This is your brain on nootropics

by Andrew Braverman


My 60 capsules arrived one day during the middle of a warm New York July. The bottle was labeled “L-Theanine,” distributed by some company called Now Foods. I was introduced to the fantastical world of nootropics about a year prior to my experiment by author, blogger and paragon of self-improvement Tim Ferriss, who’d unveiled cognition-enhancing substances to me in one of his best-selling biohacking books. While there is no concrete definition for nootropics, they are understood to be any drug that enhances mental cognition. Depending where you look, anything from coffee to Ritalin to herbal supplements are presented as a nootropic. A litany of compounds and synthesized substances are ready for purchase on Amazon, while the more shady alternatives hide in dark nooks of the deep web.

After a cursory refresher in the realm of supplements, I settled with a more conservative and less volatile nootropic: L-Theanine, a natural compound abundant in herbal teas. While the bottle claimed to “support cardiovascular function” and “promote relaxation,” a number of other self-experimenters have reported online that the supplement enhances cognition. I began optimistically taking a single 200mg capsule each morning with a cup of coffee (according to the nootropics subreddit, supplementation with caffeine can enhance cognitive benefits).

Three weeks in, I felt no change. I determined that the most sensible and scientific decision would be to double the dose each morning. At the end of the fourth week it seemed that I was thinking clearer. Placebo? Perhaps. But numerous other lifestyle changes I had made could explain any difference, from more sleep to the healthier diet I’d forced myself into. I would continue the experiment for only another week, but didn’t observe any different sensations or feelings.

So what are these drugs all about? Do they work at all? Can one really write an award-winning novel in one night like Bradley Cooper’s character did in the 2011 thriller “Limitless?” The simple answer is that most people consume nootropics because they want to improve their mental agility. Neuroplasticity is defined as “the potential that the brain has to reorganize by creating new neural pathways to adapt, as it needs.” I came to learn that a number of substances succeed (and fail) to perform a variety of functions related to neuroplasticity enhancement. This is true for memory, attention and creativity.

CC psychology professor Lori Driscoll has done extensive research in neuromorphology and pharmacology. Driscoll explains, “the most effective [nootropics] are the ones used to enhance attention.” She identified Ritalin and Modafinil as some of the more effective of these substances. She stressed the importance of maintaining relative mental balance and the potential for disturbingthat balance with stimulants and similar compounds.

Driscoll thinks the ever-sought, ever-elusive goal to artificially increase intelligence seems like a lofty one, but expanding creativity is much more realistic. A number of mechanisms designed to help you focus and concentrate can actually inhibit your creativity. Essentially, they redirect your brain away from its capacity for creativity. And for all the shortcutters looking to make their memory that much better with a little capsule, Driscoll says the best ways to both increase memory in a healthy person and preserve it in an ill person are just exercise, sleep, a good diet and stress reduction.

Purveyors of nootropics are quick to clarify that the goal of the drugs is long-term. “The right analogy is compound interest,” Michael Brandt, cofounder of Nootrobox, explains. “You’re not going to make a million dollars in a day. If you can be 10 times more productive over the course of a decade, the amount of throughput you can achieve is phenomenal.” While Brandt’s advice may be prudent, bear in mind he would be the one selling you drugs for those 10 years. Big Pharma’s current disinclination to ride the wave of nootropics is partially responsible for the lack of definitive science on the benefits and risks associated with nootropics. Some research has illustrated the potential damage a central nervous system stimulant called methylphenidate (brand names: Ritalin, Concerta etc.) can have on the regulation of dopamine and norepinephrine levels. This could slow the growth of your prefrontal cortex, which in turn could impair your cognition. According to Driscoll, the majority of damage caused by stimulants will prove negligible in the long run provided the user maintains their prescribed dose.

Contrary to Brandt’s long-term vision of nootropics, some people report instantaneous mental advantages after taking them. In a May Daily Beast article, Dan McCarthy shared his self-experimentation with Modafinil acquired in Colombia. He de scribes his high as “something like a cross between a blast of fresh oxygen to my brain and a deepfocus cinema camera movement.” His experience with the wakefulness drug allowed him to “pick up conversational cues in Spanish”—of which he knew very little—and maintain a six-hour state of being “hyper-alert and hyper-cognizant.”

Ethical disputes abound in the world of nootropics. They raise the same question as the discussion of the use of (physical) performance-enhancing drugs like steroids and HGH by athletes. Gone is the “equal playing field” for all as soon as artificial enhancement is introduced. Others may argue that no unfair advantage would exist if everyone decided to artificially enhance their performance; everyone would just be performing at a higher level. While I can’t speak for physically- enhanced performance, Professor Driscoll made clear the potential immorality involved with enhancing your mental performance. “[There is] something a little more fundamental to our identity when we’re messing with cognition—there’s more moral baggage,” Driscoll says. This is one reason why neurological supplements have proved slightly more sensitive than the world of physical supplements (protein powder, GNC products).

Professor Driscoll also raises the issue of the impact on the “gap between the haves and havenots.” Socioeconomic disparity could snowball if amplified cognition is available—at a price. Many humans carry an insatiable desire for success and achievement. Give most of them the choice, though, and they’d rather improve their intelligence by taking a pill than by maintaining a healthy lifestyle for decades.

A healthier diet, better sleep, exercise and stress-reduction are the most foolproof ways to achieve healthy (but not artificially high) levels of cognition throughout life. Many self-experimenting redditors and biohackers maintain that there are quicker, easier ways to succeed. The Daily Beast’s Dan McCarthy is not alone in his pronootropic testimonials. In researching this article, I read numerous personal accounts of the supernatural abilities bestowed by different nootropics. From what I gather, they are far more capable of sharpening your focus and productivity than raising your IQ. Natural dietary supplements offer enhanced clarity and reduced stress, while stimulants like Modafinil or Adderall increase concentration. Creativity can be enhanced by adjusting physiological mechanisms you already have in place. No pill, however, can make you smarter. Yet.