It’s 3 p.m., and I am crushing my e-mail inbox. At this time of day, I’m typically struggling to stave off the post-lunch slowdown by downing another cup of coffee or two. But today, message after message is flying off my fingertips effortlessly—work e-mail, personal e-mail, digital errands I’d been meaning to run for months. I’m in the zone, as they say, and for this burst of late afternoon productivity, I might have nootropics to thank.
Nootropics—the name given to a broad class of so-called "cognitive-enhancing" drugs—are all the rage in Silicon Valley these days. Programmers like nootropics because they’re said to increase productivity and sharpen focus without the intensity or side effects of a prescription drug like Adderall or modafinil. Some users mix their own nootropics using big bins of powders, purchased off the Internet or in supplement stores. And some take pre-made "stacks" that are designed to produce specific effects.
Nootropics aren’t new—the word was coined in 1972 by a Romanian doctor, Corneliu E. Giurgea—but the Silicon Valley-led body-hacking movement, epitomized by food replacements like Soylent and specialized supplements like Bulletproof Coffee, seems to have given them new life. There are dozens of online forums, including an active subreddit, where nootropics users gather to exchange stack recipes and discuss the effects of various combinations of compounds. And although their "brain-enhancing" effects are still generally unproven, nootropics proponents point to clinical studies showing that certain compounds can increase short-term memory, reduce reaction time, and improve spatial awareness.
The nootropics I’m taking are called RISE, and they're made by a company called Nootrobox, which was started by Geoffrey Woo, a young Stanford computer science graduate. There's no one common ingredient in nootropics; what unites them is the intent to improve brain performance. The RISE stack, which costs $29 plus shipping for 30 pills, contains 350 mg of bacopa monnieri powder (an herb that is commonly used medicinally in South Asia), 100 mg of L-theanine (an amino acid found in green tea), and 50 mg of caffeine (about the amount in a can of Diet Coke). Like most nootropics, the RISE stack itself isn't FDA-approved for use as a cognitive enhancer, but Nootrobox says that the compounds within it are approved as dietary supplements. "We use the precise ingredients at the right dosages and the right ratios as supported by double-blind, peer-reviewed clinicals," Nootrobox's site claims.
Woo understands that when selling brain drugs, skepticism comes with the territory. "The typical first reaction is, this is bullshit, you guys are snake-oil salesmen," he says. "We're not medical doctors nor biochemistry experts, but we are experts in building teams and building products. Like how Elon Musk attacks rockets and electric cars from 'first principles,' we see ourselves as applying Silicon Valley aesthetics and operational know-how to the murky world of nootropics."
I’ve been taking nootropics on and off for a month, and despite my spurts of productivity, I’m still not 100 percent sure that they’re working. I could well be placebo-ing myself into thinking I'm working harder and focusing better than I typically do. But apparently enough people are feeling some effect, placebo or not, because nootropics start-ups are thriving. There’s truBrain, Nootrobrain, Nootroo, and a host of others. Nootrobox, the company that makes my pills, says that it’s selling "five figures" worth of cognitive supplements monthly to customers that include top Silicon Valley executives and Hollywood moguls.
"Definitely some names you’ve heard of have popped up on our customer list," Woo says. “What people are mainly looking for is clearing brain fog, getting clarity so they can zero in on tasks at hand."
Nootropics still exist largely in an unregulated gray area, which makes users somewhat hesitant to discuss their regimens. But I did speak to several people who told tales of increased productivity and sharpened focus. Bob Carter, a financial analyst for a start-up called LendingHome, says that nootropics have replaced his other morning stimulant. “I basically think of it as a substitute for coffee,” he says. “I think the problem with a cappuccino from Starbucks is that it gives you the feeling of being jittery. Whereas with this particular supplement, I feel more calm.”
Lucas Baker, a Switzerland-based software engineer with a large tech company, takes nootropics every day. He says it helps him maintain focus, especially on projects he might otherwise put off. “When I find an unpleasant task, I can just power through it,” he says. Baker also makes the coffee comparison: “There’s already a universally-embraced nootropic called caffeine,” he says. “It’s just about making it more widely researched.”
