What Is "Biohacking": Defining an Ill-Defined Movement

"Biohacking" remains a broad and colloquial term as its definition varies from one self-professed "biohacker" to the next. For some, biohacking is used to describe things as simple as following a low-carb diet to maximize weight loss; to others, biohacking refers to cyborg-esque augmentation, such as having a neural implant that tracks brain activity in real-time.

Biohacking, at its core, is about "hacking" (read: altering) the human body with various biotechnologies, drugs, nutrients/supplements, and lifestyle choices to optimize our well-being, longevity, aesthetics, and/or performance. Naturally, there is a ton of buzz around biohacking these days, despite most of it being based on anecdotes, hypotheticals, and extrapolations of inconclusive research. 

So, if you have a thing for self-experimentation and making your sci-fi dreams come true, read on. We'll tell you what biohacking is (and what it isn't), the types of biohacking, and why you should approach the biohacking enterprise with a sense of skepticism.

What Is Biohacking, Exactly?

In scientific literature, "biohacking" has been described as a "do-it-yourself citizen science merging body modification with technology" [1]. In other words, the premise of biohacking is that the average Joe/Jane can "hack" their own bodies with an amalgamation of scientific concepts, tools, and technology. 

Many so-called biohackers advocate for open-source medicine, exploration of augmented reality, exploiting genetic modification, and personal data acquisition, to name a few. These individuals often go to the extreme by conducting irreversible self-experiments, like modifying their genome or injecting stem cells into specific areas of the body. Such ventures are probably the most accurate, or rational, way of describing "true" biohacking. This altruistic transhumanist vision is admirable in some ways, and concerning in others (more on this later). 

There are also self-professed biohackers, perhaps of a milder subtype, that just want to improve their overall well-being and longevity through lifestyle adjustmentsFor example, these individuals might consider the use of binaural beats for better sleep quality as a form of biohacking (since binaural beats of a specific frequency can regulate brainwave activity to induce somnolence) [2]. Intermittent fasting is another example of what some might call biohacking.

As you can see, "biohacking" lacks a cohesive, universal definition; it is, nonetheless, a catchy term appropriated by anti-aging proponents, social media influencers, and pseudoscientists to sway people in a direction they probably shouldn't be looking. 

What Biohacking Is Not

Since the line between "biohacking" and "lifestyle adjustments" is now seemingly indiscernible, we should clarify what biohacking isn't (and why it matters).

Let's think about this logically for a moment: "hacking" implies that you're infiltrating something that you normally wouldn't be able to access or modify. For instance, cyber hackers exploit loopholes in computer code to access things like restricted databases or someone's personal information. 

Thus, hacking the human body—a la biohacking—is akin to "unlocking" biological capabilities via biotechnology augmentation.

It's unclear why rudimentary lifestyle adjustments, like eating a certain diet, fasting, and the use of nutritional supplements have now been lumped into the biohacking space; these should be separate from actual biohacking methods, like gene editing and cybernetic implants. 

Biohacking is regrettably now a term used quite loosely to describe virtually anything that someone might do to improve their longevity and wellness. Again, if we're being logical, this means basically everyone who has made a conscious (or unwitting) effort to take care of themselves is now a biohacker; some are just more proud of it and had to give it a trendy name. 

biohacking methods

For instance, some biohackers claim that eating more medium-chain triglycerides (e.g. the fatty acids in coconut oil) is a way of "hacking our biology" to produce more ketones, which are potentially therapeutic for the brain [3]. But that's not a "hack" of our biology; that's how our bodies are programmed to utilize MCTs. 

Gene editing, on the other hand, is somewhat ironically a fitting way of describing a veritable "hack of our biology." Our genome contains the "molecular codes" that tell cells what proteins to produce/express. Modifying the genome is in many ways akin to modifying computer code; small input changes (e.g. "turning off" a gene that is associated with chronic disease) can produce significant output changes. 

To avoid semantic confusion, the term "biohacking" needs to be properly defined and saved for appropriate contexts, such as attempts to leverage advanced biotechnology (e.g. CRISPR/Cas9 gene therapy and neural implantation) that may take our biology to uncharted territories. Naturally, gene editing and neural implants carry significantly more risks than simple lifestyle adjustments. 

Getting more sun exposure, eating a wholesome diet, taking nutritional supplements, exercising, being in nature, meditating, and sleeping adequately should not be considered biohacking methods. Rather, these are practical ways of treating your body (and mind) the way you should if you want to live a long and healthy life. 

Common Types of Biohacking

Here are four common types of biohacking:

1. Nutrigenomics

Nutrigenomics refers to "the study of the effects of nutrients on the expression of an individual’s genetic makeup" and analyzing "nutritional factors that protect the genome from damage" [4].

In simpler terms, nutrigenomics entails the use of your genetic makeup as a dietary guide for optimal health and performance. Note that nutrigenomics is not just about eating healthy, whole foods; it's also about taking dietary supplements to optimize your health.

