Tech dirty to me: Microdosing

BRIAN LANDRY / AGGIE
BRIAN LANDRY / AGGIE

Professionals in Silicon Valley taking off-label, psychedelic drugs to improve cognition, links to UC Davis

Lisa* is an undergraduate biochemistry and molecular biology major at UC Davis who has been regularly taking off-label modafinil, a cognitive-enhancing drug normally prescribed for people with narcolepsy, for roughly six months. The reason: microdosing, or the experimental act of administering drugs in such a low dosage that one reaps benefits without suffering the full-bodied effects.

Lisa was first introduced to modafinil when she started her internship this summer at a small financial technology company in San Francisco, where she said cognitive-enhancing supplements were taken commonly and talked about openly.

“It wasn’t a taboo thing,” Lisa said. “I worked on a team of four in a company with around 25 people. I’d say out of the 25, 15 to 20 [of my colleagues] took something beyond caffeine […] ranging on the scale from little powders you can get from GNC just to be more awake, to stuff like adderall and ritalin.”

Although self-medicating was pervasive at the company, Lisa said that she felt no external pressure to take cognitive-enhancing drugs, and that she took them for experimental reasons.

“The idea of biohacking is what appeals most to me. Rather than finding a solution to my problems, it’s more like finding a new way to become a better version of myself,” Lisa said.

Aside from the mostly internal reasons for self-experimentation, taking cognitive supplements has become a prestigious way to show dedication to one’s work.

“It was like bragging wars over who had the most dedication to their job,” Lisa said. “I think that’s why Silicon Valley tends to have this reputation of being the heart of experimentation and innovation, and people feel the pressure to keep up that reputation.”

Initially, when Lisa first started taking modafinil, she kept detailed journals of when she took the tablet, drank coffee, exercised and how her energy fluctuated throughout the day. She also took daily online cognitive-battery tests in an effort to quantify the fluctuations in her cognition. Although she kept careful notes, other people at her internship documented their off-label drug trials even more rigorously, according to Lisa.

“Some people take self-experimentation to a whole other level,” Lisa said. “They’ll collect their urine daily, they’ll test their feces. I went to [the chief technology officer’s (CTO)] house for a drink after work, and in his refrigerator he had a part where he kept his bodily fluids to take into a lab to test.”

Although the CTO was not taking cognitive-enhancing drugs for the duration of Lisa’s internship, he had done so in the past.

Among the fields in Silicon Valley to be affected by cognitive-enhancing drugs, the computer science industry is anecdotally considered a hot spot. Natasha Coulter, an undergraduate program advisor for computer science at UC Davis, believes that the computer science field is unique in the challenges it poses for its employees.

“I think there is a consistent pressure on the tech industry to do very good work at a very quick rate,” Coulter said. “The [computer science] field is getting competitive […] I can see people feeling like they need to get an edge.”

Dr. Jing Xu, a medical doctor of internal medicine at Kaiser Hospital, Santa Teresa explained that the drug modafinil in particular is only available legally by prescription .

“You give [modafinil] to patients with narcolepsy, and also if they are having sleep apnea,” Xu said. “You need a special construed prescription.”

In addition to off-label drugs, professionals in Silicon Valley are also experimenting with microdosing psychedelics like LSD, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and magic mushrooms. Google Trends shows that the number of people that search the word ‘microdosing’ in the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area has risen roughly 400 percent in the last five years.

Dr. David E. Olson, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine at UC Davis, is researching how DMT, a potent psychedelic, mechanistically affects sleep-dependent memory. He is making an effort to manufacture similar compounds without hallucinogenic properties for therapeutic use.

“With psychedelics in general, very little is known about how they affect brain function, and because of that, they’re kind of the frontier of neuropharmacology,” Olson said. “DMT is one of the only endogenous [made within the body] hallucinogens that we know about”.

DMT is classified as a Schedule I drug a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” — by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This scheduling comes with an increase in restrictions for academic research.

“It took us about eight months of paperwork and […] getting the necessary security in place to be able to work with it,” Olson said. “The rules are that you have to obtain permission from both the State of California, as well as from the federal government. It is a little difficult, and I do think that hinders many people from getting into this field, but it’s such an exciting field that I think that […] it’s worth it to go through the hassle of getting approval to be able to do this kind of research.”

Olson also said that there were significant financial costs associated with upgrading the lab’s security features, which may further bar some researchers from entering this area of research.

“If the psychedelics were moved to Schedule II, it would make it much easier for academics to do research on them. Now, to be moved to a Schedule II drug, you need to have a demonstrated medical use. I think that this is kind of a catch-22. If you have a hard time studying these things, you have a hard time demonstrating that they have a medical use,” Olson said.

Although Olson is researching the mechanisms of DMT for therapeutic use, he is skeptical that any formal research will be done in search of cognitive gains of microdosing.

“You have to remember that microdosing is hypothesized to enhance cognition, and the NIH doesn’t fund cognitive enhancement. It funds the treatment of diseases, not the enhancement of normal performance,” Olson said. “So the likelihood that you’re going to see a study like this come out soon is pretty low.”

*Name changed for source’s anonymity

Written by: Meral Basit – science@theaggie.org