Biohacking Your Way to a Better Brain

Are nootropics—the so-called smart drugs—really that smart?


Andre Watson combines nootropics for the best results at staying mentally sharp.

Photo by Ariel Nava

Andre Watson woke up at 9:40 a.m. after just five hours of sleep. He had an important call in 20 minutes. But he didn’t reach for a cup of joe—he pulled out his nootropics. He measured out varying doses of five different powders and absorbed the mixture under his tongue. He followed that with a two-pill chaser of theobromine (the mild stimulant found in chocolate) and a small dose of caffeine. “I felt revived and awake and in the zone within 10 minutes,” said the 25-year-old entrepreneur.

Nootropics, known as “smart drugs,” are a wide range of chemical compounds and natural supplements that boast better cognitive function—increased concentration, improved memory, and reduced anxiety in healthy people. These brain-boosters include synthetic drugs, amino acids, enzymes, herbs, fish oils, vitamins (B6, B12, D, K), omega-3s, and more.

“If there is something that can help my brain to work better, I want it,” said Watson, who runs a genome engineering startup in Berkeley. What he doesn’t want are prescription amphetamines like Adderall, typically used to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a “study aid” favored by college students, and the negative side effects that can follow. Biohackers like Watson buy nootropics online and make “stacks”—combinations that “work well” together—to get the best bang for their nootropic buck. These do-it-yourself biologists—another name for biohackers—tap into online forums, like Reddit, to ask and answer questions about which brain enhancers work best, at what dose, and in what combinations.

The Bay Area is a hotbed for nootropics, especially among young, male professionals. No surprise that Watson finds use common among people in his startup world who are trying to stay mentally sharp as they manage long hours and difficult problems. But it’s the desire “to gain an extra edge” that he believes is the real draw.

Whether nootropics actually improve brainpower and deliver that extra edge is up for debate.

Marc Hellerstein, a professor of nutrition at UC Berkeley and a professor of endocrinology and metabolism at UC San Francisco, has been following the nootropics trend and isn’t convinced. “I’m singularly unimpressed by the data and science around nootropics,” said Hellerstein, an M.D. with a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry. “Caffeine, on which some nootropics are based, will make you a little more alert for a little while, but we know that caffeine has that cognitive effect,” he added. The well-designed clinical studies in healthy humans needed to demonstrate that nootropics are safe and enhance brain function as they claim just don’t exist, he said.

Still, in the past two years, two San Francisco-based startups, Nootrobox and Nootroo, have bet on these smart drugs moving into the mainstream. They’ve put together user-friendly nootropic stacks in capsule form to help take out some of the guesswork. Geoff Woo, the 28-year-old cofounder of Nootrobox, said that the business has grown exponentially and already has hundreds of customers in the East Bay. (A one-month supply of Nootrobox’s four-supplement full stack costs $135; the products run from $15 to $49 apiece.)

Ariel Nava

Each morning, Oaklanders Tess Posner, 32, and her husband Jesse, 33, take Nootrobox’s RISE, a combination of the herbs bacopa monnieri and rhodiola rosea, purported to promote memory and stamina. Posner, the executive director of a nonprofit, was intrigued when she read that Nootrobox had been backed by venture capitalists Andreesen Horowitz; she figured there had to be something to it. “I’m incredibly busy and travel a lot. It’s easy to get burnt out,” she said. Posner also takes a daily dose of Nootrobox’s SPRINT, caffeine plus L-theanine, the relaxing element found in green tea. Posner said the effect is immediate. “It’s like the most amazing cup of coffee without the jitters, and I don’t experience any crash with it.”

About six months ago, Nootrobox came out with GO CUBES, chewable gummies in three flavors—another nootropic with the kick of coffee and the calm of tea. They are sold in a four-cube pack for $2.99 at 7-Elevens throughout San Francisco, and Woo expects GO CUBES to be available in the East Bay early in 2017.

Nootrobox’s stacks are considered dietary supplements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and generally regarded as safe. The FDA treats dietary supplements more like special foods; unlike drugs, rigorous clinical testing is not required. Posner has had no side effects and hasn’t developed any tolerance either, she said. Watson said that he has never experienced any bad effects from his own nootropic regimens, other than a headache, which he attributed to not the right mix.

Watson is also a fan of noopept and phenylpiramine, the key ingredients in Nootroo’s gold and silver formulas, capsules taken on alternating days and designed to enhance memory and focus. These synthetic chemicals don’t fit neatly into the dietary supplement category or any category, for that matter, including drugs, explained Nootroo founder Eric Matzner, and so for now, his nootropics are sold with the label “for neuroscience research only,” a fuzzy area from a regulatory standpoint with customers essentially “experimenting.” (A month’s worth, or 30 capsules, cost $64.95, or $54.95 with a subscription.)

Could it all be a placebo effect? Placebo effect isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Watson, but he thinks there’s more to it. He plans to keep reading up on the nootropics data and experimenting as he biohacks his way to a better brain.


Published online on Jan. 30, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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