"Biohack" at Your Own Risk

Monday, July 25, 2016

I've seen the subject of "biohacking" come up in a couple of different places recently, learning just this morning, for example, that a group of neuroscientists recently put out an open letter to practitioners of do-it-yourself brain stimulation. (I'd heard of this, but hadn't realized that devices for doing the same were actually on the market.)

The scientists outline what is known and unknown about this area of research, and urge caution in each bullet point. For example:

Enhancement of some cognitive abilities may come at the cost of others. Cognition involves functional networks, with different components (or combinations thereof) responsible for different functions. In addition, brain networks interact with each other, such that modifying activity in one network can change the activity in other networks. Therefore, stimulating one brain area may improve the ability to perform one task but hurt the ability to perform another. For example, tDCS [transcranial direct current stimulation --ed] can enhance the rate of learning new material, but at the cost of processing learned material, and vice versa, depending on the stimulation site. Such tradeoffs are likely under-recognized, as most tDCS studies focus on only one or two tasks. Furthermore, such cognitive tradeoffs could develop over time and only become recognizable long after the stimulation. [emphasis in original, footnote removed]
An individual has the right to experiment on himself with this technique, but it is clear from the above and the rest of the article that doing so is a risky proposition. (It's one I personally would avoid, unless, possibly, I suffered from one of the conditions some are self-treating, and I'd had no success with any standard treatment.) A big part of this risk comes from the nature of scientific literature: Individual papers can be quite difficult just to understand for a layman, and properly evaluating one requires knowledge of the wider context of work in the field. That one obtains by reading many other papers and, usually, by years of specialized training.

And this leads me to another recent piece on biohacking (but of a different type), a post by pharma-blogger Derek Lowe, which is more direct, although the above might explain why:
There's a credulity problem here. I'm sure that many of the people doing this stuff think of themselves as very good scientists and engineers or clear-headed business dealers, but if you believe that (a) we know enough to "hack the brain" and (b) that these pills and shots you're taking are the way to do it, then you have a problem with weighing evidence and probabilities that might possibly extend to the other ways you do your work. I would be worried, for example, if I heard that before sending in an NDA that people at Genentech took care to ritually pour a vial of restriction enzyme over the outstretched foot of Herb Boyer's statue. But that has about as much chance of working as some of these biohacking ideas do. [link in original]
Ouch! But note, too, that Lowe isn't even focused on what "biohackers" might be hurting by acting on (at best) incomplete knowledge or evidence.

None of this is to say that we won't one day be able to, say, gently shock ourselves to learn much faster, or develop chemical cocktails that can enhance mental performance in some way, but I think this kind of thing is still too far on the frontier of scientific discovery to bet one's health or finances on it.

-- CAV

No comments: