As the demand for cognitive enhancements expands, nootropics have grown from the stuff of internet-driven self-experimentation to an expanding sector in the massive supplements market.
Over the past year, Facebook users may have done a double take on seeing ads for Alleradd, a cognitive enhancement pill that sounds a lot like the prescription drug Adderall.
"Alleradd elevates your energy, enhances your memory, and helps you find your focus, even if you are tired or stressed out," explains the website for the product.
But while amphetamine-based Adderall is a controlled substance legally available only by prescription, Alleradd is marketed as a nutritional supplement and available online to anyone with a valid credit card.
It's one of an increasingly popular, if controversial class of drugs and supplements called nootropics that are designed to boost memory, attention span and cognitive function, even in people with otherwise healthy brains. And as the demand for cognitive enhancements expands, nootropics have grown from the stuff of internet-driven self-experimentation to an expanding sector in the massive supplements market.
Companies like AlternaScript, the makers of Alleradd, offer prepackaged blends ready for consumers, while self-experimenters swap notes online about how various "stacks," or combinations, of compounds boost their mental prowess, just as bodybuilders share tips on protein and supplement regimens for maximizing muscle.
Alleradd, soon to be rebranded as OptiMind, grew out of experiments by its founders, who were looking to find safe and legal ways to boost their brain power. Ever since a college friend of AlternaScript CEO Lucas Siegel committed suicide after binging on a prescription ADHD drug, their friends were wary of casually using such medication, Siegel told me.
"Everyone in my friends group took it," Siegel said. "I don't think any one of us really realized the depth at which it could affect us."
Siegel and his friends started researching nootropic supplements online and in medical journals, and experimenting on themselves to see what combinations of ingredients worked best.
To make some sense of their tinkering, we need to look at the history of pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement, how the internet has affected the field, and whether self-experimenters consider the Alleradd creators to be members of their own circle delivering a quality product or outsiders trying to cash in on the movement for a quick buck.
Looking back, as I'm older, I don't know if I would have been so ballsy as to be taking pills and formulas and powders that I found online.
"We picked up studies by neuroscience labs that would detail specific ingredients on the brain that have been proven either with mice or with humans to have some kind of effect on the human mind," he said.
"Looking back, as I'm older, I don't know if I would have been so ballsy as to be taking pills and formulas and powders that I found online and start testing them on myself," added Siegel, who's now 23.
As their concoction grew more effective, the founders began offering it to friends and colleagues to try, he added.
"Once we had come up with a really good formula, we would make it, package it ourselves in our house—in my parents' basement, actually—and we would take it ourselves and hand it out to people and see what they thought," said Siegel.
One early batch turned out to include too much niacin, a B vitamin, which caused testers' faces to flush red.
"The flushing isn't actually bad for you; it's actually good for you, but you can imagine how frightened you'd be if one of your friends handed you a pill he designed, and then your face started flushing," Siegel chuckled.
Now, AlternaScript's commercial product is manufactured by a major supplement lab that ensures ingredients are safely sourced and mixed in the right amounts, Siegel said. Users, he went on, haven't reported any side effects stronger than a headache, which the company attributes to caffeine in the pills and says can be prevented by taking them with water.
In addition to caffeine, niacin, and various vitamins, Alleradd includes ingredients like the neurotransmitter GABA, which is said to reduce some of the jitteriness caffeine ordinarily causes, and plant extracts said to have nootropic powers, including vinpocetine, bacoside A, and huperzine A.
The supplement's makers left out more controversial nootropic ingredients, such as piracetam, a long-studied nootropic that's a regulated prescription drug in some countries but has hazier status in the United States. Some supplements openly advertise that they contain piracetam and related compounds like aniracetam, but at least one pill vendor has had its stocks seized, while others received notice from the Food and Drug Administration that the compounds are unapproved for labeling as "dietary supplements."
"A piracetam-containing product cannot be a dietary supplement under the [Food, Drug and Cosmetic] Act," the agency wrote to one such company in 2012, arguing the substance has been the subject of clinical tests as a drug and has no prior history as a dietary ingredient.
Some online merchants try to get around the FDA's regulations by labeling piracetam and other nootropics as lab chemicals not meant for human consumption, and at least one vendor takes a more aggressive stance. LifeLink, which sells piracetam under the brand name NoöRacetam, essentially argues that the FDA restricts the compound and the information vendors can provide about its efficacy as part of an effort to keep Americans stupid.
The official reason is 'to keep the public safe'—this is the standard excuse given for police-state behavior.
"The official reason is 'to keep the public safe'—this is the standard excuse given for police-state behavior," according to LifeLink's website. "A more plausible explanation might be 'to keep the public from becoming too smart.' A smarter public would be less tolerant of corrupt and incompetent government officials."
Meanwhile, members of web forums like r/nootropics and the lifespan-enhancement site LongeCity experiment with more exotic chemicals, sometimes pooling their resources for bulk "group buys" of lab-made compounds.
In one YouTube video series, a slender, ginger-haired young man identified as Isaac Bowers gives reviews of nootropics from a wood-paneled room lined with pill bottles.
Taking piracetam for about a year, he experienced a mild cognitive boost and increased energy, but he reported unpleasant withdrawal when he quit taking the substance, he explains.
