scientists today can look at an fMRI and see what happens in the brain of a pianist playing Bartók, a Carmelite nun having a religious experience, a depressed person contemplating suicide, or a schizophrenic hearing voices. As a professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, Clark began working on an addiction study, using fMRI to look at the brains of recovering addicts. To his surprise, he noticed that the fMRI could show which of the recovered addicts were likely to relapse in six months. Clark believes that it may be possible to stimulate a relapser’s brain with tDCS to make it look and act more like a non-relapser’s.

“By luck, I picked a field that was about to explode” - Vince Clark

“What’s the plan now?” Clark asked, unhooking the electrodes. I could see he was ready to answer more questions. But, as warned, I felt almost completely unable to speak. It wasn’t like grasping for words; it was like no longer knowing what words were good for. Clark offered to drive me back to my hotel. Everything was mesmerizing: a dumpster in the rear-view camera, the wide roads, the Route 66 signs, the Land of Enchantment license plates. After some effort, I managed to ask about a paper I’d read regarding the use of tDCS to treat tinnitus. My father has tinnitus; the ringing in his ears is so loud it wakes him up at night. I had heard that some people with tinnitus were helped by earplugs, but my father wasn’t, so where in the head was tinnitus, and were there different kinds?

The precise physical mechanism of tDCS remains mysterious. The electric current used is too low to cause resting neurons to fire. Instead, it seems to make neurons more or less likely to fire, by changing the electrical potential of nerve-cell membranes. In other words, although tDCS can’t create new neural activity, it can enhance or reduce existing activity. The procedure uses direct current, so it has positive and negative electrodes and can have both inhibitory and excitatory effects: in general, positive current stimulates neural activity while negative current inhibits it. Clark began working on tDCS in 2007, shortly after being named scientific director of the Mind Research Network at the University of New Mexico. Funded by DARPA, the research division of the Department of Defense, his first study determined that tDCS can help subjects learn to detect hidden threats in complex images. The researchers used images from DARWARS,

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a video game designed to familiarize Army recruits with the desert roads, derelict apartment blocks, and abandoned fruit markets that are apparently typical of the Middle Eastern landscape. For most people, the concealed threats—an explosive device hidden behind an oil drum; the shadow of a sniper’s rifle protruding over a rooftop—can be identified only with training and practice. At the beginning of the study, subjects’ brains were scanned by fMRI while they received training, to show which regions were active during learning. These areas were then targeted by electrodes in a new group of subjects as they performed the same task. Half of them received active tDCS; the other half, the control group, received “sham tDCS”—a negligibly low dose. To Clark’s disbelief, the subjects who received tDCS learned the same material twice as quickly as the control group. The study was replicated by other labs, with similar results. The Air Force found that tDCS made airmen twice as accurate at identifying tanks and missile launchers in radar scans. “It’s a huge, huge effect,” Eric Claus, a neuroscientist at the Mind Research Network, told me of the original results. “As cognitive neuroscientists, we rarely see effects that large.” On hearing of Clark’s findings, Claus decided to incorporate tDCS into his own work: the treatment of alcoholism using cognitive exercises. He is currently replicating a study in which alcoholics were found to drink less after repeatedly using a joystick to push away images of beverages. Claus scans the brains of alcoholics while they perform the joystick task; he then uses tDCS to stimulate the active regions on a new group of alcoholics. Two members of the tDCS group have gone from drinking a fifth of liquor a day to not drinking at all.

program, which told them how to find F4 relative to my ears. As they were annotating my head with colored stickers, I noticed a white ceramic phrenological bust standing on the desk. Its face wore a vacant yet weary expression, and its cranium was mapped with what phrenologists had considered to be the most basic human propensities: Wonder, Parental Love, Calculation, Secretiveness. I tried to gauge the place corresponding to F4, on the top right part of the head. It seemed to be near Sublimity, or Hope. There was some trouble getting the gel-saturated sponge electrode to stay put on my hair. The students wrapped a band of elastic netting around my head, and I held it in place with one hand. Throughout the study, I could feel the band oozily creeping up the back of my skull, like an ill-fitting graduation cap. With the current off, I took two memory-related tests. In the first, the n-back test, a series of letters flashed on a screen, and I was told to decide whether each letter was the same one that flashed three letters ago. Next was a “progressive matrices” test, which involved choosing a visual pattern that matched a matrix of other patterns. After I had completed the tests, both of which I found difficult and annoying, the students turned on the tDCS. I felt a burning on F4 as the current ramped up. (A burning or tingling sensation or a metallic taste in the mouth is a common side effect, though some people don’t feel anything at all.) I took the n-back test a second time. It was slightly less annoying and seemed to go by a bit faster. Then they turned the current off, and I took the matrices test again. It seemed a little bit easier than the first time, and I felt more peaceful, but, perhaps as a result of the peaceful feeling, I ran out of time and was unable to answer two questions.

