About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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October 10, 2003

Neurocompetitive Advantage

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Mental health is the ultimate competitive weapon.  Mental health underpins the development of intellectual capital and competitive advantage. It anchors the capacity of employees, managers and executives to think, use ideas, be creative and be productive.  Like never before, businesses depend upon the consistent, sustainable mental performance of their employees.

By enabling a higher level of productivity, neurotechnology represents the next form of competitive advantage beyond information technologyI call this neurocompetitive advantage.  As I mentioned recently, innovation is one ubiquitous organizational process that will be impacted.  Just as workers today leverage information technologies for competitive purposes, workers in the neurotechnology wave (2010-2060) will turn to neuroceuticals to enhance their competitive performance.

As Randall Parker surmises, financial organizations will be the first to leverage neuroceuticals to boost productivity.  He is right on target.  In her seminal work, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, Carlota Perez details how financial institutions have been at the forefront of adopting, testing and disseminating the latest cluster of technologies that have driven each of the previous five techno-economic waves.  This goes all the way back to the water mechanization wave (1770-1820) where banks were among the first organizations to extensively use the penny post.

As more people live longer and global competition intensifies, many people will turn to regulated neuroceuticals as the next set of tools they will adopt to help them survive and succeed. Using cogniceuticals to increase memory retention, emoticeuticals to decrease stress and sensoceuticals to add a meaningful pleasure gradient, neuroceuticals will allow people to compete without being constrained by their neurochemistry. 

An important point: the type of effective neuroceuticals to which I am referring are still at least 10 years away as we still need to break the brain imaging bottleneck and develop inexpensive biochips for DNA, RNA and protein analysis. Only then will neurotechnology have matured enough to begin influencing all parts of society.

Comments (38) | Category:


1. Jay Solo on October 13, 2003 6:39 PM writes...

Fascinating! Of course, this assumes they don't get regulated out of convenient (or legal) and practical usefulness.

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2. Zack Lynch on October 13, 2003 6:48 PM writes...

I look at it as a global process, where neuroceuticals for enhancement will likely not emerge in the US first, but in other geographies. As their productivity boosting capability become apparent, global corporations (GE finance for example) will push pressure on US politicians to legalize just to keep up with the competition.

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3. wordwarp on October 13, 2003 7:52 PM writes...

You misspelled "break."

Forget your neuroceuticals this morning?

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4. Andrew K on October 13, 2003 7:53 PM writes...

As a recovering addict, I don't find this type of technology remotely attractive.

One reason is that I seriously doubt the wisdom, even of people who are not prone to addiction, of having conscious control over one's own emotions, mood, and pleasure. It's just not an authentic way to live.

Secondly, I can see myself becoming part of a genetic underclass if, as a person prone to addiction, I might not be a good candidate for chemical neuroregulation.

Then again, maybe the cure for alcoholicsm/addiction can be found in this area of research.

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5. Jay Manifold on October 13, 2003 7:57 PM writes...

How would you classify Modafinil (see -- cogniceutical, emoticeutical, or something else altogether?

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6. Zack Lynch on October 13, 2003 7:58 PM writes...

I am highly focused on the problem of addiction. In this effort, I am working with researchers at the UCSF Wheeler Center for Addiction to understand their speculative and realistic understanding of when we might have a major breakthrough here. In short, Howard Fields suggests it's still about a decade out. He also mentioned to me that a decade ago he thought it would be impossible or at least 50 years out.

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7. chris on October 13, 2003 8:37 PM writes...

Actually the first place you'll see this technology get used is in the military. I could say this proves the power of my pre-cognizance.... but the fact is, we're (US Army) already using this stuff.

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8. jaws on October 13, 2003 8:38 PM writes...

As a neuroscience (undergrad) student and as an individual who has been on modafinil (Provigil), in response to Jay Manifold's comment, I don't think that the drug is any of the above.

I don't believe that the mechanism underlying how modafinil works is currently known.

Does a lack of sleep impact memory? I believe the we currently believe so.

Does it affect emotions? Yes, we believe so
Does a lack of sleep affect sensory processing? (I think it does)

But the question is, can individuals doing shift-work have their circadian clocks effectively reset using modafinil?

What are the effects of modafinil on learning/memory and emotions? We still don't know.

It may be a little pre-mature to get excited about all this.

