Professors at public universities have turned into biohackers to deal with health problems. Informally, they intervene in their own well-being with integrated scientific techniques or still in development, which include both herbal supplements and stress monitoring devices.
Angelo Amancio Duarte, 56, is one of those people. Professor of the postgraduate course in computer science at the State University of Feira de Santana (UEFS), in Bahia, Duarte found in the biohacker movement a solution to muscle pain and memory loss.
“It was a time of great suffering,” the researcher said. During this time, without finding answers in other conventional treatments, Duarte encountered the concept of “biohacks” – strategies that control the body’s internal and external environment to improve physical, mental and emotional performance.
“I didn’t do any physical intervention,” Duarte continued, referring to the idea that biohacking only involves applications like skin chips.
“I started changing my eating and exercise practices, taking supplements to replace certain nutrients in my vegetarian diet,” she said.
In pursuit of improvement, the researcher was also interested in devices that monitor heart and brain rhythms. It cannot, however, test all new technologies, since many, manufactured in the USA and Europe, have a very high price.
The teacher learns about the news of the movement in an online group, in which the biohacker community shares possible interventions.
According to Duarte, members review scientific articles, report experiments performed, in addition to positive or negative results, so that others can be replicated.
Before testing a new product, the professor said he always evaluates the technology’s safety. “Hacking is a very personal thing,” he said. “You have to take the risk.”
For the UEFS professor, the danger is not only because of the initial stage of many innovations, but because of the charlatanism that exists in the movement. Some of the proposed interventions, such as improving cognitive performance, are based on research with fragile results.
“That’s why I always do research before doing any hack,” Duarte said.
In the assessment of Li Li Min, a professor in the department of neurology at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), the danger with techniques that do not work or whose safety is unknown exists because of the enthusiasm of biohackers.
“They want to do science, but they end up trampling the scientific process,” said the neurologist. Min said he is developing an electrical neuromodulation stimulator with potential applications in medicine.
“But we will know whether or not the booster should be put into use only when the science allows us to,” Min said.
Discussing biohacking within the public university, according to the neuroscientist, would reduce some risks of pseudoscience in the movement. As such, Min advocates the creation of biohacking labs in these public spaces.
“Society requires the rapid application of knowledge in everyday life, an ambition that must be answered from the point of view of the systematization of knowledge and scientific methodology,” said the Minister.
One of the biohackers working at a public university is Fernanda Matias, 43. Professor of biotechnology at the Federal Agricultural University of the Semi-Arid (UFERSA), the scientist joined the movement to alleviate the symptoms of an autoimmune disease, multiple sclerosis, which I couldn’t do it officially.
At another point, after falling ill due to Covid, Fernanda found herself with sequelae in her knowledge that would interfere with her role as a teacher. He said he began microdosing Ayahuasca to alleviate these symptoms after reading studies about the biocompound’s characteristics.
“Ten drops a night helped me a lot,” he said. The biohacker philosophy also influenced Fernanda’s line of research, which began creating products for the Brazilian market.
For three years, the scientist studied plants from the Caatinga and the Amazon, which she prefers to keep confidential, in order to create a biohack that would help people sleep. “I tend to do research that reaches the market,” the researcher explained.
The “sleeping elixir” would help people who previously needed medication get a good night’s rest, according to Fernanda. According to the researcher’s definition, the product does not match the definition of medicine. “This is biohacking,” he said.
“These are plants that have already been studied. Biohacking accelerates this process of the arrival and appropriation of science by humans,” said the researcher from Ufersa
For Juliano Sanches, a PhD candidate in science and technology policy at Unicamp, corporate pressures from the health industry are driving the existence of biohawking groups outside of established clinical settings.
Sanches, who maps the biohacker movement in Brazil, sees the community as a form of activism. “It is based on the principle of increasing patient participation in decision-making about the management of practices and technologies,” he said.
With biohacks, there is both greater participation of patients in decisions about their bodies and the health market, and greater openness of scientific knowledge to society.
This sharing is one of the great ideas of the movement. “It breaks the passive model of scientific literacy, in which the scientist knows and society absorbs knowledge only in a linear way, without questioning and participation.”
According to Sanches, societal fear of biohacking or attempts to ban it ends up fueling interest even more.
Marcelo Buzato, who coordinates the research group Language, Technologies and Transhumanism, believes there is a moral panic about the movement. “The growth of biohacking is inevitable,” he said. “What we need is decent public education for science and technology.”
For Buzato, bioethics laws in Brazil are strict, but only scientists will know that responsibility. “The ethics of biohackers is to not close knowledge to anything.”
“It is up to the government and civil society to discuss the level of risk they are willing to take,” says the researcher.