“Few claims about tDCS are free from controversy”

Few claims about tDCS are free from controversy. In the past few months, Jared Horvath, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Melbourne, published two meta-analyses of hundreds of studies, in which he claims to have found no evidence of either physiological changes to the brain or of cognitive effects from tDCS. In aggregate, Horvath says, the claims of different researchers tend to “cancel each other out.” For instance, four studies looked at whether tDCS increased glucose metabolism in the brain: two found that it did; two found that it didn’t. “It’s incredibly difficult to differentiate these effects from random chance,” Horvath told me. Horvath spent his first two years of graduate school trying unsuccessfully to get meaningful results from tDCS. “It didn’t matter what device I used, what paradigm I used—I just never found anything,” he said. The original purpose of his meta-analyses was simply to identify a reliable tDCS effect to use as a dissertation topic. Though skeptical, Horvath isn’t saying that research should be abandoned. Rather, he argues that the focus must shift from documenting various individual effects to establishing the reliability of a baseline effect through large randomized studies with standardized protocols—a view shared by most researchers.


n my second day in Albuquerque, I met with three of Clark’s researchers to try tDCS again, with a cognitive task. This time, the current would stimulate “location F4,” an area of the scalp that lies over a part of the brain associated with working memory. Two students measured my head with a tape measure and fed the information into a software

Afterward, I learned the point of the study. Previously the experimenters had found that tDCS improved performance on the n-back test. Now they were trying to determine whether the benefit was “transferrable” to a different memory-related test once the current was switched off. In my case, the answer was no: I got exactly the same score—three out of nine—both times. The students didn’t seem that surprised. They hadn’t been getting great results. “You shouldn’t feel bad,” one of them said, handing me a tissue to wipe the gel off my hair. “Some people don’t get any of them right.”


he next morning, I returned to the psychology department to try tDCS a third time. I met with Katie Witkiewitz, a U.N.M. psychologist, who recently began incorporating tDCS into her work on addiction, meditation, and mindfulness. In earlier studies, Witkiewitz and her colleagues found Vipassana, a Buddhist meditation practice, to be more effective at preventing drug relapse than either cognitive behavioral therapy or twelve-step programs. She is now embarking on research to determine if tDCS can make a meditative state deeper, easier to achieve, and longer-lasting—an attractive prospect for those who, like me, find meditation too boring and frustrating to practice with any regularity. Witkiewitz put an anode over my right temple. In a trancelike tone, she instructed me to think about my breath, to imagine a balloon slowly filling in the empty space behind my eyes, to focus all my attention on the area directly above my head. She told me to watch my thoughts come and go. In previous attempts at meditation, I had always found this the hardest

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instruction to follow. My feeling was that either I was thinking my thoughts or I wasn’t. If I was thinking them, I wasn’t watching them. If I was watching them, I wasn’t thinking them. This time, I noticed that I thought, If there were really a balloon in my head, you, neuroscientist, would be out of a job. And then, as instructed, I let the thought drift away. Although there is no quantitative test to measure the depth of a meditative state, I felt that my thoughts were, for a few hours afterward, calmer, more manageable, more countable—like a few sheep standing in a pasture instead of some demented sheep convention. My mind felt quieter, as if an inner voice had gone silent—the voice that usually says, “This is stupid, it’s a waste of time, why isn’t it over?” Some tDCS studies have involved “quieting” a part of the brain by inhibiting neural activity. An Australian group, writing in Scientific American, claims that using tDCS to inhibit left-hemisphere brain activity improves performance on certain logic problems. The authors were inspired by the “savant skills” that sometimes accompany brain damage—as in the case of a boy who, having been shot in the head, lost the ability to read and write but became able “to dismantle and reassemble multi-gear bicycles without instruction,” raising the possibility that extraordinary skills may be “latent in us all.” The authors’ study of special skills displayed by patients with autism and brain damage hints at one area of concern regarding tDCS: with brain function, as with most things, you rarely get something for nothing. As Roi Cohen Kadosh, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, puts it, “Enhancing one cognitive ability can happen at the expense of another ability.” Cohen Kadosh, the editor of a textbook called “The Stimulated Brain,” has found that applying tDCS to one part of the brain helped subjects learn a math-related task but impeded their ability to recall what they had learned. Heidi Schambra, a Columbia University neurologist who uses tDCS in her research with stroke patients, cautions against the view of tDCS as “a ‘thinking cap’ where you just put it on and everything becomes easier.” Some stroke patients recover motor function more quickly when tDCS is administered during physical therapy—but without physical therapy tDCS doesn’t seem to have any effect, and even with the therapy the effects aren’t huge. “We’re not seeing a tripling or quadrupling,” Schambra said. “It’s a few points of statistical difference.”

“Enhancing one cognitive ability can happen at the expense of another ability” - Roi Cohen Kadosh


he human drive to zap one’s head with electricity goes back at least to antiquity, and was originally satisfied by means of electric fish. “Headache even if it is chronic and unbearable is taken away and remedied forever by a live torpedo placed under the spot that is in pain,” the first-century physician Scribonius Largus wrote. He also used the torpedo, a species of ray native to the Mediterranean, to treat hemorrhoids. In the eleventh century, the Islamic polymath Avicenna reportedly recommended the placement of an electric catfish on the brow to counteract epilepsy. As late as 1762, a Dutch colonist in Guyana wrote that “when a slave complains of a bad headache” he should put one hand on his head and another on a South American electric eel and “will be helped immediately, without exception.”

