Nootrobox co-founder Geoffrey Woo declines a caffeinated drink in favour of a capsule of his newest product when I meet him in a San Francisco coffee shop. The entire industry has a “wild west” aura about it, he tells me, and Nootrobox wants to fix it by pushing for “smarter regulation” so safe and effective drugs that are currently unclassified can be brought into the fold. Predictably, both companies stress the higher goal of pushing forward human cognition. “I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created,” says Nootroo founder Eric Matzner.
Caffeine (; FDA adverse events) is of course the most famous stimulant around. But consuming 200mg or more a day, I have discovered the downside: it is addictive and has a nasty withdrawal - headaches, decreased motivation, apathy, and general unhappiness. (It’s a little amusing to read academic descriptions of caffeine addiction9; if caffeine were a new drug, I wonder what Schedule it would be in and if people might be even more leery of it than modafinil.) Further, in some ways, aside from the ubiquitous placebo effect, caffeine combines a mix of weak performance benefits (Lorist & Snel 2008, Nehlig 2010) with some possible decrements, anecdotally and scientifically:

It isn’t unlikely to hear someone from Silicon Valley say the following: “I’ve just cycled off a stack of Piracetam and CDP-Choline because I didn’t get the mental acuity I was expecting. I will try a blend of Noopept and Huperzine A for the next two weeks and see if I can increase my output by 10%. We don’t have immortality yet and I would really like to join the three comma club before it’s all over.”
Table 3 lists the results of 24 tasks from 22 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on learning, assessed by a variety of declarative and nondeclarative memory tasks. Results for the 24 tasks are evenly split between enhanced learning and null results, but they yield a clearer pattern when the nature of the learning task and the retention interval are taken into account. In general, with single exposures of verbal material, no benefits are seen immediately following learning, but later recall and recognition are enhanced. Of the six articles reporting on memory performance (Camp-Bruno & Herting, 1994; Fleming, Bigelow, Weinberger, & Goldberg, 1995; Rapoport, Busbaum, & Weingartner, 1980; Soetens, D’Hooge, & Hueting, 1993; Unrug, Coenen, & van Luijtelaar, 1997; Zeeuws & Soetens 2007), encompassing eight separate experiments, only one of the experiments yielded significant memory enhancement at short delays (Rapoport et al., 1980). In contrast, retention was reliably enhanced by d-AMP when subjects were tested after longer delays, with recall improved after 1 hr through 1 week (Soetens, Casaer, D’Hooge, & Hueting, 1995; Soetens et al., 1993; Zeeuws & Soetens, 2007). Recognition improved after 1 week in one study (Soetens et al., 1995), while another found recognition improved after 2 hr (Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007). The one long-term memory study to examine the effects of MPH found a borderline-significant reduction in errors when subjects answered questions about a story (accompanied by slides) presented 1 week before (Brignell, Rosenthal, & Curran, 2007).
Finally, it’s not clear that caffeine results in performance gains after long-term use; homeostasis/tolerance is a concern for all stimulants, but especially for caffeine. It is plausible that all caffeine consumption does for the long-term chronic user is restore performance to baseline. (Imagine someone waking up and drinking coffee, and their performance improves - well, so would the performance of a non-addict who is also slowly waking up!) See for example, James & Rogers 2005, Sigmon et al 2009, and Rogers et al 2010. A cross-section of thousands of participants in the Cambridge brain-training study found caffeine intake showed negligible effect sizes for mean and component scores (participants were not told to use caffeine, but the training was recreational & difficult, so one expects some difference).

