Every morning, Tomás Gutiérrez stirs a DIY chemical cocktail into his morning coffee. The mix is intended to inspire a specific kind of high: one that will sharpen his focus, boost his intellect and his productivity. Gutiérrez’s kitchen resembles a set from Breaking Bad: powders and containers with oils and amino acids and scales to measure substances by the gram. Gutiérrez is part of a wave of “brainhackers” optimizing their lives through nootropics, or loosely regulated “smart drugs.”
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“You’re on your own to figure out the safety of some of this stuff,” Gutiérrez told STAT News. “People might say the negatives are few, but we still don’t know what we don’t know.” But the risk is worth it for Gutiérrez, who uses the mix to deliver the high of “The Flow,” a hyper-focused state he can maintain for long periods of time.
Brainhackers playing with nootropics tend to be overachieving type-A personalities not afraid to experiment, using themselves as lab rats. So few studies have been performed on nootropics that researchers can’t confirm the drugs’ effectiveness, nor their risks. They’re unregulated substances with no oversight, but already some are seeking to market them, like Geoffrey Woo, a computer science graduate who cofounded Nootrobox, a series of cognitive enhancers sold in pill form in monthly supplies costing around $50 a month.
For the brainhackers, the enhancers could hold the key to more than just increased productivity. “Technology is reaching a point where death can be treated like any illness or sickness, and aging will be considered a disease,” Woo told Stat. Will nootropics combat it one day, or will some of these experiments end badly? Even Woo’s ambitious hopes for brain enhancers can’t bypass the disclaimer: on Nootrobox’s website, a label states that the company can’t be held liable for unforeseen side effects, even at the proper dosages.