As for modafinil itself, many individuals with narcolepsy have reported success with the drug. Its main advantage is that it is not an amphetamine, and doesn't have the related impacts/side effects. But like most drugs, it's not a cure all.

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9. Deoxy on October 13, 2003 9:02 PM writes...

Not to say it won't happen (the race for the almighty dollar being what it is), but such a concept is enormously frightening for completely rational reasons.

If (when) we reach this level of technology, where we can basically reprogram the mind, how do I know that I am real? Think The Matrix, only without so many logical disconnects (don't get me started).

Seriously - if a drug can alter your perception and/or attitude, you would be trusting your drug provider literally with your life. Not as in "life or death", but giving them your life.

Whoops, did I "accidentally" give you the wrong drug - the one that makes you fanatically loyal to your drug provider? Oops, how silly of me...

Admittedly, that's oversimplified, but the concepts of will and choice could theoretically be completely reworked... and it could even be that, if the person/people who develop it take the drug as well, that no one even knows that it has happened.

It's not that I'm "afraid of change", or any of that stuff, but our society, even our concpet of self, is dependanty upon the concept of free will - the power to choose. How could I possibly be responsible for my actions if I don't choose to do them?

The positves of such technology are indeed amazing to contemplate - as one who occasionally suffers through severe depression, the benefits sound supremely wonderful. But the abuse of such technology is equally amazing to contemplate.

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10. Dishman on October 13, 2003 9:44 PM writes...

"It's just not an authentic way to live."
I'm not sure that's a bad thing, and I'm not sure there's an alternative.
First, a significant portion of the population already regulates their endorphine (the real drugs) levels. The most common methods for this are exercise and meditation.
Second, memory is not necessarily an accurate accounting of history. "Clear memory does not equal pale ink." 'Hypnotic suggestion' is a clear demonstration of the fallibility of memory.

I am hinting at things that are, frankly, frightening. I don't know exactly what I'm hinting at, though.

I'm abivalent regarding neuroceuticals. On one hand, our technology is increasingly limited by our ability to comprehend it rather than our belief of what is possible or desireable. On the other hand, most of my worst nightmares would become possible.

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11. hideki yukawa on October 13, 2003 11:18 PM writes...

We can barely design and develop drugs that attack viruses and other pathogens, why is it in the forseeable future that we would be able to develop such chemicals for enhancing properties and skills of the brain of which we have absolutely no understanding? There are two serious problems here- one, we have no idea how memories and cognition and thoughts work; two, we have no idea how to create drugs for any particular purpose. The best that we can do is do blind sifts through large chemical libraries - such is the approach taken by most pharmaceutical companies.

If a blind-approach is the best we can do, then let me suggest an equally blind, but more plausible idea.

A more compelling future, in place of this neuroceuticals-idea, is one in which we genetically engineer in greater intelligence, quantitative capacity, imagination. No, we may not know how exactly we're affecting the human mind in these genetic engineering feats. But based on genetic manipulation of mouse models, etc, we can make good guesses as to where to target, and what sort of effects will arise.


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12. jim m on October 13, 2003 11:19 PM writes...

Deoxy and Dishman:

Trust that if you can dream it someone somewhere is planning on how they can make that dream come true.

Or more to the point: someone is planning to make your worst nightmares come true.

I'm extraordinarily optomistic about human invention and ability, pessimistic about human nature.

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13. Zack Lynch on October 13, 2003 11:24 PM writes...


Check out:

For why neurotechnology will emerge much sooner than genetic engineering:

Here is a bit:

Neurotechnology's ability to temporarily influence an individual's mental health will have more profound implications for humanity, in a much nearer time frame, than genetic engineering for several reasons:

Neurotechnology is temporary: Human genetic engineering won't become widely adopted until people can experiment with less permanent tools

Social acceptance is proven: Humans are already using first generation neurotechnologies on a vast scale. For example, 17% of the US white-collar work force is currently using anti-depressants

Regulation and distribution systems are in place: The FDA and pharmaceutical development and distribution systems are already globally trusted processes

In fact, as neurotechnology develops it may turn out that in a majority of situations humans will choose neurotechnology instead of genetic engineering to combat disease and enhance themselves because of the versatility it offers.

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14. Randall Parker on October 13, 2003 11:24 PM writes...

I agree with Deoxy that people will be able to abuse the ability to edit their memories and modify their personalties. What happens when inevitably some foolish or malevolent people decide to dial back their consciences or feeling of empathy?