The goals of nutrigenomics are to:

  • Improve your physical, mental, and emotional well-being (ex., regulate blood sugar levels and reduce anxiety)
  • Prevent health problems that you're genetically predisposed to (ex., a low-carb diet may reduce your risk of obesity and heart diseases)

Taking individual genetic variations into consideration, nutrigenomics helps dietitians and nutritionists create custom-tailored health programs for their clients. In doing so, they will likely have greater success in tackling preventable health problems.

To illustrate, a 2016 meta-analysis in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlights variations in the fat mass and obesity-associated (FTO) gene that are linked to different degrees of weight loss success [5]. The authors highlight that individuals with the "homozygous FTO obesity-predisposing allele (AA genotype) had greater weight loss than did noncarriers (TT genotype) after diet/lifestyle interventions."

As such, genomic information can translate to more precise nutritional choices tailored to your specific biological programming.

2. DIY Biology

Do-it-yourself (DIY) biology is a type of biohacking that focuses on experimenting and knowledge-sharing. A synthetic biology journal defines DIY biology as "the pursuit of biology outside of scientific institutions by amateurs, students, and 'hobbyists'" [6].

This means anyone with an interest in biohacking can try their hands at DIY biology. You don't necessarily need a Ph.D. in biology to experiment for the next miracle drug.

While this may open up a new field of possibilities, conducting experiments in your garage or a community biohacking lab may be hard to regulate, hence the safety, ethical, and legal concerns. Ellen Jorgensen, who's the co-founder of Genspace (a biohacker space), says those dabbling in DIY biology "need to follow safety guidelines."

Another thing to note is that these biohackers aren't necessarily amateurs. For instance, a scientist who's also a self-professed biohacker may share their knowledge with those keen on learning more in biohacking conferences, contests, and community labs.

3. Grinder

"Grinders" are considered the most extreme type of biohackers. They generally conduct self-experiments by injecting drugs, implanting gadgets, and getting stem-cell therapy routinely. It's also why grinders often identify with transhumanism (i.e. using science and technology to transform the human body beyond its current limits) and body modifications (altering the human body for physical enhancement and/or aesthetic purposes).

Many of these individuals aspire to live well beyond a century. Time will tell, no pun intended...


4. DIY Gene Therapy

A newer trend in biohacking, DIY gene therapy involves altering your own genetic material using a technique called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). Originally, researchers used CRISPR to replace defective genes and treat/prevent health problems like sickle cell anemia.

In terms of biohacking though, professionals and amateurs use CRISPR to edit their own biology so they can optimize certain body features, like getting bigger muscles without having to go to the gym. (Whether this works or not remains to be seen.)

Risks and Ethical Considerations of Biohacking

Biohacking has found footing among those who seek to push their biological limits. While some biohacking approaches may be relatively benign, like altering dietary habits or switching up your exercise routine, others may cause serious, long-lasting consequences.

Here are five reasons biohacking isn't something to be taken lightly:

  1. Risk of Unintended Side Effects: Venturing into the arena of synthetic biology, genetic modification, or nootropic usage without a clear understanding of the underlying mechanisms can lead to unforeseen side effects. It’s not hyperbolic to emphasize that even minor changes at a molecular level can have far-reaching implications in the human body.

  2. Ethical and Legal Concerns: Biohacking often straddles a gray area in terms of legality and ethical consideration. The lack of regulation in certain areas of biohacking leaves individuals to experiment with biotechnologies or substances that are restricted/controlled, if not outright illegal, in many jurisdictions. Engaging in these practices can put one at odds with the law and pose moral questions that have yet to be fully addressed by society.

  3. Potential for Addiction and Dependency: Some biohackers might experiment with illicit nootropics or other “smart drugs” that promise cognitive enhancement. The risk here is not only the unknown long-term effects of these substances but also the potential for addiction or psychological dependency. There's a temptation to perceive "smart drugs" as "Limitless pills" (a reference to the drug-fueled film, Limitless), but the slope can be quite slippery as the body develops a tolerance to the drug(s) being used.

  4. Risk to the Broader Community: DIY biology labs and home-based genetic engineering aren’t just risks to the individual; they can have broader impacts on the community and environment. The accidental release of modified organisms or the misuse of biological materials can pose risks to public health and safety.

  5. Information Security Risks: Digital biohacking involves modifying technological aspects of the body, like implanted devices. The risk here extends to data security and personal privacy. A poorly secured, biohacked device could be a vector for cyber-attacks or data breaches.

Biohacking is a field rife with potentialities that are alluring, if not fantastical. For those drawn to the allure of biohacking, it's probably best to wait on the sidelines a little longer.

While the ambitious transhumanist movement could pave the way for unprecedented changes in how we live (and how long we live), proper biohacking requires a cautious, evidence-based approach, and more well-defined research.

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