A weekly meetup of a group of biohackers was held in the evening in March 2018 at the back of Idea coffee, an inexpensive cafe close to the Empire State Building in New York. The group was checking out the black box which contained the ApeX Type A brain stimulator costing $160. The box contained two electrodes, a dial, and a retrograde meter. It delivered a small amount of electric current to the brain, in hopes to improve the learning ability of the test subject. A member of the group who had been using the gadget for over a week noted that they had not observed any change, other than a mild metallic taste in his mouth.

The biohacker jokingly mentioned that he “hopes his brains don’t get fried”  due to the gadget. One of the more remarkable features of the group of biohackers is that they had a very positive attitude towards the various methods and products, they were not very skeptical. The main obsession of this group was brain enhancement and at the meetup members shared their experience with the various products available in the market. These products included sensory-deprivation tanks, apps for biofeedback, and ketogenic diets, with nootropics or smart drugs being the latest fad in brain improvement products.

NootropicsThe United States reported that in 2015, the nootropic industry brought in a value of over 1.3 billion dollars. This rapidly growing industry sector is likely to reach $6 billion by the year 2024. The massive growth and popularity of the nootropics industry should be accredited partially to Dave Asprey (founder of Bulletproof) and Josiah Zayner (CEO of Odin). Both of these individuals have a large number of followers on their social media accounts, podcasts, and also have many customers. In addition to the active online community, there are also a large number of biohackers who are willing to experiment the latest gadgets, products, and methods, who meet offline at meetups to share their experience.

One of the most popular forums for biohackers and enthusiasts is reddit.com. The subreddit r/nootropics boasts over 140,000 subscribers that discuss nootropic related products like Godmode and Orange brainwash on a daily basis. We recommend checking it out. Nootropic drugs are often promoted to be a low-risk method of improving learning ability, motivation, and memory. They are a combination of a variety of ingredients, based on their chemical and other properties, formulated after careful analysis. Some of these ingredients include bacopa monnieri, or water hyssop, a fast-growing herb, arctic root and chemicals like vinpocetine.

Marlboro New Jersey-based entrepreneur Neal Thakkar is an example of one of the many people that believe in the usefulness and effectiveness of nootropic drugs. He even claims that they have improved the quality of his life so much that he can’t imagine living without them. Approximately five years ago, he was amazed at the improvement in his verbal fluency after using the nootropic which was a combination of Piracetam and Choline, (a stack), for the first time. Piracetam is a dietary supplement sold in the United States and is known for enhancing the cognitive ability of its users, while choline is a natural ingredient.

Thakkar went through a time that he was in love with a girl, and like many people, he was anxious and struggled to say the right things to his girlfriend. However, after consuming the combination of piracetam and choline, his anxiety seemed to disappear, and he was able to say the right things at the right time to his girlfriend. Though his relationship with his girlfriend later ended, Thakkar was extremely impressed by the nootropic. He continues to use them extensively and is willing to experiment with new products available in the market.

The use of pills, black boxes, potions, and other nootropic related substances is extremely common. There isn’t a lot of clinical research currently available that proves the effectiveness of such products though. Louis Kraus, M.D., is a psychiatrist with the Chicago based Rush University Medical Center who chaired the committee investigating nootropics for the American Medical Association in 2016. He has stated that though most people assume that the supplement cannot cause harm because it is natural, the committee found no proof of the safety and effectiveness of the nootropics. In reality, he claims that these products could be lethal because the exact ingredients used are sometimes not clearly defined by the sellers.

There has also been an increase in the number of poisonings from 50 to 356 between the years 2012 to 2016, which are related to the ingredients used in the nootropics like piracetam, L-theanine, Vinpocetine, and Phenibut according to the American Association for poison control center. A total of four deaths have occurred from these poisonings. Pieter Cohen, (M.D. and associate professor of medicine at Harvard medical school), believes these substances to be safe. He stated that these substances, regulated by the FDA, have been for sale for years.

Nootropics can be expensive, costing up to 3 dollars per dose. It is essential for users to understand the risks involved, and how they can affect the body before purchasing or consuming them.

Why are Nootropics effective?

Since there are not many scientific studies to prove the efficacy of nootropics related substances, many would like to find out why so many people have great faith in them. One of the reasons why they are popular is that many of them contain caffeine, which is a proven stimulant, increasing the pulse rate, blood pressure, making the user feel energized, utilize their cognitive ability better according to Kimberley Urban, Ph.D., a neuroscientist from the University of Delaware. The placebo effects of these substances are significant according to Dr. Cohen, a 2016 research study at George Mason University, and University of Alabama study. If a person believes that they have consumed a product which will improve their memory, learning ability, or reduce anxiety, then it is likely to change the effectiveness of the product.

One of the problems faced by biohackers is that the person who is doing the biohacking is the only person experimenting, so the sample size is 1. Biohacker groups utilize in person-meetups and online forums to share and compare their experiences to overcome this issue. However, because the members of these nootropic groups and meetups have similar interests, the member’s opinions may echo each other. This type of meeting may create a biased atmosphere, with little to no disagreement between individuals reviewing products.

Dangers due to lack of regulation

The Qualia original stack(OS) contains 41 ingredients and is a premium product sold by the Neurohacker collective, which includes people working as creatives, scientists and in the academic field. The sellers claim that the product improves energy levels, focus, and the mood of users within 30 minutes of being consumed. They also say it can keep the brain staying healthy for the long term. One 22 dose pack of the product is currently priced at $129. Sellers claim that synergy between the ingredients can make Qualia more beneficial. Conversely, neuroscientist Urban believes that the use of this substance could potentially have a reverse effect and that the combination of these ingredients could be lethal. These ingredients could also neutralize themselves, thus reducing their effectiveness.

To be fair, the Qualia sellers have posted a disclaimer about the substance. The disclaimer states that claims have yet to have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They also mention that no clinical research has been done on the safety, the effectiveness of the product. Daniel Stickler is the medical director of the Neurohacker collective, and he stated that the reason they have yet to conduct clinical trials is due to the high cost. Tests like these can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the business cannot afford that yet. They did do some sample testing before selling the product Daniel mentions. Nine subjects tested in one study noticed significant improvements in cognition after consuming Qualia.

Products like Qualia can claim to improve brain power. However, they cannot claim to treat any disease or illness without being scientifically tested through clinical trials. Also, the FDA has the authority to order the removal of potentially dangerous supplements from the market and has done so in early 2013. However, many banned ingredients are still available in the market, according to experts. Most experts believe that it is unlikely that anyone will be able to make a pill to boost brain power automatically for everyone. According to Dr. Kraus, the best way to boost brainpower is having a good sleep at night, consume proper food, exercise regularly. Coffee consumption may also help as it contains caffeine, a stimulant.

Some ways to improve brainpower according to experts are listed below:

  • Visual Games

Games can help to improve the working memory and learning of the players because players utilize memory and other areas of the brain during play.

  • MeditationNootropics

Meditation retreats are a great example. Practicing these techniques can reduce age-related decline in areas such as focus.

  • Aerobic exercises

Yoga, taichi, and other physical activity may help to improve overall mood and subjective happiness in someone.

  • Chocolate

Dark chocolate contains cocoa flavanols linked to improvements in the processing of visual information and the performance of working memory.Natural cocoa is the most effective as processing the cocoa reduces the flavonol content.

  • Tea

Drinking tea may help improve creativity, relaxation, and innovation in some cases, however, the placebo effect could be significant.