The ability to do brain reprogramming is going to force the issue of what constitutes a rights-possessing being. Ayn Rand's claim that rights are a product of our ability to think rationally is just not an adequate explanation. It is part of the explanation but only a part. The desire for justice and the desire to relieve suffering of other humans both have genetic bases and will become much more mutable in the future. Once that happens we will have a real problem dealing with the consequences.

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15. Doug Jones on October 14, 2003 12:10 AM writes...

From what I've read recently, Provigil (Modafinil) seems to be a pretty impressive nootropic- not just by improving focus and response time, but by making more useful hours available. If it makes you only 1% smarter but lets you work (productively) 40% longer, that's a hell of an advantage- provided you're willing to put in the hours, of course.

I live in Mojave, so I don't have a life anyway...

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16. Randall Parker on October 14, 2003 12:57 AM writes...

Zack, People will do genetic engineering and stem cell therapy on the brain to roll back aging. Once these techniques are used for that purpose it will be a much smaller jump to use them for cognitive enhancement.

Also, analogous to aging are the neurodegenerative diseases - which can all be seen as accelerated aging anyway. Sufferers from neurodegenerative diseases will not hesitate to use cell therapy and gene therapy. Once Michael J. Fox gets stem cell therapy and gene therapy and is back in the movies there will be little public resistance to wider use of these therapies on the brain.

The interesting thing about stem cell therapy is that once genes that influence intelligence are found it will become desirable to use youthful stem cells that have been genetically engineered to form smarter neurons to replace aged hippocampal and other brain stem cells with younger cells. So intelligence enhancement will ride in with aging reversal therapies.

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17. Ross Mayfield on October 14, 2003 1:34 AM writes...

You nailed it!

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18. george r best, md on October 14, 2003 3:19 AM writes...

i am a 68 year old anesthesiologist and it is very easy to nod off during prolonged ruotine surgical cases. tomorrow i will be doing the anesthesia for a 10 hour plastic surgery case. in order to maintain the leval of vigilance that i should i will take a 100 mg dose of modifinil in the am. i know that i will serve my patient better if i take the drug. i think i have a low grade narcolepsy syndrome as i have a tendency to fall asleep while driving ever since i was a teenager. what do you all think of this? is this just steroids for yuppies or is this using one's knowedge to better do one's job. ps i only take modafinal about once a month and for specific situations.

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19. Zack Lynch on October 14, 2003 3:23 AM writes...

68 year old anesthesiologist-

you are enabling your performance, good call.

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20. Sharpshooter on October 14, 2003 6:04 AM writes...

Speaking from experience, as a doctor who spent years studying (and STILL studying) the human nervous system, NLP, programming, perception...

I've tasted several months of neuroceuticals, piracetam and others, singly and in combination, and for me (disclaimer) there was NO HIGH, no overt 'buzz' or 'reward'...

But there WAS enhanced clarity, a more vibrant sense of being, a more powerful ability to sense, know and recall, to reason and think with clarity and confidence... all of which became primary 'rewards' after a few weeks of use.

I must keep open a potential for abuse, but I don't honestly see how it can be deemed abusive to clarify, focus and harmonize one's cognitive capacities while not simultaneously energizing hippocampal/hypothalamic sensory rewards such as 'enhanced well-being', 'heightened sense of belonging and camaraderie' (both of which can be found in a steaming cup of java! :)

I'm with Zack! and -to an extent- with Hideki.

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21. Isaac on October 14, 2003 7:16 AM writes...

I see nothing at all to be alarmed at by a technological move towards enhanced psychological self-determination. For most people, especially those who would hope to be successful in any technical or artistic field, willfully changing oneself psychologically is par for the course. I believe that the identity crisis is misplaced, here.

How many computer programmers drink coffee?
All of them.

And they're still the same people they were before: just more focused. Thus it pays to have a coffee machine in the breakroom if you have a bunch of employees writing code for you.

But even this does not hit at the heart of the matter. Without drugs of any kind, every human has the power to change his thinking. As volitional creatures, we are self-determined by our very nature - if we choose to be. Adding drugs (or microchips, or brain implants, or whatever) to the mix is just an extension of that fundamental human characteristic.

If (when) we reach this level of technology, where we can basically reprogram the mind, how do I know that I am real?

