After a battle with Lyme disease, Steve Cronin turned himself into a smart drug guinea pig.
Every morning, Steve Cronin kicks off his day with 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation. For breakfast, he mixes grass-fed organic unsalted butter, MCT oil, and organic coconut oil into his morning tea. He follows this up with a rotating regimen of smart drugs, or "nootropics" that he prepares and encapsulates himself.
But sometimes, in order to create the next video for his YouTube channel's growing fan base, Cronin needs to change up his routine. Experimenting, as well as closely observing and documenting the experience, is important for the future of the nootropic community.
Cronin has been experimenting with smart drugs since he was 19, when he was struck with a mysterious illness that doctors couldn't figure out, later diagnosed as chronic Lyme disease. Now 27, he estimates that he's tried at least 40 different types.
"My audience is looking for information to help them make smart decisions about nootropics use," he said in an email to Motherboard. "I want to be adept in seeking out information and be hyper-responsible with use, so that I can provide the community with my subjective experiences that can help inform their decisions."
The word "biohacking" has become an umbrella term for a lot of different practices, from implanting RFID chips into your hand to experimenting with new drugs in the hopes of altering your brain.
These so-called "smart drugs" are also known as nootropics. The psychologist and chemist C.C. Giurgea is credited with coining the term, which comes from the Greek nous, or "mind," and trepein meaning "to bend." Giurgea synthesized his first smart drug, called piracetam, in 1964. Although he did not claim to know the mechanism, he believed it boosted brain power and began exploring the idea of nootropics. (Piracetam is not approved for use as a medical drug in the US or a dietary supplement.)
"I felt fatigue, derealization, confusion, forgetfulness, problems with perception of time, daily headaches, pain behind the eyes and forehead."
"A nootropic drug is characterized by a direct functional activation of the higher integrative brain mechanisms that enhances cortical vigilance, a telencephalic functional selectivity, and a particular efficiency in restoring deficient higher nervous activity," he wrote in 1982.
Giurgea's hope was that these drugs could enhance cognition, counter the effects of aging, help children with speech disorders and other maladies, and treat post-traumatic stress.
"The nootropic line of research is by now multifaceted to deepen the neurochemical and neurophysiologic comprehension of nootropics' mode of action," he wrote, "to make clearer their clinical differential profile; to enlarge the nootropic framework to some other existing drugs, clinically if not pharmacologically related to piracetam; and to find new, more potent, and possibly more selective nootropic agents."
There's no single way that nootropics work, as the range of types of drugs is extremely broad. Some drugs like L-theanine are used simply as over-the-counter supplements, but others like Adderall are pretty strictly controlled substances in the United States.
The community interested in nootropics is growing for a number of reasons, from the movie (and subsequent TV show) Limitless, to the growing subreddit dedicated to nootropics. Companies are taking notice of this popularity, and the number of nootropic suppliers has boomed as well. Since there are so few drugs that can be legally sold for the specific use of cognitive enhancement, it's hard to pin down just how many drugs are out there. Nootropic information site Nootriment lists over 120 different drugs, and the r/nootropics subreddit hosts a research index of over 200 products with potential cognitive effects.
Cronin's specific "stack" (what users call their nootropic routine) involves a mixture of choline and Aniracetam, a compound with potential use as an antidepressant, every other day of the week. "Theoretically, these two produce a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine which has a lot to do with focus and seems to have an increase in the feeling of focus for a lot of people," he said.
Alternating the regimen is key if a user does experience some of the potential side effects these drugs have, he said. While they're not severe, symptoms like headaches can hinder the effectiveness of a drug like Modafinil, an Adderall-like drug referred to as a "wakefulness promoter" that is only available in the United States with a prescription for shift work disorder and narcolepsy. On the days he doesn't take Aniracetam and choline, Cronin takes Modafinil, which he describes as having a tenth of the effect of something like Adderall regarding focus and motivation, but with fewer side effects.
Aside from exercise and a low-carb diet, Cronin also takes a large amount of magnesium before bed, something that for him induces a relaxing, anti-anxiety effect.
Cronin first got sick in 2007. The disease manifested itself in a variety of ways for months, from serious cognitive symptoms to occasional pain throughout his body.
"It depleted me of my brain power," he said. "I was walking around in a haze with tons of brain fog. I felt fatigue, derealization, confusion, forgetfulness, problems with perception of time, daily headaches, pain behind the eyes and forehead."
He went to doctor after doctor, he told Motherboard, before he finally got an accurate diagnosis: chronic Lyme disease. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, often transmitted to humans by ticks, that leads to a wide range of symptoms including temporary facial paralysis, numbness or weakness, memory problems, heart problems, hepatitis and more.
Chronic Lyme, according to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, is a form of the disease that results from lack of treatment or misdiagnosis in the initial stages.
This experience taught Cronin that doctors weren't "these massive degree holders... who are all knowing and powerful," in his words.