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The invention, in 1745, of the Leyden jar—a device to store static electricity—enabled many new experiments in electrotherapy, not all of them deliberate. In 1783, Jan Ingenhousz, a Dutch scientist, accidentally picked up a charged Leyden jar, causing an explosion that made him temporarily lose his memory, judgment, and ability to read and write. Having found his way home with great difficulty, he went to sleep. He woke to find that his mental faculties had not only returned but had sharpened: “I saw much clearer the difficulties of every thing,” he wrote in a letter to Benjamin Franklin. “What did formerly seem to me difficult to comprehend, was now become of an easy solution.” Around the same time, Luigi Galvani’s experiments with electricity and dead frogs led to the discovery of bioelectrical impulses. Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini was the first to apply galvanic current to humans; in this way he seemingly reanimated the corpses of beheaded felons. One such demonstration, at London’s Royal College of Surgeons, may have inspired Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein’s monster. Electrotherapy on living people gained popularity in the nineteenth century. By 1850, European and American asylums used galvanization to treat hysteria, menstrual pain, depression, and psychosis. Machines for electrotherapy were sold in London department stores and leased at seaside resorts. An 1871 electrotherapy textbook outlines treatments for hundreds of conditions, such as alcoholism, paralysis, dyspepsia, mutism, and “neurasthenia”—a form of nervous exhaustion that later came to be known as Americanitis. Many of the case histories in the book involve a procedure that sounds much like tDCS: direct current is applied by sponge electrodes, with a common side effect of “intense redness and an acute burning sensation.” After such “galvanization,” patients often “find that they can read with closer attention and with greater zest; that they can pursue connected thought without fatigue, and endure mental toil and anxiety that was once intolerable.” In the twentieth century, electrotherapy gradually fell from favor. Freud, who studied it with the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, abandoned it in favor of the “talking cure,” after returning to Vienna. During the First World War, electricity was used to treat paralysis, epilepsy, and shell shock, often with disastrous results. In Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night” (1932), the hero receives a diagnosis of low patriotism and is sent to a military psychiatric hospital, where, he recalls, “they pumped us full of shocks.” Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which uses a far higher current than tDCS to trigger a full-brain seizure, gained in popularity by the nineteen-forties, but was generally considered a last resort for only the most serious cases. After the Second World War, interest shifted to antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs. The decline of electrotherapy coincided with the rise of brain imaging. The first milestone was the invention, in 1924, of the electroencephalograph (EEG) by Hans Berger, an enigmatic figure who may later have coöperated with the Nazi government, and who hanged himself in 1941. The EEG, which measures electrical discharge from the brain, was the first in a series of technologies to show that the brain physically changes depending on what we do, think, and feel, and that the brains of the mentally ill function differently from those of the healthy. Berger’s innovation had its roots in his interest in psychic phenomena. As a young man in the Prussian Army, Berger once fell off a horse and was almost run over by an artillery gun. The previous night, his sister, to whom he was very close, had

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dreamed that he fell off a horse and broke his leg. The sister was so alarmed by the dream that she had their father send Berger a telegram; it reached Berger immediately after his accident. Berger was convinced that his brain had sent electrical signals to his sister. And he was right, almost: the brain does generate electrical impulses, and they change depending on your mental state. Though too weak to travel through the air, they may be recorded by electrodes placed on the scalp. Your brain can’t tell your faraway sister that you’re about to fall off a horse, but it can tell an EEG machine that you’re frightened or having a seizure or asleep. The resurgence of interest in electrical brain stimulation began in 2000, after scientists in Göttingen proved that low-current “galvanization,” the procedure now known as tDCS, could change brain function. This discovery coincided with a wave of interest in neuroplasticity—the brain’s capacity for change— and with the rise of increasingly sophisticated imaging tools, like fMRI. The number of tDCS studies has risen steadily since 2000, with more than four hundred studies published last year.


erhaps the most dramatic clinical use of tDCS has been in the treatment of auditory hallucinations. In Albuquerque, Clark introduced me to Jaime Campbell, a forty-yearold woman who has been hearing voices since she was fifteen, and who recently participated in a study at U.N.M. Heavyset, with a placid and cheerful demeanor, she was carrying a crochet project in a tote bag labelled “Bible Bag.” The first voice she had ever heard, she said, was the voice of God. She had been sitting at a computer table at the time, and God said she would go to South Africa and die a martyr. At sixteen, Campbell began to be followed by the man she called “the chaperon.” He walked six feet behind her, and would rape and kill her if she did anything wrong. “I didn’t cuss. I didn’t lie. I didn’t cheat. I didn’t even say the word ‘sex,’ ” Campbell recalled. “I was a very well-behaved teen.”

At nineteen, Campbell was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. People asked her then why she had never mentioned the chaperon. “Because it was normal,” she said. “Every sixteen-yearold has a chaperon.” An estimated seventy-five per cent of schizophrenics hear voices, and twenty-five to thirty per cent of those cases don’t respond to medication. The majority of the voices are nasty, telling subjects that they are worthless or should commit suicide. Campbell told me that her voices all belong to men, with the exception of one “non-gendered voice” that used to talk about her in the third person. “She’s stupid,” it would say. “No, she’s not stupid—she’s ugly. She’s not ugly—she hates people. She doesn’t hate people—they hate her.” Once, the voices said that anyone she spoke to would explode. She didn’t speak a word for three days and nights, to keep everyone safe. Campbell’s other symptoms have included visual hallucinations and delusions of persecution. Once, she saw four demons—red misshapen creatures with tails—hanging up near the ceiling in the four corners of the room, watching her. Campbell was raised in a nondenominational charismatic church, and religion is still extremely important to her. She believes that she’s more in touch with the spiritual world than most people and that the visions and voices come to her from God. But she also believes that her mind “twists things,” that it causes her suffering beyond what’s ordinary or bearable.

