Bad News: We’ll Probably Never Have Real ‘Smart Drugs’

As humans, we’re always looking for shortcuts: to our health, to our finances, to our love lives, to everything. And there may be no greater shortcut than taking a pill that makes you smarter and better able to deal with all the rest of it. But are so-called “smart drugs” like this — called “nootropics,” in the scientific parlance — really going to happen?

Despite the lack of comprehensive evidence as to their efficacy, the current wave of smart drugs like Modafinil or Noopept is emerging as a notable chunk of the dietary-supplements industry (under which they’re classified). As a whole, this industry is a global behemoth, worth $133 billion; Chris Dziak, founder of Pure Nootropics, estimates nootropics themselves make up about $1 billion of that figure domestically. Companies like HVMN (formerly Nootrobox) and Nootroo are attracting serious investors and plenty of media coverage, while brands like Bulletproof are capitalizing on the food-and-beverage side of this brain-hacking vibe.

None of this should be surprising, considering modern society’s never-ending appetite for taking the easy way out. Popularized in part by Silicon Valley’s tech class and their hyper-competitive, self-optimizing, always-on ethos — the kind of folks for whom the words “hack” and “disrupt” are turn-ons — more people than ever are taking combinations of these brain-boosting pills, referred to as “stacks” in the nootropics community.

They’re an enticing prospect for sure: Nootropics promise a host of benefits, including longer attention spans, more productivity, clearer thought, lucid dreams and calmness. But if you think they’re going to transform you into a genius or give you superhuman abilities, think again: Even the industry’s most ardent supporters don’t promise an experience akin to Bradley Cooper in Limitless. As Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof, host of its popular biohacking podcast and one of the early influencers of the industry points out, many people new to nootropics struggle even to “feel” the effects, since there’s no immediate buzz in the way you get with caffeine or nicotine.

So what, exactly, can we get right now?


What’s Out There, and How It Works

Among the most popular nootropics currently on offer are Modafinil (supposedly the inspiration for Limitless — it promises better mental processing and resistance to fatigue, but it does require a prescription); piracetam (enhanced cognition); L-theanine (calmness); and Noopept (better productivity). Intriguingly, many people also consider “study drugs” like Adderall and Ritalin to be nootropics as well, since they do help you focus. It’s such an open-ended category, in fact, that some people are even microdosing LSD under this banner, claiming that a small-enough dose makes them highly productive and able to focus.

One reason the lines are so blurred on what is and isn’t considered a “smart drug” is that there are all sorts of chemicals that affect our cognition in different ways, and it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what effects are being caused by which drug. Some nootropics, like acetylcholine (and Adderall and Ritalin, for that matter), are dopamine neurotransmitters, meaning that they increase dopamine levels in the brain, helping to sharpen your focus. L-theanine, on the other hand — which is commonly found in green tea — reduces your body’s stress responses. Most, however, have never been clinically tested at all, according to Daryl Davies, a clinical pharmacologist at the University of Southern California. And even if a drug does show clinical benefits, there may still not be any hard scientific evidence to back up these results.

10 mg Adderall capsule

“One reason for this is the placebo effect,” says Davies. “The placebo effect isn’t artificial — it’s still an effect. A placebo has powerful changes in behavior, so just having a patient think they’re getting a benefit has a remarkable capacity to induce that benefit. If they think they’re getting cognitive properties, or if they think they can study harder, some of the neurotransmitters may be naturally getting them in the mindset.”

The Downsides

Davies, who has studied supplements and herbal remedies for 25 years, has some serious cautionary advice when it comes to both nootropics and supplements in general, however. First, he says, it’s important to keep in mind that a drug’s effect can vary widely from person to person: Just because a drug works for one person doesn’t mean it will for someone else — this goes for any drug, of course. Second, remember that combinations of drugs don’t always mix: While many people may not even consider the consequences of mixing something labeled a dietary supplement with a prescription medication, it’s always worth being cautious and checking with your doctor.

