MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN
The week of April 10, 2016

Experimenting with nootropics, the so-called smart drugs

By Taylor Hatmaker

There are a few kinds of people that stumble into the nootropic community. I ended up there about five years ago because I like drugs and I wanted better ones. I’d been reading about weird drugs on the Internet since I was 15, back when we bought Salvia divinorum at the tacky head shop near the mall and fell down laughing and tried to get high on an amped-up kava kava homebrew.

I’ve generally experimented with nearly every upper and downer out there, across a pretty broad spectrum of legality. But what began as escapism when I was tethered to a Texan teenage wasteland later blossomed into something less bleak and more life-affirming, intellectual even. If perception is reality and we can actually retune the five senses—and do so safely and scientifically—well, that’s something indeed. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“I think nootropics appeal generally to folks with an armchair (or professional) interest in psychology, neurology, biology, and other facets of brain science, [who] feel comfortable occupying the role of both experimenter and subject,” an avid nootropics user with a degree in biochemistry tells me. “Nootropics may appeal greatly to those who have already rejected society’s blanket judgment that ‘drugs are bad.’”

Much like dive bars, virtual haunts all have their own cast of characters. On LongeCity, “the premier forum about extending the human lifespan”—and, more pertinently, extending human consciousness—one figure inspired a sort of messiah-like reverence: Isochroma. Isochroma had used the forums for years, often among the first to try newly synthesized drugs. He wrote with a mania that approached psychosis, but always coherently and with a strange, breathless elegance. He was a mega-doser—one of the brave few who’d take massive, unheard-of dosages of a substance to see what lay at its outer edges. Fascinated, I devoured his posts. That’s how I began to learn about nootropics.

In a handful of spartan, text-based Web forums like LongeCity, geeks with a wild streak convene with recovering addicts and mind-expanding, hippie types in pursuit of experiential knowledge—the kind mainstream science can’t or won’t provide. The result is a strange intellectual compound: virtual symposiums where bold souls ingest chemicals that science barely has a name for—and then they blog about it.

The class of drugs known as “nootropics” span a broad, heterogeneous swath of psychoactive substances. Many things that could be called nootropics are legal, often because the law either doesn’t know about it or just doesn’t know what to do with it yet. You can buy some nootropics, sometimes marketed as “smart drugs,” at Whole Foods next to the Vitamin D supplements. Others only pop up for sale online in limited quantities, straight from being synthesized and never before tested on humans.

Well before the Silk Road, there was Erowid.

“The biggest unknown factor remains long-term effects,” the psychonaut with the biochem background explains. “Where online forums and ‘amateur’ sources of information are light years ahead of official research and regulation for the vast majority of these substances, the recency of most of them makes long-term information simply unavailable anywhere.”

Naturally, here on the crowdsourced cutting edge of brain science, that’s part of the appeal. “Beyond the actual experimentation with nootropics, the research and investigation into some of the more esoteric corners of what we know (and don’t yet know) about how our brains work is a fascinating exercise unto itself.”

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Nootropics are everywhere and nowhere

For a community living on the razor-thin edge of brain science, these thriving marketplaces of thought and experience mostly haven’t seen a redesign in 15 years. Well before the Silk Road, there was Erowid—one of the Web’s liveliest and often most reliable places to read about drugs. Founded in 1995, Erowid attracts both bored high schoolers looking to get high on what’s in the spice cabinet and serious psychonauts—explorers of altered states of consciousness. Bluelight and LongeCity are two more online drug forum stalwarts, notable for their emphases on safety and hard science.

The term “psychonaut” might sound like a euphemism for any stoner chasing a high, but it actually describes a loose subset of people who experiment with drugs with intentions that are often more intellectual, methodical, and sometimes spiritual than casual drug abuse. The psychonaut and nootropics communities overlap naturally, both emphasizing the pursuit of knowledge and experience, and indeed many nootropic forums prescribe what’s known as the “Shulgin protocol,” a strategy of safe dosage pioneered by legendary chemist and psychonaut Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin.

Nootropic communities wax poetic at length about subjective states of euphoria, alertness, and calm. When a new compound pops up, forum users seem almost giddy in anticipation of their first go-round with it.

“I saw exciting news that [a nootropics retailer] finally received a small batch of Unifiram and made it available to purchase at 22 dollars for 250mg,” one user writes, beginning a new forum thread. “As Sunifiram gained so much popularity when it became readily available, I thought it would be a good idea to create this thread for those who wish to share any experiences they have had, or will have with Unifiram.”

The class of drugs known as “nootropics” span a broad, heterogeneous swath of psychoactive substances.

A vial of Unifiram, one of the newer nootropics, ships in an amber jar no bigger than a thumb. Four days later, the first-person accounts begin to pour in:

Took my first dose of Unifiram today, 3mg. Effects seem very similar to Sunifiram, although a bit less speedy and a bit more eugeroic. About a 10% decrease in reaction time, and all my senses subjectively feel heightened. I’m noticing small, otherwise ignored details in my environment. Effects started about 30 min after oral dosing.

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Why get high when you can get better?

Excitement aside, nootropics users don’t aim to produce a “high” in the traditional sense. The idea is that many of these substances can actually become more potent over time, exactly the opposite of addictive drugs like cocaine or heroin, which quickly create a tolerance in users, who in turn eventually have to up their dosage to get high, often at their own peril. In the universe of nootropic forums, drugs like Adderall and Xanax—exemplary uppers and downers from the pharmaceutical world—are often derided as “neurotoxic.”