“I never had a response like tDCS, even with the best medication combinations that we’ve come up with, I’ve never had something that does as complete a job” - Jaime Campbell

For the past twenty years, Campbell has been in treatment with medications and with ECT, which helped with her depression but didn’t silence the voices. Last summer, she began an experimental treatment offered by Clark and Robert Thoma, a U.N.M. psychologist who specializes in schizophrenia. The trial is based on a randomized study done in France in 2012, in which thirty schizophrenics were given tDCS for five days. The treatment decreased auditory hallucinations by thirty-one per cent, and the

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benefits lasted, and in some cases grew, over the next three months.

“It is the rare human who doesn’t wish to change something about his or her brain”

Campbell received two twenty-minute tDCS sessions a day for five days. After the very first session, she felt a reduction in the “tea party”: an ambient murmuring and clinking that she always heard in the background. Gradually, particular voices went mute. By midweek, Campbell says, her head was completely quiet.

“I never had a response like tDCS,” Campbell says. “Even with the ECT, even with the best medication combinations that we’ve come up with, I’ve never had something that does as complete a job.” Unlike ECT, which lost effectiveness over repeated treatments, tDCS seemed to help more and more, even after the study had ended. For weeks, Campbell didn’t hear any voices at all. Everything became easier: thinking, grocery shopping, driving a car. The most revolutionary thing, she says, was “to not have someone constantly telling me that I’m a horrible person.” People used to tell her that she was a good person, but she never believed them, because the voices said the opposite—and didn’t they know her best? When they finally shut up, she said that she felt like a woman who had been rescued from an abusive husband. Clark and Thoma will eventually replicate the randomized controls of the French experiment, but so far Campbell is one of only two people to have completed their study, and the fluctuating nature of schizophrenia symptoms makes it dangerous to infer too much from her experience. When I met her, four months had passed since her last tDCS session. The voices had started to return, though only sporadically. Over the weekend, she had heard a voice at Walmart telling her she was a bad person and that people were going to blow her up. But when she left Walmart the voice went quiet. She still feels better than she did before the study. But every time she hears a voice she feels terrified that “they’re going to come back full-fledged.”


efore tDCS can be approved by the F.D.A. and enter widespread use, there have to be large randomized controlled trials. Protocols must be standardized—the placement of the electrodes, the amount of current, and the duration,

frequency, and number of sessions. In the meantime, there is a device called ActivaDose, which has been cleared by the F.D.A. for another purpose (administering drugs transdermally), and which can also administer tDCS; physicians may legally prescribe it “off label,” which is how some hospitals can offer the therapy. Several Internet companies sell tDCS kits for nonmedical uses, such as boosting cognition or enhancing video-game performance. There is a tDCS subreddit, a do-it-yourself tDCS blog and podcast, and a certain amount of YouTube footage showing young men with little scientific background zapping their brains in the hope of learning German or playing better chess. It is the rare human who doesn’t wish to change something about his or her brain. In my case, it’s depression, which runs on both sides of my family. I’ve been taking antidepressants for almost twenty years, and they help a lot. But every couple of years the effects wear off, and I have to either up the dose or switch to a different drug—neither process can be repeated indefinitely without the risk of liver or kidney damage. So although my symptoms are under control for now, I worry, depressively, about what will happen when I exhaust the meds. As I was researching this piece, my attention was caught by a number of randomized controlled trials showing a benefit from tDCS for depression. (The data are insufficient to allow definitive conclusions, but larger trials are in progress.) I was almost embarrassed by how excited I felt. What if it was possible to feel less sad—to escape the deterministic cycle of sadness? What if you could do the treatment yourself, at home, without the humiliation and expense of doctors’ visits? I asked Vince Clark whether any private physicians use tDCS outside of a research setting. He knew of only one: James Fugedy, a Yale-trained anesthesiologist who practices in Atlanta. I spoke with Fugedy on the phone and learned that, since 2007, he has treated between three hundred and four hundred patients with tDCS, principally for chronic pain and depression. Most of his patients self-administer tDCS at home: Fugedy charges twenty-six hundred dollars for a package including the device, a diagnostic and training session, and follow-up consultations in person or over Skype.

