Human Enhancement Drugs. Definition and examples of performance and cognition Enhancing Drugs. Incl. 4 categories: brain, body, emotion & anti-aging!

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:

  • physical;
  • cognitive;
  • emotional;
  • anti-aging.

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”. 

“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.

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.  I previously wrote an extensive article on this, for which I tested a wide range of different brands of pills. I was also interviewed about this topic by the Men’s Health magazine and by Radio 3FM [link below].

Healthcare sector

In 2018, I participated in a ten-volume podcast series by BNR and the Dutch Financial Times, entitled Bionic Man [link at the bottom]. 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 [link at the bottom].

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.

Downside to smart drugs

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:

#1. 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.

#2. 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?

#3. 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.


2 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 Michael Bess [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 fulfilment. 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.


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Reading list

I previously wrote these related articles about human enhancement:

These are related articles:

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