Humans are drawn to self-improvement, and our data-rich world provides ample opportunities to optimise many aspects of life. The biohacking trend applies not only to the body, but also the mind.

Biohacking techniques often involve simply eating specific types of food or trying new exercises. But many are searching for further enhancements with ‘smart drugs’. 

Also known as nootropics, these are various substances that claim to improve the brain’s cognition. Having clear thoughts can lead to better decision making and reduced stress, so it’s no surprise the industry is worth about US$14b

Once associated with students and office workers seeking better focus and productivity, smart drugs are now advertised to help anyone from musicians with their memory and creativity to gamers wanting to improve reaction times.

It’s a wide array of products that includes prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin, for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or over-the-counter supplements like ginkgo biloba. 

Some manufacturers face criticisms about inconsistent regulations and for marketing what can effectively be pricey placebos. These concerns aren’t deterring major companies, with consumer goods giant Unilever ($UL) acquiring supplements firm Onnit in 2021. 

There are also significant efforts towards trying to recapture our childlike ability to absorb new information. The human brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons and we know the number of links between them and the rest of the body declines into adulthood. A multi-billion dollar industry is targeting degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, with firms like Eli Lilly ($LLY) and Biogen ($BIIB) bringing new drugs to the market.

Meanwhile, the wellness industry sees personalisation and prevention as central to its future, and smart drugs could play an important role. Customised vitamins are a reality, while there’s ongoing work into tailoring medicine to your DNA. To end where we started, smart drugs might just go full circle and help improve the body as well as the mind.


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