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Early this year, I took a plane to Atlanta. Fugedy’s practice is in a medical park about half an hour from the airport. The sign on the suite door—“Brain Stimulation Clinic”—seemed to suggest a large staff, but the only people there were Fugedy and a dreadlocked office manager in scrubs. Fugedy, a sixty-five-year-old New Jersey transplant, combines a soft-spoken demeanor with boundless energy. He told me that he first learned about tDCS from a 2006 study on fibromyalgia, published by scientists at Harvard. He mentioned the paper to a patient, saying he hoped that the F.D.A. would approve the technology soon. “I’m old,” she replied. “Why can’t we do it now?” Fugedy practiced tDCS a few times on himself and then began to treat his fibromyalgia patient. After five sessions, she experienced a greater reduction in pain than she had on any other treatment. Fugedy went on to use the tDCS with other chronic-pain patients. In 2008, he got a call from a chronically depressed electrical engineer in southern Georgia. His doctor had prescribed ECT, but he was worried about possible memory loss; he had heard of tDCS, and wanted to try it first. Fugedy agreed, and the engineer began commuting to Atlanta five days a week. After four weeks, his mood had improved, and he stopped the treatment. Three months later, when the symptoms returned, Fugedy got him his own stimulator and showed him how to use it. Fugedy’s recent patients include a bipolar pregnant woman who couldn’t take her medications during pregnancy and a thirty-year-old schizophrenic man who had been unable to tolerate antipsychotics. After starting tDCS, Fugedy told me, the man was able to get his first job and enroll in college. Fugedy, who has had depressive episodes himself, has been self-administering tDCS on and off for eight years. After we had been talking for an hour or two, Fugedy handed me a black plastic case about the size of a desk dictionary. Inside were two electrodes with cables and sponges, a nine-volt battery, a Velcro headband, and an ActivaDose. He showed me how to wet the sponges, fit them into the frames, and connect the electrodes to the stimulator. Fugedy thinks that the electrodes move around less if you lie down, so I lay on the examination table and slipped the electrodes underneath the Velcro headband. The anode went just over my left eye, to stimulate the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain that may be underactive in depressed people—and the cathode over the visual cortex, on the back of my head. Then I set the timer for twenty minutes and the current to two milliamps, and turned the dial to start the flow of electricity. As the current ramped up, I felt the familiar burning on my forehead and general wordlessness.

Sun shone in a halo around the corner of the window blinds. On the wall hung a picture of a woman cradling a naked infant; a pair of white wings sprouted from the child’s tiny shoulders. A cursive caption read “Hope Cherishing Love.” I felt obscurely troubled by the caption. Wasn’t it love that cherished hope, rather than the other way round? Wasn’t hope the thing with feathers? The longer I thought about it, the more the words resisted understanding and shifted places, again and again, like markers on a game board. My thoughts turned to the many patients who must have lain on this same white table and held this same brass bell, and how appropriate the image of hope was, because surely nobody would be here if he hadn’t tried a lot of other things first. I felt peaceful in the cab back to the airport. The T.S.A. didn’t try to confiscate the nine-volt battery. On the plane, I was seated beside a small girl who was playing a game called Office Jerk on her iPad. The game involved throwing a stapler at the head of an office worker. “Who’s the jerk, him or you?” the girl’s mother asked. I wondered if I should offer to improve the girl’s performance with a little stimulation to the right inferior frontal cortex, but she didn’t appear to need it. The next day, I tried tDCS at home. I felt some burning again and tightened the strap; Fugedy had said this might improve the electrode connection. It’s possible that I overdid it with the tightening, because at the end of twenty minutes I had a pink electrode-shaped square on my forehead. In the shower afterward, I felt my forehead sting under the hot water, as if sunburned. A headache that had come on at some point during Office Jerk was now insistently throbbing behind my left eyebrow. Yet, whether because of the tDCS or for some other reason, I was in excellent spirits the rest of the day, and indeed all week. (The pink square went away within minutes; the headache lingered for days.) The fact that I might have suffered a mild burn on my forehead because of a brain-zapping machine I had bought in Atlanta seemed hilarious. It was a new year, fresh snow had fallen, the holidays were finally over. New York looked beautiful. My plan to try tDCS for two weeks, to see if it made a difference in my depression, fell through for an unexpected reason: I didn’t feel depressed enough. It was a reminder, if I needed one, of how difficult it is to extract scientific facts from human experience. Even when you isolate one variable and test it in a lab with con-

My plan to try tDCS for two weeks, to see if it made a difference in my depression, fell through for an unexpected reason: I didn’t feel depressed enough

For a short time, Fugedy kept up his end of a conversation we had been having about neuroimaging. “Well, I’ll just leave you in peace,” he concluded eventually, handing me a brass handbell and leaving the room.

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trol subjects, it’s difficult to know why you’re seeing what you see; and in the messiness of everyday life, where there are any number of reasons that your mood might change from one week to the next, it’s virtually impossible to gauge the effects of applying subthreshold electricity to your own head.

The implication of placebo is extremely powerful: What if the body knows, in some sense, how to heal itself, and it’s just a matter of triggering that knowledge?


ne of the mysteries of tDCS is why some uses require a cognitive task and others don’t. The therapy makes people better at math only if it’s paired with a math task. But it seems to make depressed people feel better even if they’re just sitting there. Heidi Schambra, the neurologist who works with stroke patients, has a fascinating theory about this. She believes that, at the moment of receiving tDCS, a person in emotional or physical pain is engaged, wittingly or unwittingly, in a cognitive task: namely, the activation of the placebo response. We’re not used to viewing placebo—a positive response to a sham treatment—as a “task,” but there are many cognitive factors involved, including Pavlovian conditioning, the patient-clinician relationship, and positive expectation. Deception, Schambra points out, may not be required: sugar pills have been shown to reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, even in patients who were explicitly told that they were receiving a placebo. The implication of placebo is extremely powerful: What if the body knows, in some sense, how to heal itself, and it’s just a matter of triggering that knowledge? Schambra suspects tDCS may not merely trigger the placebo effect, as all treatments do, but actually amplify it. In other words, in a controlled tDCS

study, both active and sham groups get a placebo effect, but the active group may get a bigger effect. Schambra emphasizes that her theory is just speculation for now. She got the idea from a study that found expectancy to be an important factor in how well people responded to depression treatment: the patients who felt better were the ones who expected to feel better—not necessarily the ones who got the active versus the placebo treatment. After we hung up, I found myself thinking about what neurologists call “positive expectancy” and what the phrenologists called hope. The phrenologists already knew that hope was situated in the prefrontal cortex: “in front of conscientiousness, and behind marvelousness, being elongated in the direction of the ears.” Phrenologists were unable to detect hope in animals; in criminals, they said, it was diminished. Hope inspires and dupes us in turn, eternally promising happiness in this world and the next. In a lecture on phrenology, the French physician Broussais once produced a partial mold of Napoleon’s head. You couldn’t see everything, he said. But you could see enough of the organ of hope to conclude that it was very well developed.