"After about two days, I fell flat on my face, in a sense," he says in one video. "All of a sudden, I'd go to think something, and it wouldn't be there."
Ultimately, he says in the video, he got over the withdrawal with the help of NSI-189, an experimental substance he ordered through a LongeCity group buy.
"Whatever piracetam did, it fixed," he says. "I was just back on my game, and I was so back on my game it triggered a hypomanic episode."
At higher doses, NSI-189, which is believed to stimulate neural growth in the hippocampus and is in the midst of clinical testing as an antidepressant, made Bowers euphoric and overly committed to an unrealistic project, he explains, but at lower doses it simply boosted his mood and cognitive ability. Other LongeCity users reported similar positive effects, and many also claim more overall positive experiences with piracetam than Bowers experienced.
Although makers of nootropic supplements emphasize, partly for legal reasons, that their products are intended to boost brainpower in "normal" brains, not treat medical conditions like ADHD or depression, it's clear from forums like LongeCity's that many nootropic users are looking for an alternative to mainstream drugs for diagnosed conditions.
Nima Shariatzadeh, a 17-year-old aspiring physician, told me he's experimented with a variety of nootropics after being diagnosed with ADHD and having unpleasant reactions to prescription treatments.
"I was using Vyvanse, and I noticed that when I would take it, I would be so tired afterwards," he said. "Focalin was a bit better, but the comedown was the absolutely worst depression I've felt in my life."
He tried piracetam, which wasn't that effective for him, and had decent luck with Alleradd after a chance Texas coffee shop encounter with Siegel, but he's more recently become interested in compounds like NSI-189 that are said to actually stimulate brain development.
"I don't think so far anyone who's a world-renowned genius did it through medication so far, but I want to be one of the first," he said.
"You can take the rat dose equivalent," he said, explaining few, if any, people have tried the substance. "Of course, humans and rats are different. That's why it's experimental."
I don't think so far anyone who's a world-renowned genius did it through medication so far, but I want to be one of the first.
Shariatzadeh acknowledges some of his family might not be thrilled to hear of his experimentation but argues the idea of smart drugs is far from new. He pointed to Rita Levi-Montalcini, an Italian scientist who shared a Nobel Prize for her discovery of nerve growth factor, a protein which, as the name suggests, stimulates the development of nerve cells.
Levi-Montalcini lived to the age of 103, and some attributed her longevity and continued mental capacity to a habit of dropping some of the chemical she discovered into her eyes each day.
AlternaScript's Siegel pointed to caffeine as "a classic nootropic which basically all of America takes," and said that decades before his collegiate experimentation with prescription amphetamines, his grandfather took pills colloquially called "blackies" for extra energy and focus.
"If he popped some blackies, he could build an entire house in a couple days," he explained. "This kind of performance enhancing pill idea has been around forever."
At the same time, doctors and others have long pointed out the dangers of nonmedicinal use of amphetamines and of taking untested drugs. A 1991 article in FDA Consumer, the agency's now-defunct magazine, warned of risks from taking untested "smart drugs," including some of those included today in various nootropic stacks and commercial supplements.
"While efficacy of 'smart' drugs is unproven, side effects associated with their use are well documented," warned Consumer staff writer Victor Lambert. "Piracetam and Hydergine can cause insomnia, nausea and other gastrointestinal distress, and headaches."
More recently, Trevor Hiltbrand, the founder of nootropic supplement maker Cerebral Success, appeared on Shark Tank, the ABC reality show where entrepreneurs pitch product ideas to a panel of venture capitalists. Hiltbrand sought funding from the panelists to introduce a line of nootropic shots to be sold on college campuses in Five Hour Energy-style containers, but encountered some pushback from panelists who questioned the ethics of marketing to stressed-out, sleep-deprived college students anxious to get good grades.
On the show, Hiltbrand said his company developed the formula after he experimented with a variety of supplements while in college.
"I picked a collection of supplemental ingredients that I wanted in my product, and then I had the professionals, the manufacturers, the [good manufacturing process]-certified facilities help me put it together, make sure it's all legit and make sure they don't interact with each other," he told the panel.
But many of the investors expressed concern that the final combined formula hadn't undergone sufficient clinical testing.
Still, panelist Barbara Corcoran, who said her husband suffers from attention deficit and seeks out alternatives to Adderall, ultimately agreed to fund the product—on the condition Cerebral Success purchased sufficient liability insurance.
"There is a real need for kids to have something to help them concentrate," Corcoran said.
And makers of nootropic supplements say they genuinely believe they're helping their customers lead better lives.
"A big misconception is people believe that it's just a bunch of college kids using these supplements, but it's so far from the truth," said Jim Powell, the president of Nootrolabs.
Customers range from business executives to stay-at-home moms to recovering stroke victims, Powell told me. They're looking for a safe way to keep up with the cognitive requirements of their lives and ever-changing technology, he said, predicting innovations that "make the current market look like child's play," from more powerful supplements and drugs to human-computer interfaces to augment our brains.
At the moment, though, Powell warned that consumers should make sure to buy supplements with the ingredients they want from suppliers that they can trust.
"You've got to be careful, because there's a lot of people out there who are just solely looking to make a buck, and there's a lot of supplements there that simply don't work at all," Powell said. "The main thing is, just research the ingredients, [and] research the companies behind them."