Please Don’t Hack Your Own Brain With Strange Untested Chemicals

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

As anyone who has read The New Yorker’s instant-classic article about the food-replacement substance Soylent knows, some people — often of the tech-bro persuasion — love the idea of hacking their body to help it reach and achieve their limits. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this interest extends to the brain as well. A fascinating article on STAT offers a glimpse at the (mostly) young (mostly) men who are experimenting with “nootropics,” “a broad category that includes pharmaceutical drugs, dietary supplements, and do-it-yourself concoctions, all of them meant to turn the brain up a notch.”

Despite the fact that many of these substances have been barely, if ever, tested in a scientific way, some connoisseurs are eagerly ingesting them in all sorts of different combinations and quantities, the idea being, as one enthusiast put it to the article’s author, John M. Glionna, that “The brain is resilient. It will go back to normal if you don’t go too hardcore” (sounds reasonable).

Glionna offers a nice glimpse of one nootropic aficionado’s routine:

[Tomás] Gutiérrez, slender and dark-eyed, swears by a daily “stack” mixed into his morning coffee.

He throws in some MCT oil, a form of fatty acid that occurs naturally in such foods as coconut oil. He adds BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, which are popular among weightlifters. Then there’s L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea.

[…]

On the kitchen counter of the two-bedroom house he shares with his girlfriend, Gutierrez keeps 100-gram containers of compounds he buys online, along with two scales, one to measure in grams and the other in milligrams.Sometimes, his girlfriend prods him to clean up his experiment site. She thinks it looks too much like a chemistry set. And Gutiérrez admits his kitchen resembles a scene from “Breaking Bad.” “It definitely looks questionable,” he said. “There are liquids and powders and scales.”

There are so many different varieties of these underregulated substances popping up on shelves that one can’t really make any broad-based claims about what they do or don’t do, though there is preliminary evidence some of them are harmful. But even setting that aside, one problem is that, according to this article, many of the folks experimenting with their own brains seem confident they can tell which combinations are working and which aren’t.

Measuring changes in mood or cognitive performance or anything else brain-related is really, really tough. That’s why you need large, carefully controlled studies to do so. So among the other risks of experimenting with untested substances, many of these folks could simply be fooling themselves. If you take something and suddenly feel sharper and better able to focus, maybe it’s what you took, but it could also be connected to any one of a thousand other, less salient factors — something else you ate, or the time of day, or normal bio-rhythmic stuff. There’s a chance the nootropic movement involves not only ingesting potentially dangerous substances, but also a dose of self-deception.