While tDCS has only gained widespread popularity in recent times, the idea of using electricity to alter state of mind has a surprisingly long history...

Luigi Galvani argues that “animal electricity� is our key animating life force - our movement depends on the flow of electrically charged ions



Advancement in brain imaging technology and rediscovery of technique by Michael Nitsche leads to a studies being carried out across the spectrum of applications

Roman physician Scribonius Largus uses electric fish on patients foreheads to relieve headaches, a practice that continued throughout the middle ages

tDCS fifty-one

1960s Scientific interest in tDCS is reignighted after a series of papers that proved the practice could alter brain function by changing the rate at which neurons fire

Early 20th Century The advent of widespread electricity use sparks renewed interest in electric stimulation - Shock Therapy (ECT) begins being widely used to treat maladies

Today The internet and cheap materials help to facilitate a DIY tDCS community that can experient with the technique outside of scientific boarders

1975 Public image of Shock Therapy is tarnished by portrayal of ECS in Ken Kessy’s film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a perception that tDCS still carries today

PROCESS fifty-two


Published Nov. 2013 in the New York Times

On Friday the 13th of September, in an old brick building on 13th Street in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, a pair of electrodes was attached to my forehead, one over my brain’s left prefrontal cortex, the other just above my right eye socket. I was about to undergo transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, an experimental technique for delivering extremely low dose electrical stimulation to the brain. Using less than 1 percent of the electrical energy necessary for electroconvulsive therapy, powered by an ordinary nine-volt battery, tDCS has been shown in hundreds of studies to enhance an astonishing, seemingly implausible variety of intellectual, emotional and movement-related brain functions. And its side effects appear limited to a mild tingling at the site of the electrode, sometimes a slight reddening of the skin, very rarely a headache and certainly no seizures or memory loss. Still, I felt more than a bit apprehensive as I prepared to find out if a little bit of juice could amp up my cognitive reserves and make me, in a word, smarter.


With the electrodes in place, J. León Morales-Quezada, senior research associate at Harvard’s Laboratory of Neuromodulation, pressed a button on his computer and I felt . . . absolutely nothing. No pain. No tingling. Not even a little muscle twitching. “Is it on?” I asked.

tDCS fifty-three

After 10 minutes of charging my brain, he turned on a computerized exercise I was supposed to practice while the current continued flowing. Called an attention-switching task, it’s used by psychologists as a measure of “executive function” or “cognitive control”: the ability to overrule your urges, to ignore distractions and to quickly shift your focus. Young adults generally do better than older people; people with greater overall cognitive abilities generally perform better than those with less. Scientific papers published in leading peer-reviewed journals since 2005 have shown that tDCS can improve the speed or accuracy with which people perform this attention-switching task. Other studies have found it can improve everything from working memory to long-term memory, math calculations, reading ability, solving difficult problems, piano playing, complex verbal thought, planning, visual memory, the ability to categorize, the capacity for insight, post-stroke paralysis and aphasia, chronic pain and even depression. Effects have been shown to last for weeks or months. For my attention-switching task, Morales-Quezada explained that if I saw a plus sign on the computer screen, I had to decide whether the number of letters shown immediately after was odd

or even, and then press either the “A” key with my left hand, or the “L” key with my right. But if I saw a triangle, he said, I had to decide whether the letters (all of them the same) were vowels or consonants, again by pressing either the “A” or “L” key. Because I had only a few seconds to respond each time, and because the rule switched back and forth between odd-or-even and vowel-or-consonant, I found my fingers sometimes pressed the wrong key with a seemingly involuntary twitch, even when my conscious mind knew the correct response. It was the same maddening experience many of us have when fooling with our smartphones: meaning to press the camera icon, say, but hitting the calendar instead. After 20 minutes of stimulation, Morales-Quezada checked my results: I gave 53 correct responses, seven wrong ones, and had an average reaction time of 3.1 seconds. Over five days, I would be stimulated with tDCS for eight 20-minute sessions. If my experience matched those of participants in his studies, I was supposed to either make fewer mistakes, or get faster, significantly more so than if I were not getting stimulated. The first modern experiments with tDCS came in fits and starts. In 1981, Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, reported that by applying extremely low doses of direct-current electricity — one-third of a milliamp, not enough to power a hearing aid — to the

Nigel Parry

Morales-Quezada assured me it was. For proof, he pointed to a flat-screen on the wall, displaying signals from six electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors also attached to my head.

PROCESS fifty-four

heads of healthy volunteers, he could speed their response on a simple test of reaction time. The Italian neurophysiologist Alberto Priori began his own experiments in 1992, applying just a tiny bit more electricity, about half a milliamp. He found that enough of the electricity crossed through volunteers’ skulls — electrons flowing from the cathodal electrode to the anodal electrode — to cause brain cells near the anodal to become excited. Despite repeating the experiment multiple times to be sure of the results, it took Priori six years to get his findings published in a scientific journal, in 1998.

