The Current State of Nootropics and Some Exciting Possibilities for the Future

By on October 8, 2016

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Nootropics (smart drugs) are reaching the point where they’re close to mainstream. The term is no longer quite so alien to the average Joe and reports are rife that large percentages of one percenters are using them to get ahead. More ahead, presumably…

Google searches for the term ‘nootropics’ are increasingly drastically and generally it seems a lot of people are interested in supplementing themselves smarter.

In fact, it would appear – according to a WikiLeaks leak – that Hillary Clinton has even shown an interest in Provigil (Modafinil). Most of the media has linked this to claims about her health. More likely, her interest lies in its off-label use as a nootropic known for increasing wakefulness, focus and memory. What politician couldn’t benefit from a little extra focus and vigilance?


It’s a pretty futuristic world we’re living in when a presidential candidate is researching a drug to increase her cognitive powers. Awesome.

This is the state of nootropics right now but what does the future hold for this fascinating technology? How will nootropics develop as our understanding improves? And how might this shape our society further?

Nootropics – Banned in the UK?

While nootropics are gaining momentum across the rest of the world, they’ve hit something of a stumbling block in the UK. The Psychoactive Substances Act has been introduced to try and combat ‘legal highs’ and will be coming into force on 26th March. Unfortunately, the act is essentially a blanket ban, which attempts to block the sale of pretty much all psychoactive substances.  Caffeine is exempt as is nicotine and alcohol. ‘Food’ is also exempt, which presumably means that vitamin B6 is acceptable. But only certain types?

The act defines a ‘psychoactive substance’ as being any substance that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect. So that clears things up. To be fair, it does go on to explain that this includes anything that ‘stimulates or suppresses’ the nervous system in order to alter an individual’s mental state. It’s a pretty arbitrary and short-sighted law but it’s going to make things a lot harder for UK-based enthusiasts. Various companies have hence ceased sale of nootropic products in the UK and we’re left with vitamin tablets and I guess omega 3 and creatine. To be fair, those are the kinds of nootropics I prefer but that’s not really the point. The ban probably includes numerous things in your herb rack and l-theanine apparently, which is in green tea. It’s dumb.

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I’m not saying regulation on psychoactive substances is a bad idea in theory but this is just lazy, short-sighted and impossible to enforce.

On the plus side, this is once again a rather cyberpunk state of affairs. So nootropics are now illegal? They just got more awesome…

Commercial Nootropic Products, Springing Up Like Wildfire

Meanwhile in the rest of the world, it seems that nootropic stacks aimed at commercial audiences are cropping up everywhere. I’ve been contacted by any number of companies with products to sell – including some good and not so good.

Mostly, these include various combinations of caffeine, l-theanine, bacopa, alpha GPC, adrafinil, vinpocetine, ginkgo and the like; in combinations of varying quality. Some use tiny quantities, while others use thoughtless combinations with no particular synergy or particular goal in mind. Of course there are a few decent ones out there too but without doing significant homework, most average consumers aren’t going to know which are which.

I’ve seen stimulants that also include GABA (a suppressant neurotransmitter that likely can’t cross the blood-brain barrier anyway) and other dumb-ass moves. And this is the downside of this commercial interest. While some of these products are okay – good even – many more of them are bad quality. I’ve used products that essentially dissolved after a few weeks in the pot and others that cause throbbing headaches. If the Psychoactive Substances Act prevents products like iQuzil being sold in the UK, then that will be one good thing to come from it.

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‘Limitless Brain’ – one of the better ready-made stacks. And it looks good in photos…

With so many companies trying to make a commercially successful nootropic, it’s probably just a matter of time until one succeeds. When this happens, we can expect an even bigger surge in interest as the use of smart pills becomes commonplace. That’s how capitalism works.

The Best Nootropics Currently Available

But right now, most of these ‘commercial’ nootropics are little more than stimulants and things that boost acetylcholine. This is exactly a brave new future and it’s not likely to lead to any exponential leaps in our thinking. Theoretically, nootropics going truly mainstream could bring about a second renaissance but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

Stimulants might make us a little more awake and focussed but they also blunt creativity. Essentially, caffeine or even modafinil to a lesser extent is like taking a ‘stress’ pill. Modafinil works on orexin to alter our sleep wake cycle but this causes a cascade of dopamine and norepinephrine. This makes us wired and eventually tired and is much better for output than breakthroughs. When we’re focussed and stressed and in ‘fight or flight’ we can only concentrate on the task in hand, which prevents us from seeing alternatives.

And I’m not sure I like the reasons that people take these kinds of nootropics either. Dosing with Adderall to work longer hours and stay in the office until 9pm seems like a step backward to me. We should be looking for ways to work less. Taking pills to work longer hours, at the expense of creativity, seems like a dystopia to me.

