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Biohacking - an industry for creating a new, DIY you

Mankind has used tools, education and medicine to improve itself, now some humans are ready to take that further.

We require children to go to school to prepare them mentally for life. We clothe them to withstand the environment and should they fall ill we give them medicine. If you have poor eyesight you correct it. Lose a tooth, replace it. The idea of modifying our environment and to some extent ourselves to improve our lives is not new, but a group of people are looking to take that further - improving or replacing parts of themselves or implanting devices to allow them to do things they were not able to do before. This is the basis of biohacking.

It does not only relate to human biology, but rather the biology of anything that individuals can do themselves. Create, research and experiment. Most experiments by biohackers are on themselves.

It is a developing field but there are three main areas of development. Enhancing yourself with physical implants, drugs or supplements, or techniques to improve how you do things like think or dream or relax.

Enhanced humans - The Grinders

Kevin Warwick was one of the first to add a device to himself to make interacting with the digital world easier. He implanted an RFID tag into his arm in 1998. It would allow him to walk into an access controlled room without doing anything. You could do the same with a wifi-enabled phone now, but wifi was not much of a thing in 1998. It is still better than a phone, as you can lose it and it does not have a battery that runs flat.

It may not surprise you that the smartphone did better than the smart implant even though the smartphone was only released a decade after the implant.

But as devices get even smaller the idea of implanting them and charging them is looking like a better idea. It is not that an electronic implant is not mainstream. The pacemaker was first used in the 1920s and improved as electronics did through the 50s and subsequent years to be a small, reliable, long lasting and programmable way to regulate your heartbeat. These biohackers (who are also known as Grinders are asking what other parts of us might benefit from similar intervention.

Nutrigenomics - performance foods, drugs and procedures

Researching a new drug or medical procedure is expensive and takes years. Biohackers see themselves as biological entrepreneurial scientists looking to find better ways to fix or improve a condition for just one person. Rather than solve a condition that affects many; they focus their experiments to solve the problem for a few, if not only for only one.

Josiah Zayner is one such advocate. He is highly qualified but wanted to do more than work in a commercial lab. One of his own hacks saw him replace the bacteria in his system with new bacteria to treat a digestive condition. Using a faecal transplant he planned and performed himself he attempted to treat a condition most medical experts believed could be managed but not cured.

The results appear to have worked. He reports to be feeling better without any digestive problems. An analysis of his gut bacteria now resembles the donor; not his own. One side effect is that he appears to crave sweet things now - his donor has a sweet tooth too.

New techniques - anti-ageing, better focus, sharper mind

First get a way to quantify your current activity and productivity. You could measure your heart rate before and after coffee, walking stairs, working on a project.

By testing alternatives and seeing what difference it made you may find a way to be more efficient.

Consider improving concentration and test various music types to block out distractions while also testing if it may be a distraction itself. Instrumental music might be better than songs with lyrics. A high-energy and fast-paced track may help with working through non-detailed work quickly. A slower more measured beat may help with detailed work. Might metal music improve focus or wreck it? It may be that the kind of music is specific to the person rather than the task or that silence or the radio work best.

Some might argue that simply focussing on how to improve performance would in itself have a positive impact. It may not have studies to back this up, but the point of biohacking is that it is less concerned with finding general principles that apply across a population but rather a specific solution for a particular task.

Ethics of DIY experimentation

Even professionals need others to review their experiments and draw the line when they are too dangerous. Scientists have a long history of experimenting on themselves.

Barry Marshall won a Nobel prize for Medicine by proving that peptic ulcers were not caused by spicy food, stress or too much stomach acid, but by certain strains of bacteria. He had no ulcers himself and so proved it by consuming the Helicobacter pylori himself. It was not pleasant, but he did demonstrate it to be true despite many critical peers.

Marie and Pierre Currie ultimately died from their experiments with radium to try to understand radiation and manage cancer. It was not known how dangerous it was; they advanced our understanding significantly.

The business of biohacking

This may remain a small percentage of the population but they do appear to be committed. Pressure to perform may see a further group wanting to get involved.

Selling supplements are not new, but the scope is growing and the margins may be very profitable. Dave Asprey is a biohacker that built his Bulletproof brand into a significant business. Gwyneth Paltrow has turned Goop into successful company despite plenty of critical coverage.

If not selling the final product you may focus on the tools for doing the experiments, Josiah Zayner's Odin website will kit out your home lab with everything you need.

The most lucrative and popular part of this are the tools to measure your performance. Wearables, monitors and apps all allow you to get detailed data on your daily life. Over time that data may spot opportunities and risks early.

Humans are living longer, staying healthier and setting new physical and endurance records. This is down to better nutrition, better medicine and improved training.

Who knows where it will end?


This article first appeared on 702 : Biohacking - an industry for creating a new, DIY you


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