“PEOPLE KEPT TELLING ME IT CAN’T BE TRUE, IT’S TOO EASY AND SIMPLE” One of the first researchers to take Priori’s results seriously was Michael A. Nitsche, a clinical neurophysiologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany. “There were two lines of criticism that I heard in those days,” Nitsche said. “One line was that it couldn’t work, because it’s a very weak stimulation and it couldn’t get through the cranium. The other was that it should be very dangerous.” In a paper published in 2000, Nitsche showed that the stimulating influence of tDCS lasts for at least five minutes after the electricity stops flowing. In 2003, he reported that the treatment could affect how well a volunteer learns a simple finger movement. Nitsche has followed up with dozens of papers on tDCS.

Larger, more rigorous studies are now under way to determine the purposes for which tDCS is best suited and the regimen that is most effective — precisely how much electricity, for how long, during how many days, aimed at which brain region — with the hope of eventually winning the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “tDCS will not make you superhuman, but it may allow you to work at your maximum capacity,” said Felipe Fregni, the Brazilian physician and neurophysiologist who runs Harvard’s Laboratory of Neuromodulation at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where I was being treated. “Let’s say you didn’t sleep well the night before. Or perhaps you’re depressed, or you suffered a stroke. It helps your brain reach its peak performance.”

“IT HELPS YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PERSONAL BEST LEVEL OF FUNCTIONING” “I was very skeptical, but Michael Nitsche converted me,” said Leonardo G. Cohen, chief of the neurorehabilitation section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (N.I.N.D.S.) in Bethesda, Md. “It was very difficult for me to accept that simply connecting a battery that you can buy in CVS to electrodes placed on the scalp could change behavior. Then one day I said, I’m going to give it a try.” Cohen and his collaborators enlisted six people who had been partly paralyzed on one side of their bodies for at least one year following a stroke. They found that a single session of tDCS lasting 20 minutes and delivering 1 milliamp to the motor cortex of their brains significantly improved their performance on a standard test of hand dexterity. To be sure it wasn’t a placebo effect, they had the participants come in for two sessions, but half were sham treatments in which the electricity came on for only half a minute and then quickly faded off. (Even during active treatment, the feeling of mild tingling that many people experience at the beginning quickly becomes imperceptible, as if the electricity had been switched off.) Although neither the participants nor the experimenters knew whether the treatments were active or sham, the improvement occurred only following the active tDCS. And the benefit was apparent 10 days later. “The improvements were in the range of only 5 to 10 percent, but an improvement like that after only one application was really very exciting,” Cohen said.

Fregni and his collaborators at Harvard have published more than 200 papers on tDCS. In 2005, he co-wrote a paper showing that stimulating the left prefrontal cortex while you are doing a particular task can enhance working memory, the ability to track and mentally manipulate multiple objects of attention. He has since tested its effects on migraine, chronic pain, post-stroke paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, depression, tinnitus, fibromyalgia, marijuana craving and, strangely enough, the tendency to lie (or, as the paper more delicately put it, “the modulation of untruthful responses”). The evidence, he said, is strongest for depression. Earlier this year he published a study in JAMA Psychiatry involving 120 people suffering from major depression. They received either 50 milligrams per day of the antidepressant Zoloft, 2 milliamps of tDCS, both or a placebo. After six weeks, the mood of those treated with either Zoloft or tDCS alone improved about equally well compared with those in the placebo group. “By itself, tDCS was exactly the same as Zoloft at relieving depression. But when you combine the two, you have a synergistic effect, larger than either alone. That’s how I see the effects of tDCS, enhancing something else.” One of the most striking examples of cognitive enhancement comes from research supported by the U.S. Air Force, showing that tDCS improves pilots’ vigilance and target detection. “The military has been looking at how to improve vigilance for the past 50 or 60 years,” said Andy McKinley, a civilian biomedical engineer who has been studying tDCS at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “At minimum we get a twofold improvement in how long a person can maintain performance. We’ve never seen that with anything else.” But how can a minuscule amount of electricity, applied to the skull for 20 minutes or so, like jumper cables for the brain, make people think better?

tDCS fifty-five

I posed that question to Roy Hoshi Hamilton, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation, who has done studies on the effects of tDCS on aphasia, mental flexibility and reading ability. He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “What is a thought?” he asked. “A thought is what happens when some pattern of firing of neurons has happened in your brain. So if you have a technology that makes it ever so slightly easier for lots and lots of these neurons, these fundamental building blocks of cognition, to be active, to do their thing, then it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that such a technology, be it ever so humble, would have an effect on cognition.” He went on to explain how the effect could endure. “I have this tool that makes it more or less likely your neurons will fire. Now, while I’m applying the current, I’m going to have you engage in some behavior, a workingmemory task, say, or attempting to name objects even though you have aphasia following a stroke, which is my area of interest. So now that network of neurons is being activated in an environment that slightly nudges it, makes it slightly easier for the neurons to fire and the behaviors to be successfully carried out. Then it’s not too far-fetched that, when that happens over and over again, during weeks of practice, those pathways will be reinforced. I agree it does seem very simple. It’s not like we’re inserting some super-high-tech nanorobots into your brain to clear up cerebral blood vessels. But it is in accord with our thinking about how brains work. And it does appear to have a wide range of effects.”