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And apart from anything else, nootropics that alter neurotransmitter levels almost always cause unexpected changes to things like our biological rhythms. They almost always cause unexpected changes to other neurotransmitters elsewhere in the brain. And they almost always cause at least some form of tolerance and dependence. It’s just a crude approach that already seems outdated to me.

This is why the nootropics that I enjoy are ones that are more concerned with general brain health. My stack supplies me with nutrients and raw materials for neurotransmitters, it improves cell membrane permeability and it provides a little more energy. It doesn’t change the way I think, just supports wakefulness and good spirits. To me, the objective of a nootropic stack should simply be to feel like ‘you at your best’.

For those interested, my current stack is as follows:

Vitamin D3 (5ug), Vitamin C (500mg), Zinc (10mg), Selenium (55ug), Cranberry Extract (8mg). Vitamine E (24mg), Vitamin B1 (2.2mg), Riboflavin (6.9mg), Niacin (32mg), Folic Acid (400mg), Vitamin B12 (5ug), Pantothenic Acid (12mg), Lecitihin (2000mg), Creatine Monohydrate (4,200mg) and Omega 3 DHA + EPA Fish Oil (2000mg).

But ‘feel a little healthier in the long run’ is not a message that sells pills. And that’s the downside of capitalism.

What Might the Future of Nootropics Hold? Interesting Developments in the World of Nootropics

So what direction might nootropics head in in a perfect world?

One interesting area is brain plasticity. Nootropics like Ciltep and lion’s mane are more interested in stimulating BDNF and encouraging long term potentiation (the formation of new neural connections) versus just making us more awake. This could potentially have more exciting long term effects on cognition and learning but a lot more research needs to be done (which is generally true of all nootropics). How do you ensure that increased plasticity doesn’t lead to the introduction of bad habits?

Another interesting direction for nootropics to take is to focus on more personalised recommendations. This may be based on known mutations – wherein genetic testing could identify that you have low levels of certain neurotransmitters and then recommend supplementation to help for example. This may focus on gene expression and help account for ‘non-responders’. This is something that researchers are already exploring.

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This has other science-fiction concerns though – if we all bring our neurotransmitters up to the same levels, are we reducing individuality? Certainly though, this could have huge benefits for someone who perhaps doesn’t have enough serotonin or who has the MTHFR gene defect.

One company that seems to be moving in this direction is Modern Alkame, which has developed tools for recommending stacks based on the goals and budget of the individual and then helping them measure the results using heart rate data, self-reporting and more. If nothing else, this will hopefully allow us to test whether promising-sounding nootropics like Ciltep actually do what they say on the pot (because the jury is out, somewhat). The company actually contacted me and is going to let me have a play with their testing software, so this will help me deliver some reviews backed up by hard data over the next few months. Actual data and evidence is something that the industry badly needs, especially when it’s so hard for us to distinguish between placebo and actual results. The people behind Modern Alkame actually have a background in recommending personalized nootropic stacks to traders and business-types, so it’s an exciting prospect.

Then there are the interesting developments in tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) and the companies creating headsets that electrically stimulate your motor cortex while you squat in the gym, or that stimulate other brain regions while you play computer games. The fact that these products are commercially available is once again pretty incredible to me but again, it’s an area we need to approach with caution and there are certainly some potential concerns here.

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What I personally am very interested in, is combining nootropics with training – whether that means brain training, physical exercise or meditation. Bodybuilding supplements only work to their full effect when they are combined with the right diet and workout regimen – why should nootropics be any different? Perhaps it would be more useful to think of nootropics as ‘brain training supplements’. This is something I’ll be coming back to on this blog and may eventually build a product around. Oh and I think that virtual reality could be an incredible tool to this end…

Watch this space.

Going Forward…

Of course in the more distant future, we might see the use of gene doping to permanently alter certain genes and thus levels of neurotransmitters. Or perhaps we might see the implantation of devices that we can use to stimulate different brain regions or different neurotransmitters. This is logical transhuman conclusion of this technology and yet more evidence that we are living in a science-fiction future. Especially if said brain chip should come with a heads up display…

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I just really hope that this technology doesn’t come around before we have a better understanding of the subtleties of our brain chemistry. It would be a real shame to permanently increase dopamine via insertional gene doping, only to realise those levels cause schizophrenia…

In fact, I don’t really think this would be a good thing at all. Just interesting.

What I do think would be a good thing, is if we continue to see more innovation around nootropics. That means fewer pots of caffeine and herbs and more companies looking at long-term brain health, lesser-explored ideas like brain plasticity and tailored, personalised recommendations. Hopefully, the thriving communities on Reddit and elsewhere across the web can be the driving force behind this and we can build the future of nootropics that we want to see. It may just be that the future of nootropics ends up shaping the future of mankind in a big way, so it’s probably pretty important…

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I’m an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I’ll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.

  • Good article!

    Your blog is fantastic, keep it up

    • thebioneer

      Thank you! Will try 😀