I’ve tried a few different ways of taking my nootropics—in the morning, in the afternoon, in addition to coffee, as a replacement for coffee—and so far, the effects I'm feeling are much more subtle than I expected. There’s no sweaty-palmed intensity, no eight-hour uninterruptible work sprints, and none of the hyperactivity you’d associate with a caffeine high. It’s just a sensation of being a little amped up, and of being slightly less distracted than normal.
Still, putting unregulated brain drugs into my system feels significantly scarier than downing a latte or a Red Bull—not least because the scientific research on nootropics’ long-term effects is still so thin. One 2014 study found that Ritalin, modafinil, ampakines, and other similar stimulants could eventually reduce the “plasticity” of some of the brain’s neural networks by providing them with too much dopamine, glutamate and norepinephrine, and potentially cause long-term harm in young people whose brains were still developing. (In fact, in young people, the researchers wrote, these stimulants could actually have the opposite effect the makers intended: “Healthy individuals run the risk of pushing themselves beyond optimal levels into hyperdopaminergic and hypernoradrenergic states, thus vitiating the very behaviors they are striving to improve.”) But the researchers found no evidence that normal doses of these drugs were harmful when taken by adults.
“We didn’t see significant long-term effects from the dosage used,” said Wen-Jun Gao, a professor of neurobiology at the Drexel University College of Medicine, and one of the authors of the study. He added that the brain doesn’t fully stop developing until age 25 or 30, making cognitive enhancement potentially risky even for users who are well into adulthood.
Health worries about nootropics might keep them from going mainstream, but they haven't kept adventurous productivity-hackers from piling in. Roughly one-fifth of Nootrobox’s customers are in the Bay Area, according to Woo, with many of them working at start-ups and large tech companies.
“There’s a lot of interest from start-ups,” Woo says. “The use case matches really well with engineers who need to crank out code.”
The nootropics community is surprisingly large and involved. When I wade into forums and the nootropics subreddit, I find members trading stack recipes and notifying each other of newly synthesized compounds. Some of these “psychonauts” seem like they’ve studied neuroscience; others appear to be novices dipping their toes into the world of cognitive enhancement. But all of them have the same goal: amplifying the brain’s existing capabilities without screwing anything up too badly. It’s the same impulse that grips bodybuilders—the feeling that with small chemical tweaks and some training, we can squeeze more utility out of the body parts we have. As Taylor Hatmaker of the Daily Dot recently wrote, “Together, these faceless armchair scientists seek a common truth—a clean, unharmful way to make their brains better—enforcing their own self-imposed safety parameters and painstakingly precise methods, all while publishing their knowledge for free, in plain text, to relatively crude, shared databases."
After a month of testing nootropics, I’m not ready to commit to them permanently. They’re simply too untested, and while “move fast and break things” might be a good approach to building software, it’s not what I want for my brain. Still, I think we’ll likely hear more about nootropics, especially as recreational users of more powerful prescription drugs like Adderall and modafinil look for less harsh alternatives. Sometimes, when you’re working, you don’t want to put your brain on jet fuel—a little unleaded gas will do. And for those moments, nootropics could be a fertile testing ground for the intrepid body-hacker.
Nootropics fans will tell you that there's nothing all that odd about wanting to tweak the brain's performance. Roughly ten percent of American adults take prescription antidepressants, after all, and roughly twenty percent take some sort of psychiatric medication. We’re a nation that long ago made peace with psychopharmaceuticals.
“People already take protein and creatine to get stronger. People take alcohol. It’s not that much of a stretch to think that there’s stuff in the world that makes you smarter and more focused,” Woo says.
Some nootropics users are hopeful that the drugs could be permanently “neuroprotective”—in other words, that the compounds could slow down the neuronal aging process, and help avoid cognitive deterioration later in life. (For what it's worth, most of the users I spoke to said that didn't matter much to them. “I doubt anything I’ve tried has made me smarter in a long-term way,” Baker says. “That’s still science fiction.”)
But even if Nootrobox and other nootropics don't make you smarter forever, they could still do big business as an as-needed supplement, if enough people buy into the hype. And while regulators at the FDA will certainly be paying attention to the rise of these hacked-together neuro-supplements, Woo says he’s ready for a fight.
“Uber went into this murky world of taxi commissions, Airbnb went into this murky world of subleasing,” he says. “So that’s sort of how we look at it.”