“I would concur that Piracetam, modafinil, A-GPC etc are all healthier alternatives than the old, dark, cold amphetamines,” one user writes in a thread about the longitudinal effects of Adderall, a harsher sort of smart drug—and one long endorsed by the pharmaceutical industry.

Nootropics users don’t aim to produce a “high” in the traditional sense.

Unlike many of Big Pharma’s greatest hits, some nootropics are heralded as “neuroprotective”—ideally capable of improving indices of cognitive function over time, not just in dangerous spurts. “I would recommend piracetam as a mental stimulant along with choline,” a user responds in the same thread. “Other safe stimulants are rhodiola rosea, st john’s wort and perhaps ginseng.” On this forum and many others, users look out for one another. Many threads emphasize the importance of diet and exercise. Some even dismiss caffeine as too dangerous, though green tea is generally well liked for its active ingredient, the amino acid L-theanine. Don’t want to drink tea? Buy 100 grams of bulk L-theanine powder on Amazon for $20.

The craziest part about all of this is that all of these faceless nootropics enthusiasts might be on to something. The most popular forums function like a fast-action thesis review: Users throw out potential chemical combos, known as “stacks,” and even hypothetical molecular compounds, often citing obscure but surprisingly solid scientific research. Then, it’s time for the peer review. It’s not uncommon for users to note their own backgrounds in biology, psychiatry, and other related fields, sprinkling their posts with complex molecular diagrams and neuroscience shorthand.

Most nootropics might be legal and unscheduled, but a culture of anonymity persists. The FBI isn’t likely to care about the distinction, but on most prominent drug forums users still refer to themselves as “SWIM” (slang for “someone who isn’t me”), eschewing first-person pronouns and identifying personal details. “SWIM has been using piracetam successfully for a while,” one thread begins. “SWIM has bought some nootropics and is wondering if issues might arise from [this] combination.”

The most popular forums function like a fast-action thesis review.

User profile images tend to be left blank or populated with a psychedelic pattern or a meme. This isn’t a place to be yourself, even while penning and publishing what often amount to highly detailed, sometimes emotional, often intimate journal entries.

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The DIY scientific method

Only subjective experience can go where science fears or isn’t incentivized to tread. Users go to great lengths to apply the scientific method to their own investigations, often ruling out variables and transcribing every last detail of what they consumed, when, and how. Insufflation is discouraged as counterproductive and addict-like. Most nootropics are water- or fat-soluble, so dissolving them in a glass of water, milk, or even olive oil is the usual mode of ingestion. Pramiracetam and aniracetam go with milk, of course, while piracetam—a classic—is water-soluble.

On most of the Internet’s forums for learning about (and not just buying) drugs, first-person experiences are a kind of narrative currency. Heavily quantified stories are exchanged and absorbed with rapid-fire enthusiasm. Users test their short-term memory enhancement with standard cognitive tasks used in decidedly less DIY psychological research. The next great stack or the holy grail of noots is always just around the corner. And who’s to say it isn’t?

“In a population of people with schizophrenia, there has been recorded an increase (from an average score of 7.8) of 1.7 points in forward digit span,” one user notes, citing a 2008 paper published in the American Journal of Psychiatry exploring a rare research chemical called xanomeline, which dramatically improved how many numbers schizophrenic patients were able to memorize (a common cognitive benchmark known as a “digit-span task”) complete with a chart of cognitive performance scores.

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Later in the thread, the buzz around xanomeline is tempered by the fact that you actually can’t buy it anywhere. “I have not been able to find a supplier yet,” the thread’s owner writes. “I’ve searched in Alibaba, lookchem, chembook etc. Any labs for custom synthesis?” Here in the DIY realm of cognitive chemistry, it’s not an uncommon problem.

This isn’t a place to be yourself.

Some companies have realized there’s money to be made from the covert excitement of the nootropics community, with its performance promises and boundless belief in cognitive enhancement. Last December, Andreessen Horowitz led a $2 million seed investment round for a nootropics company, and experts predict the market will grow significantly in 2016.

Some companies offer premade stacks, like Alpha Brain: a “completely balanced nootropic” that runs $35 for a month’s supply.

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For any righteous stack hound, that’s a total ripoff. The kind of nootropic enthusiast who frequents a forum like LongeCity likely presses their own pills into capsule form, dipping often incredibly tiny measuring scoops into an array of pots full of white powder in pursuit of the perfect combo. The vast majority of nootropics can be purchased perfectly legally on Amazon, though newer compounds are more likely to hit one of a few online storefronts in limited quantities.

Much like dive bars, virtual haunts all have their own cast of characters.

It’s a fascinating manifestation of crowdsourcing, one that’s endured with little evolution since well before the word “Kickstarter” entered the Web’s lexicon. Together, these faceless armchair scientists seek a common truth—a clean, harmless way to make their brains better—enforcing their own self-imposed safety parameters and painstakingly precise methods. These unsung psychonauts dutifully telegraph their findings back from the quiet frontier of altered consciousness, publishing their knowledge in plain text and for free to relatively crude, shared databases before they’re on to the next big thing, always 10 steps ahead of mainstream science.

 

A version of this story originally appeared in The New War on Drugs issue of the Kernel on Feb. 15, 2015. 

Illustration by Max Fleishman | All other photos by Taylor Hatmaker