If you thought the trend of downing "cognitive enhancing" drugs was limited to college kids popping Adderall before their biochemistry final, think again. An Adderall-esque drug class called nootropics has taken off among a certain Silicon Valley set, according to this Fusion article.

Programmers claim nootropics can increase productivity and focus but aren't as intense as prescription psychostimulants. Users can make their own nootropics with powders purchased online or in supplement stores, or they can buy "stacks," or pre-made doses, designed to produce specific effects.

Nootropics have been around since the 1970s, but apparently the Silicon Valley "biohacking" movement--in which workaholic techies attempt to optimize their bodies and basic functions, such as eating, for maximum productivity--has given these so-called brain enhancers a new life. As Fusion notes, "the nootropics community is surprisingly large and involved," with a number of online forums offering recipes and information on users' drugs of choice.

To be clear, the FDA does not approve most nootropics as brain enhancers, though many compounds within these drugs have been approved as dietary supplements. The writer of the Fusion piece, Kevin Roose, admits he has been taking nootropics on and off for a month, yet he isn't totally sure they are working. Nonetheless, even without being scientific proved, these drugs have become a cottage industry, which includes nootropics-based startups such as truBrainNootrobrainNootro, and Nootrobox.

Nootrobox was started by Geoffrey Woo, a Stanford computer science graduate, and produces a stack called RISE. For $29 (plus shipping) the purchaser gets 30 capsules, each containing 350 mg of bacopa monnieri powder (a medicinal herb that is commonly found 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). According to Fusion, the company is "selling 'five figures' worth of cognitive supplements monthly to customers that include top Silicon Valley executives and Hollywood moguls."

While the article quotes a number of individuals--from a financial analyst to a software engineer--who claim to have had success using nootropics, the scientific research on its long-term effects is still thin. To believers, these drugs are nothing more than a replacement for a stimulant that is already in widespread use: caffeine. But Silicon Valley being what it is, even something as mundane as caffeine is ripe for "disruption."

Published on: Mar 5, 2015