After rounds of intense antibiotics, doctors told Cronin that he was about 80 percent of the way to full health. As for the final 20 percent? His thinking still felt sluggish at times, and the doctors weren't encouraging. "Sorry, that's just how it is, forever…or until we figure it out," he paraphrased them saying.
Fast forward to 2015. Cronin finished a master's degree in Transpersonal Psychology at Naropa University. Transpersonal psychology is a niche of developmental psychology that concerns Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and specifically the top of the pyramid: self-actualization.
In Maslow's words, self-actualization is the idea that "what a man can do, he must do" in every aspect of life, fulfilling every ounce of one's potential.
For Cronin, this meant smart drugs.
Most of Cronin's videos take place in his home, which shifted about a month ago when he moved from Houston to New York City. Not much changed in the videos since he moved: the bland home office background is a little different, but Cronin still kicks off every video with a high energy introduction that often involves lots of hand motions and direct eye contact with the camera. He speaks with a combination of the persuasive vigor of an infomercial spokesman and the wild zeal of a street preacher, but he never comes across as a fraud. Steve Cronin never seems dishonest or fake, and whether he's talking about a "Chaga Mushroom Drink" or Integral Theory, his passion is evident.
Nootropics are sold as dietary supplements and therefore aren't evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The lack of FDA quality control means that there aren't many legal ways to stop customers from being ripped off or misled. An FDA spokesperson told Motherboard that, under the the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, each company is individually responsible for evaluating its products' safety, as well as the claims made about the supplements' effect on the human body.
The FDA will only remove a dietary supplement from the market if it's established that "such products are adulterated (e.g., that the product is unsafe), misbranded (e.g., that the labeling is false or misleading) or not manufactured under Good Manufacturing Practices."
This lack of oversight is why Cronin's reviews have helped many beginners find their footing in the nootropic community. Cronin often interacts with his fans in the comments of his videos, where he gets everything from detailed questions about specific drugs to compliments about his energetic presentation.
"I have always had an interest in enhancing the ability of the human mind—things like increasing focus, productivity, and overall mental ability," said Zach, a computer science student at Oregon State University who only recently discovered nootropics.
The lack of FDA quality control means that there aren't many legal ways to stop customers from being ripped off or misled
Zach wanted to stay away from drugs like Adderall and their negative side effects, and his search for alternatives led him to YouTube channels like Steve Cronin's. "[Steve's] enthusiasm and personal mission is what keeps me tuned into his videos. He is very informative, which is quite helpful."
Steve's storytelling ability was huge for Zach too, as it was more than just spitting out facts and data. "It's very important when painting the overall picture of smart drugs and their effectiveness."
After six months and over 100 videos, Cronin's subscriber count went from a few hundred to over 2,700. It's now over 3,000. That might seem small, but as is the case with many of YouTube's niche groups, the nootropic community is active and vocal. Cronin's channel is big enough within the community that companies regularly send him their products, hoping to get a positive review.
Not all Cronin's experiences have been positive, however. A smart drug called Noopept, meant to improve short-term memory, actually did the opposite.
"I had a period of about four hours where my short term memory was severely affected to the point where within about 60 seconds of doing something I couldn't remember if I did it," he said. "Even simple things like locking the door or eating, I couldn't remember."
"There are so many smart drugs and they affect people in so many different ways, you're rolling the dice in terms of if they'll help you or not," he said.
Cronin finds the positives outweigh the negatives, however, and he feels it's important to share both kinds of experiences on YouTube. For now, his channel is one of the only ways to get information about nootropics a potential user wants to try.
The question of whether nootropics actually work, and in what ways, is still an open one.
For now, word of mouth—or "crowdscience," as Cronin calls it—is the best resources nootropics fans have. Cronin is convinced that the effects are real based on his own experience and from talking with others in the community at conferences like the Biohacker Summit.
"The idea of crowdscience, in my opinion, will help identify the 'gateway' nootropics that provide intense and acute experience for most people faster than a collection of upcoming scientific studies," he said.
Dr. Martha J. Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the few researchers in the field of "neuroethics," shorthand for what she calls "the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience."
In a recent article for Science, Farah calls into question the lack of research regarding cognitive enhancement, including nootropics. "The majority of studies on enhancement effectiveness have been carried out on small samples, rarely more than 50 subjects, which limits their power," she wrote. "The only large-scale trial we may see is the enormous but uncontrolled and poorly monitored trial of people using these drugs on their own."
Farah also noted that nootropics can have widely varied effects on individuals. "Enhancements may differ in effectiveness depending on the biological and psychological traits of the user, which complicates the effort to understand the true enhancement potential of these technologies," she wrote.
One of Cronin's favorite drugs is Modafinil, which many have likened to the fictional pill in Limitless. Modafinil is regulated by the FDA and has had a few positive, yet inconclusive studies support its claims of boosting cognitive function.
But as far as actually achieving the movie's smart drug-induced state of higher consciousness, Cronin is pretty skeptical. "In terms of being able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a day because you're on a drug, that's not something I see happening," he said. "That's probably best left to science fiction and fantasy realms."
Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.