Human Enhancement Drugs. Definition and examples of performance and cognition Enhancing Drugs. Incl. 4 categories, risks & impact!

Drugs for human enhancement

Modifying your physical capabilities or enhancing your mood using pharmaceuticals no longer carries the social stigma that it used to. As scientist John Hoberman points out, we live in an era of ‘lifestyle medicine’, in which people feel empowered to change important aspects of themselves to better match their potential [link at the bottom].

According to him, this does not just apply to pharmaceuticals, such as hormones and steroids, but also to plastic surgery, diets, body-building, sexual improvements and anti-aging techniques.


Examples drugs for enhancement

Pharmaceutical drugs can be divided into a number of categories:

  1. physical
  2. cognitive
  3. emotional
  4. anti-aging

I will elaborate on the categories with examples.


1 Physical impact

A few examples of enhancing one’s physical performance are muscle growth (steroids), length (human growth factor), losing weight (Xenical), hair growth (Propecia), anti-wrinkle products (Q10), stamina (EPO) and sexual performance (Viagra).

The enhancement of physical traits and capabilities is a very visible topic of discussion in the sports domain, especially with regards to doping. Professional athletes have gotten caught using substances they weren’t allowed to use on quite a regular basis. Take the use of steroids by baseball players, for instance, or the use of synthetic EPO by cyclists [link below].

The downside to Viagra

Using substances to enhance your physical capabilities can also have unintended side effects. Take improving your sexual performance with Viagra, for instance. In 1998, columnist Ann Landers published a letter from a group of elderly women in California who called themselves the “Senior Señoras of Sonoma”.

Some even said that they had hoped to finally be done with it

Senior Señoras of Sonoma

“The weren’t happy with the drug at all. They had reconciled themselves with the life they had and the natural deterioration of their husbands’ potency. Some even said that they had hoped to finally be done with it.” In other words: no modification or enhancement is or remains purely physical.

Another consequence of Viagra: the group among which the number of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has risen the most, is that of elderly men between 50 and 70 [link at the bottom]. According to sewage analyses carried out by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in 2017, more than 150,000 men use Viagra in the Netherlands, while only 43,000 have a prescription for it.

Sports is well known for the (mis)use of performance enhancing drugs, like in cycling. Lance Armstrong wears the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.

2 Cognitive pills

Another type of pharmaceutical substances that is quickly gaining popularity, is cognitive pills. These can be used to improve your concentration skills, memory or creativity. Cognitive pills are also referred to as nootropics, smart drugs, brain boosters, brain pills or brain supplements.

The definition of nootropic is that it is a drug, herb or hormone that improves cognitive functions. Another term is ‘smart drugs’. The difference with nootropics is that smart drugs can have (unwanted) side effects. Think cocaine. That is a smart drug, because you get a lot of focus and concentration, but you can also become addicted to it. That does not apply to nootropics.

How do cognitive pills work?

How do nootropics work? Because there is such a wide variety of products, there is no standard description of how they work. You get more focus, a better memory or a different effect through the action of nootropics on enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters in your brain.

My favorites

I also like to use these brands of nootropics:

Healthcare sector

In 2018, I participated in a ten-volume podcast series by BNR and the Dutch Financial Times, entitled Bionic Man. One of the insights I gained was that most of the tools and methods that we use to enhance ourselves, were initially developed to help patients with medical issues.

Only later did it become clear that healthy people can also use these drugs to enhance themselves. This also applies to cognitive pills, which were originally created to help patients with narcolepsy (Modafinil), restlessness or issues with their attention span (Ritalin and Adderall).

Microdosing LSD

The healthcare sector is not the only field where pharmaceutical enhancements are discovered and developed. I’ve personally experimented with microdosing LSD.

LSD is a synthetic drug, but microdosing can also done with other drugs, such as magic mushrooms. According to fervent advocates of this method, taking a very small dose of LSD once every three days leads to improved concentration and more creativity.

I personally found the effect difficult to distinguish, and a journalist from Dutch daily de Volkskrant, who had a similar experience, also underlines this [link at the bottom]. That’s why I prefer to stick to other nootropics, which have a faster and more direct impact in those moments that I need a boost.

Fiction

Cognitive pills fascinate and entice us. It’s no surprise that these pills and their mystique are often featured in movies, of which the best known examples are Limitless (2011) and Lucy (2014).

Limitless features Bradley Cooper playing the main character and Robert de Niro in a supporting role. In Lucy, the main character is played by Scarlett Johansson, with a supporting role by Morgan Freeman. Both movies have a similar premise: a pill or substance allows the characters to make use of their entire brain capacity. In Limitless it’s the NTZ-48 pill and in Lucy it’s the drug CPH4 that makes this possible.

Interview about nootropics

Koen Indesteege is the founder of the brand Mindscopic. I talked with him about biohacking, nootropics and his company. Watch our interview:

Interview with Koen Indesteege (Mindscopic)

Downsides

What are the downsides of using pharmaceutical drugs to improve your cognition? At first sight, there doesn’t seem to be much of an issue there. Who wouldn’t want to improve their memory? However, there are a few downsides that I would like to point out:

  • dependence
  • social norm
  • forgetting

Dependence

It requires (self-)discipline not to get used to using the supplements, or to get addicted to them. Apart from forms of mental dependence, it is also possible to become physically dependent on these drugs. In an article published on The Fix, a mother talks about her son who suffered from insomnia, depression and anxiety [link at the bottom].