We've already reached it, in principle. What Zack is writing about is just an increase in our ability to do it. (An exponential increase that would shake society at its foundations, perhaps, but still, nothing to have a metaphysical crisis over.)

You also brought up the possibility of having someone *else* administer the treatment - however, you'd still have to decide to undergo it. (Unless you're positing some Orwellian nightmare of enforced neurocuticals a la _Equilibrium_?)

So, Deoxy, living as this thing with the power to basically reprogram its own mind, how do you know that you're real?

Sufficient regulation would kill this, like it does everything else, before it even gets off the ground. (What do you call a megalomaniacal monster with 1070 legs and no brain?)

Isaac Z. Schlueter

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22. Richard Meixner on October 14, 2003 1:30 PM writes...

Are we talking about short-chained peptides here? (I will google later, but I suspect patents obscure the basic info). I put this in the same bag of learned or inherited tools, tricks, or techniques each of us use to "interface" with 'reality', like 'open-source' problem solving (Wired, 11.11.158).

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23. Marcelo Peviani on October 14, 2003 6:59 PM writes...

Is there something wrong with me, or has capitalism gone too far?
It is known that slowness does not please capitalism, nature included - after all, it takes too long for fruits to get mature, for animals to reach the stage for human consume, etc. But I wonder if it is time for us to refuse our own human nature, in order to obtain a "neurocompetitive advantage"?
Mankind is currently estimating science and technology above good and evil. We have done this before and the atomic bomb is a very good example, but it seems we are just too excited to turn back.
The neurotechnology development shows that we've already reached the point of no return and, despite I'm only 25 years, I would prefer just not to live in this 2010-2060 "golden years".

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24. alfred on October 22, 2003 2:21 AM writes...

Let's make it real simple. The human body works with potassium-sodium switches in a water solution energized with oxygen. Keep those levels at a maximun, pop in a little caffeine to interfere with adenosine receptors and your home free with out all the pills coming down the road in ten years.

Narcolepsy aside, stay healthy, eat correctly, breath clean air, get plenty of rest, and drink lots of unpolluted water. Sounds like good advice from your grandmother.

And yes there are natural herbal supplements to help you attain high levels of the afore mentioned needs. Available today without the side effects associated with modofinil.

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25. Isaac Z. Schlueter on November 5, 2003 2:51 AM writes...

Is there something wrong with me, or has capitalism gone too far?
That's a conceptually broken objection. Capitalism doesn't do things, and it can't "go too far." CapitalISTS may do right and wrong things, go too far or not far enough, and so on. The problem is not with Freedom, if there is a problem. Capitalism is a system where those who truly do go too far or not far enough lose their money. The richest will be those who go just far enough in any endeavor.

I wonder if it is time for us to refuse our own human nature, in order to obtain a "neurocompetitive advantage"?
Human Nature = Self-determination.
Neurochemical enhancement is just a great example of human nature. How would taking control of our biology constitute "refusing our own nature"?
Don't you brush your teeth, take aspirin when your head hurts, drink alcohol at parties, and wash with soap? If you are trying to say that "Human Nature" means "No Technology," think again. (Hey, how did you type all that anyway?)

I would prefer just not to live in this 2010-2060 "golden years".
So, what's keeping you here, then?

Isaac Z. Schlueter

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26. Katherine on December 3, 2003 2:02 PM writes...

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. The more profoundly we change the brain's chemistry (which we don't even begin to understand), the more profound the side effects are likely to be. Before we seek neurocompetitive advantage for its own sake, it might be wise to consider the other half of the Faustian bargain.

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27. Casey on December 3, 2003 3:13 PM writes...

No one said it would be FREE. It'll certainly cost you a pretty penny. But we aren't making a deal with the devil here... just the pharma companies (though some might consider them in the same catagory). The whole point is better efficacy, fewer side effects - the two aren't mutually exclusive. This is more likely to be accomplished by subtle changes, not profound.

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28. Marcelo Peviani on February 3, 2004 5:46 AM writes...

Hi Isaac,

1. You are right – capitalism is not a living thing.
2. I disagree that taking an aspirin or using a computer is just the same as felling good and working harder due to a neurochemical something. For me there's a lot more confusion in doing things like this than we can imagine. You’ll know what I’m saying when the first “human” gets to you with that bright neurochemical smile on his face.
3. Whats keeping me here, well...why in a certain point of your life you become ugly? Some things you may choose, others you may not.

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