Nootropics and the Human Lab Rats of Reddit
Nootropics and the Human Lab Rats of Reddit Eric Matzner tells me he takes 30 to 40 pills a day. He is 27 and perfectly healthy. Thanks to the pills, he says he hasn’t had a cold in years. More importantly, the regimen is supposed to optimize the hell out of his brain, smoothing right over the ravages of aging, sleep deprivation, and hangovers.
Not that a guy so obsessed with health drinks much anyway.
Matzner is the founder of Nootroo, one of the many companies now purveying nootropics, or brain enhancement drugs. Depending on who you ask, nootropics could include everything from Adderall to caffeine, with an array of unregulated and largely untested chemicals like noopept in between. The idea of nootropics has been around since the 70s, but it’s enjoyed a recent swell of popularity, especially among the Silicon Valley bodyhacking and Soylent-guzzling set.
Some nootropics enthusiasts contend that drugs like modafinil—with dramatic effects and potentially dramatic side effects—do not count as nootropics. Or at least, they misrepresent nootropics, which include drugs that have a small but cumulative effect over the long term by optimizing cognition. “The right analogy is compound interest. You’re not going to make a million dollars in a day,” says Michael Brandt, cofounder of the company Nootrobox. “If you can be 10 percent more productive over the course of your 20s, the amount of throughput you can achieve is phenomenal.”
In one longitudinal study piracetam use was actually found to be associated with increased cognitive decline over 20 years, though the authors caution drawing conclusions given the small sample size in the piracetam group.
Given all the self-experimentation among its members, the group is making every effort to help its members use the nootropics responsibly. On /r/nootropics and its sister subreddit /r/StackAdvice (“stack” refers to the combo of pills), users dish out advice and reports on new drugs, combinations, and dosages. “Best Noots for Depression?,” asks one user. “Does l-theanine cause dissociation?” asks another.
Even if we accept that individuals are free to take whatever risks they want experimenting on themselves, there’s still a glaring problem with using their results as data: the placebo effect. A patient given a sugar pill can almost miraculously improve their test scores. A college student given alcohol-free beer will act drunk.
And it’s not as if these problems are endemic to crowdsourced research. Even science from prestigious researchers, published in legitimate journals, can be wrong. The scientific literature is littered with once-promising drugs that did not pan out. Take piracetam, for example, the drug for which “nootropics” was originally coined. Early studies beginning 1970s found possible benefits to piracetam, especially in the elderly, but this hasn’t always panned out with further studies. There’s no clear evidence it benefits healthy 20-somethings when taken over the long term.
At the same time, most of these substances are so new that there aren’t many longterm studies, especially in healthy 20-somethings. Suppliers of nootropics are of course well poised to exploit this ambiguity.
The FDA is set up to approve drugs for treating disorders. You have Adderall for treating ADHD or modafinil for narcolepsy. It does not, however, have any framework for regulating drugs optimizing the brains of the perfectly healthy. If drug companies who don’t see a clear path for getting a new class of drugs approved, why risk all the money into developing one?
Google Trends for “nootropics”
The current swelling of interest in nootropics might very well be a product of our time, an era obsessed with achievement and productivity. In 2008, an editorial by several top researchers in Nature advocated a responsible way to deal with what seemed like an inevitable future.
We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function” while noting that responsible. In a world in which human workspans and lifespans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools — including the pharmacological — will be increasingly useful for improved quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal and pathological age-related cognitive declines.”
Cognitive enhancement drugs may make some of us nervous, but most of us accept caffeine as a perfectly legitimate perk-me-up. Millions of us will profess to being nonfunctional without coffee, and just a tad too much makes us jittery as hell. Nootropics may just be the next iteration of caffeine. If cognitive enhancement is the future, then nootropics users are the ones pushing it forward, DIY-style.