Third, and perhaps most vital, is to pay close attention to where these drugs are coming from and who’s making them. The dietary supplements industry is an enormously powerful lobby, which is why it has avoided most meaningful regulation and this stuff isn’t FDA tested before it hits the market.

Davies claims that there’s enormous variety in not only the sourcing of these drugs, but also the dosage found in pills. (Some, when tested, have none of the advertised ingredient at all.) And even why they do, it’s not clear if the source used the leaves of the plant or the root and/or if there was arsenic or lead in the soil. Most seriously of all, he cautions that foreign manufacturers, often in China or India, commonly spike pills with a seriously active ingredient like Adderall or even amphetamines to increase the perceived effect, while the consumer has no idea they’re taking ingredients like these. This is a recipe for disaster, not least of which because nobody knows the real dosage of those ingredients.

Another potential problem, Davies says, is that if you overstimulate the brain, you can get brain burnout, where your neurons start to prune and pull back. Knowing that, he says, it’s hard for a pharmacologist like himself to say, “Go ahead and have that pill.” Brain burnout — something that more commonly happens to amphetamine users — is very real: When you mess with your brain’s reward system, it can lead to issues as wide-ranging as depression, addiction or even schizophrenia.

Finally, don’t assume that, say, L-theanine from one company will be exactly the same as from another. “Are all Chardonnays the same?” asks Davies. “What about blue cheese? Or coffee or tea? People understand quality in food products, but when it comes to medications, people have blinders on.”

The Future of Nootropics

So will we see a real smart drug — one that noticeably fulfills the highly desirable claims of its marketing — any time soon? Most experts agree: Probably not. “I don’t think there will be a magic pill such as in Limitless any time soon,” says Marius van Voorden, CEO of Nootropics.com. “I think the quest for ‘improving’ humans will get small boosts from many different sources.”

“I always say, ‘Never say never,’” says Davies. “The mind is a remarkable machine. As you start learning how to tap into its energies, you can start to isolate things and maybe you can become a genius, I don’t know. But it’s hard to imagine in the next 10 or 20 years you’re gonna have a pill that does that. Plus, [you have to] recognize that the human brain evolved over millions of years. When you start taxing the brain more and more, and try to change something that took millions of years to create, you can come into some real problems.”

But say we get there: We figure out the complexities of our central nervous system and discover exactly how our brains evolved, then devise a pill to hack into our brain and unleash that famous “90 percent” we’re not using (the 90 percent thing, incidentally, is a complete myth). What happens to our society when everyone is suddenly a genius, or has the capacity to become one?

“One common ramification for the users of smart drugs in science fiction is that they often become smarter than their creators — and then begin to question whether or not their creators really had their own or anyone’s best interest in mind when they first developed these drugs,” says Lisa Yaszek, a literature professor at Georgia Tech University who specializes in science fiction. “This theme is central to stories, ranging from Gordon R. Dickson’s The R-Master (generally accepted as the first science fiction novel to explore nootropics as we currently understand them) to recent TV series such as Fringe and films including Limitless, Lucy and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

The government, meanwhile — according to Fringe and the movie Push, to name two examples — might try to control the use of smart drugs in order to create their own teams of super soldiers.

But the most common theme of smart drugs in sci-fi is exploring the grim fates of the users themselves. “Some of the downsides of smart drug use that occur in science fiction include a necessary but often saddening loss of innocence about how the world works,” explains Yaszek. “Or it could be a loss of physical body integrity as the brain grows past its original biological shell or, in the worst case scenarios, an increasing alienation from the rest of humanity.”

In other words, she says, sci-fi literature, as it often does, warns us that with all innovation comes a need to consider the moral and ethical implications: To ask, as ever, not just if we can, but if we should.

Not that we have to worry about any of that at moment. We’re a long, long way from having drugs that radically transform ourselves or society (in a positive way, at least). As for the current crop that are available, Davies claims that simply eating well, exercising a bit and getting enough sleep will do exactly the same things that nootropics, as they exist now, claim to do.

But then, where’s the easy shortcut in that?