Silicon Valley Workers Hacking Into Brain’s Inner Workings

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) – Paul Benigeri is on the forefront of a new wave of start-ups in the Silicon Valley.

But instead of targeting new advances for computers or mobile devices, the company he works for — the ‘smart drug’ startup Nootrobox — is using supplements and fasting to attempt to hack into the brain and improve the way it functions.

The new wave is called “bio-hacking.”

Benigeri and his co-workers use fasting as part of their daily routine. The team breaks its usual 36-hour fast every Wednesday at San Francisco restaurant Elmira over bacon and eggs, Benedicts and yogurt. Some even take the company’s gummy caffeine cubes for an extra boost.

“It was delicious,” Benigeri said at a recent team breakfast. “I’ve been looking forward to eating this for quite a while. I worked out too this morning, so I was very hungry.”

Nootrobox specializes in creating supplements or stimulants designed to improve brain performance, memory, and concentration.

The practice of bio-hacking was recently depicted in the science fiction movie “Limitless” starring Bradley Cooper in which a top secret smart drug turns a struggling writer into a financial wizard.

Nootrobox CEO and founder Geoffrey Woo likens the quest of bio-hackers to that of high-performance athletes who are always looking for a competitive edge.

“I think Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are the equivalent to Olympic athletes,” Woo told KPIX 5. “These top performing athletes are finding any edge to get one more second off of their race time, or little bit faster reaction time because that’s the difference between being Number 1 and Number 2. And you see that same dynamic happening in Silicon Valley.”

Nootrobox mixes FDA approved supplements, botanicals, vitamins and synthetic compounds in its products.

“On a fasted day, it feels sort of like what I imagine what a Zen monk would be where you’re very calm and focuses and not very distracted,” Woo said.

Tech consultant George Burke is a big fan of smart drugs although he does not take Nootrobox’s products.

He also takes a tiny bit of a psychedelic drug every few days to treat his ADHD.

“With a microdose of LSD, I’m able to feel more connected to the work that I’m doing,” Burke said.

Burke started a monthly meetup group called SF Peak Performance to talk bio-hacking. There are nearly a thousand members.

He says that using bio-hacking techniques is not about giving him an edge, but about keeping pace with other tech workers.

“It’s not a leg up, I feel even,” Burke said of his routine. “You know you have these Type-A personality guys who are able to create amazing things in Silicon Valley so I just need to keep up.”

The FDA has not been keeping pace with smart drugs, or Nootropics as they’re formally called, because they’re not recognized as a class of drugs. Many are sold online.

“This is sort of an experiment, people are experimenting on themselves,” said Sonya Angelone, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They’re basically Guinea pigs because we haven’t done studies to show the safety or the effectiveness of these drugs, and we know that stimulants in general can lose their effectiveness over time.”

Angelone says the world of smart drugs and supplements can be a bit murky.

“Smart drugs don’t make you smarter,” she said. “They may make you feel like you’re able to focus or maybe they make you feel like you can do your own personal best but there are ways for you to do your personal best without having to take a drug that truly doesn’t make you smarter.”

But Woo says in the Valley it’s all about pushing the limits.

“Yeah, I think that’s the future,” he said. “It’s going to be inevitable that we’ll be playing with implants, playing with embeddable computers, playing with smart drugs and Nootropics, that’s going to happen because we can’t stop progress. So the only thing we can do is do it responsibly.”

More from Betty Yu
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