of the biggest problems in today’s medical marketplace. “Studies are expensive,” he says. “There may not be enough money to be made for tDCS manufacturers to be willing to fund the studies required to get it approved by the F.D.A.” But commercial interest is growing, according to Fregni, who is collaborating with a Boston firm on developing a tDCS device that uses ultrasound to target the electrical stimulation deeper into the brain, as a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Other firms are developing special electrodes to narrow and limit the current’s flow, or to automatically modulate it with EEG monitoring. “If you had asked me two years ago whether F.D.A. approval for tDCS would ever come, I might have said it would never

“THERE’S THIS MANTRA IN NEUROSCIENCE, COINED BY DONALD HEBB: NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER WIRE TOGETHER” But with some scientists still skeptical, funding from N.I.N.D.S. has not been generous. Daofen Chen, an official at the institute who oversees grants to outside investigators, says: “The question is the scientific premise, the mechanism. They do see some improvement in certain physiological measures. But they are still not able to pinpoint the neurobiological mechanism underlying the recovery. They cannot explain why or exactly how it works for some conditions but not for others.” This lack of basic electrophysiological research, Chen explains, is a reason for his institute’s modest funding support so far. “The success rate for getting tDCS proposals funded by N.I.H. is less than half the average,” Chen says. “That means the peer reviewers” — who make funding recommendations — “are not impressed with the proposals they’re seeing in this area.” Or it may mean, in the view of some tDCS researchers, that many scientists simply refuse to believe that a relatively simple, inexpensive technology can work. “People have come to believe that only complex, expensive medical treatments will be effective,” says Vincent Clark, director of the Psychology Clinical Neuroscience Center at the University of New Mexico. The low cost of the technology may seem like an asset, but Clark says it could turn out to be one

happen,” he told me. “Now companies understand they can add value and get a patent. So now I believe it’s feasible.” The chief safety concern of researchers like Fregni is that tDCS is so inexpensive and easy to apply that people will begin treating themselves with homemade devices. In fact, some people have begun to do exactly that: Videos can be found on YouTube showing young men experimenting on their own brains, looking more foolhardy than the cast of “Jackass.” What they fail to realize is that applying too much current, for too long, or to the wrong spot on the skull, could be extremely dangerous. During my eighth tDCS session, on my fifth and final day with Morales-Quezada, my reaction times on the attentionswitching task felt considerably faster, and I was now able to consciously override my twitchy fingers’ occasional urge to press the wrong key. After looking over the results, MoralesQuezada confirmed my observations. “You made seven errors the first time we tested you,” he reminded me, “but during these last four sessions, you made no errors at all. And your reaction time also decreased, from 3.1 seconds to 2.6 seconds today. That’s half a second faster, which is extremely good.” Of course, everyone improves with practice, so whether I would have improved just as much if I had never been treated with tDCS is impossible to know. But since hundreds of published studies have shown that the effects of the treatment are real and not the result of a placebo, it’s likely that at least some of my improvement was due to the added effects of the electricity. The benefits are not magical; they still require effort. It’s just that tDCS appears to help that effort pay off faster and stronger. Strange? Very. But if the science continues to show that a little zap can safely boost our brainpower, surely some people will find it hard to resist.

PROCESS fifty-six

Fp1 - attention

THE BRAIN MONTAGE The internationally used 10/20 system explains how to Position Electrodes on the head during tDCS for specific desired results

F3 - motor planning


F7 - verbal expression

F7 F3 C3 - sensorimotor integration

C3 T3 - verbal memory


P3 - cognitive processing - verbal


T5 - verbal understanding


O1 - visual processing


tDCS fifty-seven

Fp2 - judgement / impulses

F = frontal lobe T = temporal lobe C = central lobe P = parietal lobe O = occiptal lobe

F4 - motor planning


even = right hemisphere odd = left hemisphere

F8 - emotional expression

F8 F4 C4 - sensorimotor integration

C4 T4 - emotional memory


P4 - cognitive processing - non-verbal

P4 T6


T6 - emotional understanding

O2 - visual processing







Corneliu E. Giurgea








ARTICLES The Unfinished Science Behind the New Wave of Electrical Brain Stimulation - Greg Miller - Wired - 2014 Amping Up Brain Function: Transcranial Stimulation Shows Promise in Speeding Up Learning - R. Douglas Fields - Scientific American - 2011 Read This Before Zapping Your Brain - Christian Jarrett Wired - 2014 Experts Weigh In On The Ethics Of Using Brain-Enhancing Drugs - Tanya Lewis - Huffington Post - 2015

Radiolab - 9-Volt Nirvana Thursday, June 26, 2014

Brain Gain - Margaret Talbot - The New Yorker - 2009 Stacked Potential - Sara Freund, Michael McCarthy, Lyndsey McKenna, Josh Shi, and Samantha Sterling - Flux Here’s how we should regulate brain enhancement devices Dominic Basulto - The Washington Post - 2014 A Detailed Guide to Your Brain – So You Can Start Hacking It Adam Sinicki - The Bioneer - 2014 Cyborg America: inside the strange new world of basement body hackers - Ben Popper - The Verge - 2012 Everything You Need to Know About CRISPR, the New Tool that Edits DNA - Sarah Zhang - Gizmodo - 2015

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