In the 1960s, San Francisco appealed to people seeking mind-altering drugs to help them ‘turn on.’  Half a century later super-achievers in Silicon Valley are popping pills to help them really ‘turn on,’ to increase brain power and productivity.

EinsteinPez_KQED_300x550Bay Area entrepreneur Eric Matzner says he discovered nootropics, ‘smart drugs,’ out of desperation. Six years ago he was a 22-year-old trying to get a mobile technology start-up off the ground in a competitive environment. His voice rises slightly as he described his predicament.

“That feeling when you’re staring at a screen and the text isn’t computing just wasn’t an option. I was motivated to learn and retain more!” Matzner exclaims. “I began to find whispers of nootropics on the Internet. And, then I found this community called LongeCity.”

It’s easy to see the lure… Here’s a nootropic devotee on LongeCity.

I am able to study for the bar exam all day with zero mental fatigue. Second, I am able to read vast quantities of information only one time and spit it back with pinpoint precision. It is the closest thing to a photographic memory I have ever experienced.

Recently venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced a $2 million seed investment in a San Francisco-based smart-pill company called Nootrobox, and the company is only one of many new businesses trying to lead the brain-boost market.

Nootropics are substances that promise to make you smarter, or boost cognitive function. They can include caffeine and vitamins B6 and B12, or herbs like Ashwaganda. But, they can also include supplements like Piracetam (memory enhancer), Emoxiypine (antioxidant), or Modafinil (promotes wakefulness). The substances are often repackaged into formulas that promise to fuel you into the wee hours of the morning.

Combining nootropics is called stacking. Extensive Reddit threads discuss supplement doses and combinations in precise detail. The conversations can read like foreign languages.

I was stacking all this with Choline Bitartrate and Alpha GPC (Powder City) in turns but found that it affected my motivation and energy levels to the point below baseline. I also had to stop Bacopa and Rhodiola (Powder City) because I found that adaptogens would make me TOO CHILLED out to the point that I did not worry about exams.

The Reddit user cited 30 different supplements they were taking, daily. The post ended with a plea:


Eric Matzner has experimented with countless combinations of nootropics over the last six years. He currently takes 40-50 supplements a day that he says costs about $10-$15/day.

Two years ago he decided to market his expertise by starting a company called Nootroo which strives to provide the perfect stack in either a gold or silver capsule. Both blends include numerous supplements like citicoline, L-Theanine, and a Caffeine-pterostilbene co-crystal called PURENERGY. Matzner says the caffeine buzz in Nootroo lasts 6-8 hours instead of a cup of coffee’s mere 2-3 hour lift.

Dan Walsh, a 31-year-old marketing consultant in San Francisco, swears by Nootroo not only for a mental boost, but also mood regulation. He says he feels less anxious and more positive after popping a pill.

“It’s easier to not doubt yourself, or be too stressed about some things,” Walsh explains. “That helps when you’re working for yourself balancing a bunch of different client needs and deadlines. All around it (Nootroo) just makes my life a little easier by perking me up and helping me think a little faster — they’re like a tune-up.”

Nootropics aren’t new. The idea was coined in the early 1970s by a Romanian psychologist and chemist named Dr. Corneliu Giurgea who synthesized Piracetam for the first time. The word nootropic is derived  from the Greek words noos meaning mind and from tropein meaning towards. Giurgia defined nootropics as substances that enhance learning, memory and focus with few side effects.

Smart drugs gained mainstream attention when the 2011 movie “Limitless” was released starring Bradley Cooper. The movie features a struggling writer (Eddie Mora/Bradley Cooper) who takes a magic pill that gives him the ability to engage 100 percent of his brain. A new laser focus allows him to quickly climb to the top of the financial world. But, the plot thickens when terrible side effects set in. Side effects are hot topic on Reddit threads. For example:

Hospitalized due to suicidal and homicidal thoughts while using moclobemide and tianeptine.

Dena Dubal, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco, says we don’t know a lot about how nootropics affect the body long term.

“It’s important to ask questions like, ‘Who makes them? What is the quality of the supplement?’ We often don’t know what’s in them. Sometimes it’s clear, but these are not FDA regulated products,” Dubal emphasizes. “Just because something is natural or plant based does not mean it’s safe.”

Dubal is excited about the future of nootropics, but until more research concludes they’re safe, she doesn’t advise toying with the brain.

“Cognitive enhancement should be safe, equitable, and have beneficial effects for the individual and for society,” Dubal explains. “None of the smart drugs, or nootropics – including those prescribed [like Adderall] – meet the bill for proven efficacy or safety. They just haven’t been studied carefully. And whether any have long-lasting beneficial effects for the individual or society is a complete unknown.”

For now, Dubal recommends sticking to time-tested activities like a good night’s sleep, or a balanced diet. And, in a pinch, grab a cup of coffee.


Silicon Valley’s Quest For Mental Super Powers In A Pill 19 October,2016Lesley McClurg


Lesley McClurg

Lesley McClurg reports for KQED Science primarily on medical and mental health with a sprinkling of stories about space, environmental toxins and food.

If there's a natural disaster brewing Lesley can usually be found right in the midst of a catastrophe. She's reported on disastrous floods, fires, droughts and earthquakes.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and PBS. She is an Edward R. Murrow and Emmy award winning journalist. The Society of Environmental Journalists recognized her beat coverage of California's historic drought.

Before joining KQED in 2016, she reported for Capital Public Radio, Colorado Public Radio, KUOW and KCTS in Seattle.

You can find her on Twitter at @lesleywmcclurg.

You can find her KQED medical science stories, her environment stories, and general news stories.

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