The Problem of Cognitive Enhancement Industry

Jun 24, 2020 00:00 · 532 words · 3 minute read cognitive enhancement business nootropics

I long for the professionalization of the cognitive enhancement industry. The professionalization that is desperately needed. Let me explain.

Right now, we have a bunch of nootropics companies selling “stacks” that presumably enhance cognition. Rarely any of these companies have a shred of clinical evidence for their claims. Some individual ingredients have solid research behind them; however, mixing them in a single pill should warrant an additional test if the beneficial properties are preserved. I don’t even ask for evidence of the synergistic effect, which would be great, but it’s not easy to reach.

In addition to supplements, which are probably the most popular option so far, there’s a whole set of devices from “neurohacking” class, based on technologies like tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) or PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic field). They promise a lot. However, the benefits depend on multiple factors, and we’re nowhere near understanding enough of the technology to market it as “enhancing cognition.”

Add on top of that numerous brain training programs or games (often including bio- and neurofeedback). The level of their effectiveness often is indistinguishable from placebo. It’s not like they have no chance to work — the area needs way more research before claiming such extraordinary benefits.

Will they ban meditation?

The extraordinary claims heard by people who have no idea how many of these are backed by solid research tend to induce fear. Take, for example, the long article on ethics of nootropics usage from Psychology Today where the author seriously considers banning of nootropics, like they have properties exactly from Limitless movie:

This is when it gets a bit fuzzy, and where a libertarian extreme — or its polar opposite — may become relevant.

In this case, perhaps it makes sense to either make nootropics available — or banned — to all. Either way, equal access (or lack thereof) is guaranteed.

If you consider banning nootropics because they sometimes give a bit of an edge for some cognitive skills, maybe we should ban meditation, which also has these properties? And let’s tell everybody to eat at McDonald’s to level the playing field, because, you know, some diets are better for brain than the others.

Medical uses to the rescue.

I believe that the easiest way to make the industry a bit less wild west than it is now would be to go back to medical uses: age-related dementia, cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s, narcolepsy, ADHD, to name a few. In some cases, the existing drugs are very effective (modafinil and narcolepsy, for instance). In some, there’s almost nothing to choose from that would work and be safe long-term. The rigor of clinical trials applied to cognitive enhancers would drastically improve the quality of the pills we are served.

The rigor of clinical trials applied to cognitive enhancers would drastically improve the quality of the pills we are served. Besides, the claims would need to be moderated, and fewer people would believe that the vision from Limitless movie is attainable. And we wouldn’t have discussions on bans, but instead on how to systematically improve human cognition at the planetary level.

The last one might not happen during my lifetime, but it’s always nice to dream ;).