Metabolically Dominant Soldiers: The Real Captain America Project

By on May 30, 2018

Batman has always been an inspiration to gym goers because he represents the pinnacle of what we imagine to be possible in terms of human performance. He is ‘peak human’ and he got there through grit and determination.

If that’s what Batman represents, then Steve Rogers represents the next step. He is just beyond peak human. He is the soldier of tomorrow. His speed, strength, and stamina are greater than we can even imagine achieving – but it’s only really a bit of transhumanism that stands between him and us.

Or as Tony Stark puts it: “everything special about you came out of a bottle”.

metabolically dominant soldier

But what makes this so interesting is that the concept really isn’t that far-fetched. In fact, this is something that DARPA and other organizations have been working on for a while: creating soldiers that are stronger, faster, smarter, and better than even the best human athletes.

And it’s not that far removed from what many of us are trying to accomplish with pre-workouts, nootropics, protein shakes – and in some cases – anabolic steroids. And there are some even more out-there biomods already available to regular folks too.

What can we learn from the performance enhancing strategies used by military scientists? How long until wars are fought by superhumans? In this article, I’ll be examining the possibility of creating real life super soldiers.

The Metabolically Dominant Soldier

The DARPA program that was concerned with the development of super soldiers was actually referred to as the ‘Metabolically Dominant Solider’ program or later, ‘Peak Soldier Performance’. Which sounds even more awesome.

A lot of this research revolved around the subject of powered exoskeletons and other types of equipment including fabrics with interwoven ‘nanomuscle fibers’, jump belts, and the Z-Man project looking at gecko inspired gloves for wall-crawling. I’ll come back to that in future, but for now we’re interested in human enhancements.

Biomods for Sleep and Learning

The project was launched in 2002 with the aim of reducing the susceptibility of troops to stress, sleep deprivation, fatigue, pain and blood loss, while also enhancing strength, speed, endurance, memory, and learning. DARPA has been known to investigate the use of nootropics like aniracetam and modafinil.

Among many other things, the project looked into a nasal spray called orexin A (AKA hypocretin), to help reduce the need for sleep.

Likewise, DARPA has a history of experimentation with transcranial direct current stimulation for enhanced learning and activating flow-states.

Endurance

Other projects include the use of cooling gloves used to regulate temperature and prevent fatigue from overheating (I’ll be looking in depth at thermal regulation soon), and drugs for enhancing strength and endurance. The latter project is sometimes referred to as ‘Energizer Bunny in Fatigues’. One strategy tested involved use of a drug that would allow the mitochondria to burn fats instead of carbohydrates (this is 516, which I’ll be returning to in a moment).  A Dan Farber Cancer Institute pathologist, Lan Bo Chen, likewise found that blending a green tea extract with B vitamins could triple the endurance of lab rats by exponentially increasing their mitochondria production. Unfortunately, the same drink only managed to increase the performance of cyclists by 3%. That said, the drink is still being tested by the army nevertheless.

The ultimate goal is to mimic the natural ability of Iditarod Sled Dogs to run for 1,200 miles straight without rest. So far, that’s still a pipe dream (at least as far as we know…). The fact that they can do it, suggests that someday, we might be able to as well.

Pain Vaccines

Another very interesting project looked at creating ‘pain vaccines’ to block the sense of pain in less than ten seconds, lasting for up to 30 days. What’s more, is that this pain blocking would not prevent the initial shock reflex necessary to avoid injury – seeming to target chronic pain more specifically by working on the inflammatory response. This research is currently undergoing animal trials.

Pain vaccines that can block the sense of pain in less than ten seconds, lasting for up to 30 days

Unit Coherence and More

In 2008, DARPA officially abandoned its Metabolic Dominance program, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still interested in creating super-soldiers. In 2009, one researcher, Andrew Herr, was tasked with researching something called ‘Unit Cohesion’. This is the ability of a group of soldiers to continue fighting even when exhausted, dehydrated, confused, and stressed. Unit Cohesion is often one of the deciding factors in a severe conflict.

unit cohesion

Herr identified many of the neurochemicals that would enhance or dampen performance during such high-stress situations and used such things as tDCS and injections of neuropeptide Y in order to try and keep soldiers alert and calmly focussed. I discussed neuropeptide Y in my video on flow states recently – along with DHEA, it appears to be one of the chemicals that helps to support optimal performance in high-stakes scenarios. I was interested in using neuropeptide Y as part of a nootropic stack myself, though I need to look into this a lot deeper as it also causes a raise in blood pressure, along with increased appetite and weight gain. Not so Captain America.

