The Growth Of Nootropics And Biohacking, And The Future Of Cognitive Enhancement

The human brain is an amazing thing, so why waste its potential? Here come nootropics.

In 2016 at South by Southwest, the nootropix startup Nootrobox wowed techies with its chew-able caffeinated coffee cubes.  What’s going on with nootropics, you ask?

An increasing number of people think the key to optimizing brain power may in part lie with nootropics. Also called “smart drugs,” these compounds, which may be either natural or synthetic, are ingested (typically by pill or powder) to enhance memory, attention, motivation and other elements of cognitive function.


The term nootropics was coined in 1972 by Romanian doctor Corneliu E. Giurgea, derived from the Greek words for “mind” and “bend,” noos and trope respectively.

You’re probably thinking of Bradley Cooper in Limitless or your college experience with Adderall. In reality, nootropics are much more nuanced, but when used correctly can be truly mind-bending — according to emerging science, and a vibrant community of nootropic users.

The basics

By Dr. Giurgea’s definition, nootropics should improve mental functions while also being low in toxicity, non-addictive, and without many side effects. Not all cognitive enhancers (such as Adderall), therefore, technically qualify as nootropics.

Nootropics target neurotransmitter systems in the brain and their specific receptors to stimulate nerve growth or alter the availability of the brain’s oxygen supply, and in doing so are thought to increase the cognitive efficiency of brain functions. The efficacy of nootropics is dependent on an individual’s neurochemistry and lifestyle.

Nootropic users often mix and match various nootropics to form winning blends called “stacks.”  Some of the most common, studied, and allegedly effective nootropics include:

  • Caffeine + L theanine: a well-tested combination used for enhanced attention over and above that of coffee, in which the latter cancels out the former’s side effects of anxiety or diminished sleep quality
  • Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, and Piracetam: combined, these are used to improve memory, mood, and the ability to process information
  • Bacopa monnieri: used for longevity, anxiety reduction, and memory formation
  • Creatine: an “energy buffer” used to improve the metabolic functions of the brain and boost mental clarity

Most users spend less than $100 a month on nootropics.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”cWMbPoMqZshZvNTJDC5ohQZ3VEdlkCOT”]

Maintaining proper rest, physical and mental exercise, and a balanced diet is another important aspect of biohacking that improves brain function, which nootropics users may start with and then continue in addition to their regimens.

This is to say, if you are wary about experimenting with nootropics, there are plenty of ways to achieve similar results on your own, without the risk or cost.

Who takes nootropics?


Nootropics may have been born in term in the 70s, but in practice, cognitive enhancements date back to ancient uses of caffeine and cocoa to improve stamina before battles. But it’s only been recently, with advancements in medicine and cognitive science, that people have come to understand and optimize such substances.

Today, almost 50,000 subscribers to Reddit’s r/nootropics test and discuss different nootropics and their effects. You could describe this DIY-style experimentation as a type of biohacking, in which the experimenter is essentially hacking their own body and documenting the results.

Outside of Reddit, there are numerous other resources for nootropic enthusiasts, whom a poll on popular website LongeCity found about 75 percent to be males ages 20 to 29. A Reddit survey yeilded similar results, adding that the majority of users are caucasian, with some college education.

Nootropics have found a popular market in Silicon Valley, where startups are cropping up to fill a demand, driven in part by the fast-pace tech world. Academia is also a prime driver of nootropic usage.

Does it work?


There have been a good deal of scientific studies (3,000 on PubMed) surrounding nootropics, but the field is ahead of the science, hence the rapid self-testing of individual biohackers. Since nootropics aren’t generally used to treat ailments, and lack conclusive, empirical evidence, they exist mostly outside of the medical world.

Many nootropics are considered supplements, and as we know, vitamins are not regulated by the FDA — in fact, the FDA is legally prevented from warning of their potential harm. With the exception of some prescription drugs, nootropics are perfectly legal, and it’s up to buyers whether or not to trust them.

Scientifically, there is a strong case for the human body getting what it needs naturally, as too many nutrients can indeed be harmful. But some of the things that effect our brains on a daily basis (think unhealthy food, electronics, inactivity) aren’t necessarily helping the brain, and if anything may bog it down.

So, can you trust nootropics to act as a counterbalance? This question has no definitive answer, and depends largely on the individual and their approach.  Smart buyers will educate themselves by researching trustworthy suppliers and being wary of scams or inflated claims about ingredients and results.

Because people interested in nootropics are typically science and health-minded people, there is also wealth of knowledge available online, including peer-reviewed studies, documented risks, personal testimonies, and best practices.

The nootropics community strongly recommends that users review relevant research before diving into potentially harmful chemicals, and carefully track results through websites like the Quantified Mind and Cambridge Brain Sciences.

Unfortunately, there isn’t quite enough literature to support the thousands of drug combinations being tested already, and nothing indicating long term effects; the science is simply too young for utter confidence. Users, therefore, have to ask themselves whether the potential costs are worth the assumed benefits.

The future of nootropics


Though some have made the comparison between cognitive enhancers and athletic steroids, plenty others argue that nootropics are more akin to mental preparation than cheating since they don’t grant the user any knowledge or skill they didn’t have already.

In the future, some speculate nootropics and other types of smart drugs will become mainstream. But others worry about a world in which brain enhancement is the norm.

Such ethical queries posed by mainstream nootropics include:

  • Would those unable or unwilling to purchase and use them fall behind, skewing inequality further in the favor of white, educated males?
  • If nootropics are banned in one country, will that nation lose their edge in a competitive global economy?
  • Will nootropics lead to a world that prioritizes functionality over all else, creating a dependency on cognitive enhancement?

At this point, it’s impossible to know what the future holds, and only time and more testing will tell. Those brave enough to do so may remain incredibly well-focused enablers of the (sometimes problematic) $32 billion supplement industry, or find themselves frontrunners of a hyper-intelligent trend.


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Jennifer Markert