Nootropics: Performance Hacking the Brain
What if you could bring the best version of yourself to everything you do everyday? What if you could untap more of your brain’s potential — or more scientifically, its “cognitive performance”.
There are numerous startups asking these very questions. They use a range of methods, including nootropics, gamified brain training, app-led meditation, acoustics, non-invasive therapies, and wearable devices. One commonality is that these startups view the brain as a platform- a platform that can, and should, be optimized.
Harvard University geneticist George Church has written about impending technologies that “extend our brain both biologically and electronically,” while AFP describes the brain as “the next frontier for the tech sector.” In a seminal 2008 piece in Nature, a group of policy and health experts from Stanford, Harvard, University of Manchester, and Cambridge wrote: “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function… Cognitive enhancement has much to offer individuals and society, and a proper societal response will involve making enhancements available while managing their risks.”
My fund is an investor in a nootropics company called truBrain. The promise of nootropics, colloquially known as ‘smart drugs’, is in their ability to enhance cognition. Broadly speaking, different nootropic compounds work via different methods of action. truBrain’s nootropic stack works via two primary methods of action:
- Increasing neurotransmitter / receptor efficiency (specifically glutamate receptors). Neurotransmitters interact with receptors to make up the brain’s communication system. L-glutamate receptors are responsible for the glutamate-mediated postsynaptic excitation of neural cells, and are important for neural communication, memory formation, learning, and regulation.
- Increasing blood flow and oxygen uptake to the brain. When this occurs, overall brain activity increases. This is due to an increase in nutrients and oxygen, that fuel the brain's systems.
There exists a large body of rigorous scientific studies around the nootropic compounds upon which the truBrain stack is formulated. truBrain is also conducting its own rigorous clinical studies in conjunction with some of the world’s leading neuroscientists. Fundamentally, there’s some real science and innovation driving the truBrain product.
In addition to formal clinical studies, substantial pseudo-underground communities like Longecity.org and Reddit’s /r/nootropic subreddit (with almost 60,000 subscribers) have served as the ‘garage meetup’ for adventurous biohackers. These biohackers test and share their experiences with different nootropic compounds, and ‘stacks’ (combinations of nootropic compounds) that work well together. This reminds me of the early days of computer hardware hacking at the Homebrew computer club, and their ‘garage meetups’, which have their own rich history of colorful characters (Jobs, Woz, Gates, etc). Similarly, I think the online nootropic communities are more than a group of biohacker nerds geeking out about nootropic compounds on Reddit. These biohackers represent the tip of the iceberg. I believe everyone will someday benefit from nootropics, similar to the way we all benefit from the mass computing movement that was spawned by the Homebrew computer club.
Apple1 was a direct result of the Homebrew computer club- similarly we now have a convenient consumer nootropic (truBrain), partially as a result of the efforts and findings of the online nootropics communities.
While the nootropics industry is in its early stage, its future is bright. Imagine a world where nootropics are widely available, well-understood, and publicly accepted. We’re not talking about Limitless where Bradley Cooper takes a super drug and gets unique mental prowess. Imagine a full society of Bradley Coopers. Intelligence is a network effect- humanity, as a network, is an inherently better system if we’re all operating at a higher level of cognition. This opens the door to new forms of interaction, social relationships and productivity that we don’t yet comprehend. I believe nootropics are part of a broader neural toolkit that will help us get there.