The British Royal Society also shed light on four small-scale DARPA biomod programs focussed on neurological enhancement and stress reduction, along with an Air Force program focussed on ‘exploitation of external stimulant technology to receive and process greater amounts of operationally relevant information’. Brain machine interface programs are also very much on the table.

Muscles in a Vial

What really makes the idea of Captain America so appealing though is the fact that he gets all of his powers and abilities from a single ‘serum’. The idea that you could inject something once, or even occasionally, and thus gain a permanent increase in muscle is something that many people will find inherently interesting.

So, is this possible?

Actually, this is also something that researchers have been working on.

Myostatin

I’ve previously discussed the idea of using gene doping to block the production of myostatin in the human body to thereby increase muscle mass. Myostatin is a naturally occurring substance that limits the amount of muscle that the human body will pack on – presumably to keep us energy efficient. Gene doping techniques allow us to temporarily or even permanently block this substance, resulting in increase in muscle up to 30%. The technique has been used successful in animal studies repeatedly and the mutation has even been known to occur naturally in humans. And as I reported recently, one biohacker streamed a video injecting himself with CRISPR to just such an end!

myostatin

This technology is far from perfected. CRISPR is not a flawless technique. It is ideal for use in controlled animal studies to help improve our understanding of DNA, but it will only be effective within a small area meaning that it might take multiple injections to see much of a difference (unless it is injected into a zygote prior to birth). Not only that, but it can sometimes cut the DNA in the wrong place, resulting in strange defects or even cancer.

Not only that, but blocking myostatin entirely might be a fool’s errand in itself, seeing as it can lead to tendon damage. This is not only because the muscle growth might ‘outpace’ the strength of the tendons but also because myostatin appears to play a regulatory role in tendon health (study).

516 – The ‘Exercise Pill’

But there is another ‘exercise pill’ out there which is a little further along and which some people are already taking. It’s called GW501516, but its friends call it 516. The aim is to mimic the effects of endurance exercise on the gene ‘PPAR-delta’. Effectively, if successful, this pill could replace the need for distance running.

When 516 binds to the PPAR-delta gene, it enhances a fat burning signal. In one mouse study, two mice were observed. These mice were fed a high fat and sugar diet (similar to cookie dough) and left to their own devices with a wheel in their cage. Mouse A – code name Couch Potato – was given no 516 and was observed to be overweight, lethargic, and ‘greasy’ (their words not mine).

GW501516

Mouse B on the other hand was given 516 and was not only lean and toned but also full of energy. In monkeys, administration of 516 lowered bad cholesterol (LDL), insulin levels, and triglycerides. Tim Wilson – who discovered the drug while looking for a treatment for diabetes – initially believed that this was a ‘wonderdrug’ for metabolic syndrome.

And yes, some bodybuilders and other athletes are already using this substance, with runners reporting that it could help prevent them from ‘hitting the wall’ – increasing endurance seemingly by increasing the availability of ATP. In 2009, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned 516.

The catch? 516 is highly toxic. Animal studies also showed the development of cancer in many of the participants across numerous organs. The FDA determined that the risks outweighed the side effects and it was shelved pending a seventy year study. So just to be clear, I am absolutely not recommending or advocating the use of 516.

Energizer bunny in fatigues

But it is interesting. And given time and study, perhaps researchers could overcome its current limitations. The Molecular and developmental biologist responsible for the aforementioned mouse study, Ron Evans, has speculated that the same effect could eventually be achieved on a more permanent basis via gene doping targeting PPAR-delta.

In time, gene doping techniques will inevitably improve with better vectors (delivery methods) and perhaps with a focus on epigenetics rathe.