It turned out that his nootropics contained the substance Tianaptine. Tianaptine attaches itself to the same receptors in the brain that react to morphine and other painkillers. After overexposure to this substance at a very high dosage, you can become physically dependent on (addicted to) it.

Social norm

What if taking these drugs becomes the societal norm? Will you still have the freedom of choice not to take them? This remark does not just apply to pharmaceuticals. For example, one in four students now appears to be using Ritalin [link at the bottom].

Will you still be able to keep up with the academic performance of your fellow students if you decide not to take these drugs? What kind of consequences could this have?

Forgetting

During a lecture I gave on human enhancement, someone in the audience pointed out to me that forgetting also has its function. Selectively forgetting things, whether consciously or not, ensures that you keep trying new things and remain receptive to new ideas.

Moreover, the human memory is complex and not like that of a computer: when you expand your computer’s hard disk, it immediately has more memory. When it comes to the human brain, it’s also about the pace at which you can filter information from your memory, the way in which you assess what is important, and which part of a memory you remember most vividly.

The movie Limitless is about cognition enhancing substances.

3 Emotional impact

Antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil and Wellbutrin work by altering a patient’s mood and state of mind. As with the other types of pharmaceutical interventions, they are also frequently used by people who don’t have a doctor’s prescription [link at the bottom]. In this case, we’re talking about healthy people who use the drugs to feel even better, even more cheerful and even happier.

In his book Beyond Therapy, bioethicist Leon Kass is critical: ‘We want to perform better in life. But not by becoming bionic people and surrendering to meticulous chemical interventions. That’s not human.’

We want to perform better in life. But not by becoming bionic people and surrendering to meticulous chemical interventions. That’s not human.

Leon Kass (bio-ethicist)

In a way, this also evokes the image of Soma, the drug from the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley [link at the bottom]. In this dystopian book, people assert that they are happy and fulfilled – but apart from chemical substances, there is nothing in their lives that actually generates their happiness and sense of fulfillment. Their relationships are superficial, their thoughts and feelings are conditioned, and their work is routine and standardized.

But a novel is always more likely to explore the extremes. And helping and treating people who suffer from depression, anxiety disorders and/or other mental disorders is now quite commonly accepted. Why shouldn’t pharmaceutical means be allowed, to help you feel even better? So that you could enjoy even more valuable relationships, accomplish tasks that bring more satisfaction, or go through life with more creativity and imagination?

Lucy movie smart drugs
Lucy (2014) is about enhancing one’s intelligence using pharmaceutical substances.

4 Anti-aging

The last category within this section on pharmaceuticals, has to do with slowing down aging processes. This is also known as ‘anti-aging’, a topic about which I’ve previously written an extensive article. I also talked to Andrea Maier about this subject in a podcast interview. Andrea is working on an anti-aging pill which, according to her, will easily enable humans to live to be 130 years old.

This particular pill should be able to rid the body of aging cells, also referred to as ‘senescent’ cells. These cells are responsible for many of the diseases that go hand in hand with aging, ranging from cardiovascular diseases to dementia. I also talked about the development of this type of medicine with Peter de Keizer (UMC Utrecht), Aubrey de Grey (SENS Foundation) en Kris Verburgh (author and researcher).

At the moment, the most promising pharmaceuticals are rapamycine, metformin and NAD+. In an experiment with mice, rapamycine increased their life duration by 60%. Metformin appears to improve the production of oxygen in the cells. And lastly, a team of Harvard scientists provided older mice with NAD+ molecules, which led them to look younger and live longer. All of these pharmaceuticals are currently going through different research phases, in which the effects on humans are also being tested and researched.

The book and movie Dune is about a spice for longevity.

Extra resources

These are some extra resources, both fiction and non-fiction, about this topic.

  • My interview with Anthony DiClementi about supplements;
  • Documentary Take your pills on Netflix;
  • Movie Limitless;
  • Movie Lucy;
  • Movie Dune.

I interviewed Anthony DiClementi (Biohacking Secrets) at the Biohacker Summit 2017 in Helsinki (Finland) about the usage of supplements, which you can consider a sort of primitive form of human enhancement drugs.

Watch the interview:

Interview with Anthony Di Clementi

A worthwhile documentary on Netflix about human enhancement drugs is Take your pills. The topic is the usage of drugs like adderral and ritalin in the United States.

Watch the trailer:

Documentary Take your pills

The movie Limitless is about cognitive enhancing drugs.

Watch the trailer:

Trailer Limitless

The movie Lucy is about expanding human brain capacity.

Watch the trailer:

Trailer Lucy

The movie Dune is about about a spice for longevity and consciousness expansion.

Watch the trailer:

Trailer Dune

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Or if you want to book a session with me as an expert consultant on this area.


Reading list

I previously wrote these related articles about human enhancement:

These are related articles:

These are external links that I have used:

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