Likewise, methods to mitigate the effect on tendons could eventually make myostatin blocking a safe option too. If you could then combine both into a single injection: you would have a single ‘serum’ that would make you faster, stronger, more resilient, and more ripped. Permanently. Just like Steve Rogers.

Now combine that with cooling gloves, nanomuscle fiber, a pain vaccine, an endurance cocktail, and nootropics…

Steroids and Pre-Workouts

But this is nothing new. In fact, many of today’s most common drugs began life in the military. For instance, methamphetamine was used commonly during WW2 on both sides of the conflict along with cocaine in order to enhance endurance, alertness, reflexes, and pain tolerance among soldiers. This practice contributed to many of the difficulties facing veterans as they attempted to return to civilian life and certainly did not create ‘super soldiers’.

(Disclaimer: I am not saying that Captain America was just a meth head. Though he might have served as some useful propaganda for convincing a soldier to accept a little chemical assistance…)

Likewise, it would be remiss of me not to point out the fact that many of us already experiment with techniques to turn ourselves into ‘super soldiers’.

There are those out there that use steroids in order to become stronger, more resilient, and better able to recover after workouts. Anabolic steroids are rife with side dangerous effects and legal issues, yet they still allow us to push beyond the limits of normal human performance. Likewise, SARMS (selective androgenic reuptake modulators) such as ostarine, can have similar results with lesser androgenic side effects. And we know that this is something that DARPA has also done research into.

That said, SARMs are still not ‘safe’ by quite a margin. They are prohibitively expensive, poorly regulated, and lack long-term safety studies.

But what is perfectly safe and healthy is creatine. The same goes for many natural nootropics like caffeine and l-theanine. Then there are pre-workouts that many of us use prior to training in order to increase our endurance, aggression, and strength as we train. Some of these include some pretty cutting-edge chemicals such as DMHA. DMHA is a bronchodilator, increasing oxygen capacity, it also heightens the senses through increased dopamine and noradrenaline and even increases the threshold for pain and fatigue. Sounds like something DARPA would love right? And just like other DARPA projects, it lacks long-term safety tests (though in this case it is already widely available).

Most of us use chemicals and supplements to enhance our performance in the gym and at work in some ways. Almost all of us use painkillers.

The military is just taking this concept a step further and perhaps providing us with a glimpse into all our futures. And it’s pretty awesome.

Closing Comments

So, there you have it: super-soldiers are real, and more awesome supplements are coming. Along with Batman, that makes Captain America certainly one of the most realistic superheroes and in a way, all of us are already a little more super-soldier than we might have previously thought.

What can you take from this right now? I’m not saying you should go out there and experiment with any of these things. In fact, it should maybe alarm you that some of the stuff we’re already taking is quite as potent as it is… I use DMHA in my Kraken pre-workout right now and while the effects are wicked, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea. More on this soon.

In future though, I’ll be researching a lot of these ideas in more detail – such as the use of orexin A and increasing neuropeptide Y. So, stay tuned for that – and my hope is to eventually use this to create a ‘flow stack’ which I’ll share in part three of my flow video series.

And finally, we can probably learn a thing or two simply by observing the areas that DARPA is choosing to focus on: unit cohesion, thermoregulation, mitochondrial density, and accelerated learning. Apparently that is how you build a super soldier. Maybe we should all focus on that a little more?

Resources

https://www.thebioneer.com/flow-states-deconstructed-mastering-ultra-instinct-part-one/

https://www.thebioneer.com/cyberpunk-and-transhuman-technologies-you-can-try-right-now-or-very-soon/

https://www.wired.com/2012/12/andrew-herr/

https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2008/07/safe-human-enhancement-of-strength.html

https://scienceprogress.org/2011/01/the-rise-and-decline-of-military-human-enhancement/

https://www.selfhacked.com/blog/npy/

https://www.quora.com/Since-all-cells-in-a-body-cannot-be-edited-how-can-the-CRISPR-genetic-technique-work-across-an-entire-system

http://www.baen.com/drugsofwar

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. ASMR BULLY says:

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