While the mechanism is largely unknown, one commonly mechanism possibility is that light of the relevant wavelengths is preferentially absorbed by the protein cytochrome c oxidase, which is a key protein in mitochondrial metabolism and production of ATP, substantially increasing output, and this extra output presumably can be useful for cellular activities like healing or higher performance.
(On a side note, I think I understand now why modafinil doesn’t lead to a Beggars in Spain scenario; BiS includes massive IQ and motivation boosts as part of the Sleepless modification. Just adding 8 hours a day doesn’t do the world-changing trick, no more than some researchers living to 90 and others to 60 has lead to the former taking over. If everyone were suddenly granted the ability to never need sleep, many of them would have no idea what to do with the extra 8 or 9 hours and might well be destroyed by the gift; it takes a lot of motivation to make good use of the time, and if one cannot, then it is a curse akin to the stories of immortals who yearn for death - they yearn because life is not a blessing to them, though that is a fact more about them than life.)
Of course, there are drugs out there with more transformative powers. “I think it’s very clear that some do work,” says Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist based at Stanford University. In fact, there’s one category of smart drugs which has received more attention from scientists and biohackers – those looking to alter their own biology and abilities – than any other. These are the stimulants.
The evidence? A 2012 study in Greece found it can boost cognitive function in adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a type of disorder marked by forgetfulness and problems with language, judgement, or planning that are more severe than average “senior moments,” but are not serious enough to be diagnosed as dementia. In some people, MCI will progress into dementia.
Many of the positive effects of cognitive enhancers have been seen in experiments using rats. For example, scientists can train rats on a specific test, such as maze running, and then see if the "smart drug" can improve the rats' performance. It is difficult to see how many of these data can be applied to human learning and memory. For example, what if the "smart drug" made the rat hungry? Wouldn't a hungry rat run faster in the maze to receive a food reward than a non-hungry rat? Maybe the rat did not get any "smarter" and did not have any improved memory. Perhaps the rat ran faster simply because it was hungrier. Therefore, it was the rat's motivation to run the maze, not its increased cognitive ability that affected the performance. Thus, it is important to be very careful when interpreting changes observed in these types of animal learning and memory experiments.
In August 2011, after winning the spaced repetition contest and finishing up the Adderall double-blind testing, I decided the time was right to try nicotine again. I had since learned that e-cigarettes use nicotine dissolved in water, and that nicotine-water was a vastly cheaper source of nicotine than either gum or patches. So I ordered 250ml of water at 12mg/ml (total cost: $18.20). A cigarette apparently delivers around 1mg of nicotine, so half a ml would be a solid dose of nicotine, making that ~500 doses. Plenty to experiment with. The question is, besides the stimulant effect, nicotine also causes habit formation; what habits should I reinforce with nicotine? Exercise, and spaced repetition seem like 2 good targets.
Due to the synthetic nature of racetams, you won’t find them in many of the best smart pills on the market. The intentional exclusion is not because racetams are ineffective. Instead, the vast majority of users trust natural smart drugs more. The idea of using a synthetic substance to alter your brain’s operating system is a big turn off for most people. With synthetic nootropics, you’re a test subject until more definitive studies arise.

One of the most popular legal stimulants in the world, nicotine is often conflated with the harmful effects of tobacco; considered on its own, it has performance & possibly health benefits. Nicotine is widely available at moderate prices as long-acting nicotine patches, gums, lozenges, and suspended in water for vaping. While intended for smoking cessation, there is no reason one cannot use a nicotine patch or nicotine gum for its stimulant effects.
These days, nootropics are beginning to take their rightful place as a particularly powerful tool in the Neurohacker’s toolbox. After all, biochemistry is deeply foundational to neural function. Whether you are trying to fix the damage that is done to your nervous system by a stressful and toxic environment or support and enhance your neural functioning, getting the chemistry right is table-stakes. And we are starting to get good at getting it right. What’s changed?

Speaking of addictive substances, some people might have considered cocaine a nootropic (think: the finance industry in Wall Street in the 1980s). The incredible damage this drug can do is clear, but the plant from which it comes has been used to make people feel more energetic and less hungry, and to counteract altitude sickness in Andean South American cultures for 5,000 years, according to an opinion piece that Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales Ayma, wrote for the New York Times.

As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)

Fortunately, there are some performance-enhancing habits that have held up under rigorous scientific scrutiny. They are free, and easy to pronounce. Unfortunately, they are also the habits you were perhaps hoping to forego by using nootropics instead. “Of all the things that are supposed to be ‘good for the brain,’” says Stanford neurology professor Sharon Sha, “there is more evidence for exercise than anything else.” Next time you’re facing a long day, you could take a pill and see what happens.
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Ethical issues also arise with the use of drugs to boost brain power. Their use as cognitive enhancers isn’t currently regulated. But should it be, just as the use of certain performance-enhancing drugs is regulated for professional athletes? Should universities consider dope testing to check that students aren’t gaining an unfair advantage through drug use? 
While these two compounds may not be as exciting as a super pill that instantly unlocks the full potential of your brain, they currently have the most science to back them up. And, as Patel explains, they’re both relatively safe for healthy individuals of most ages. Patel explains that a combination of caffeine and L-theanine is the most basic supplement stack (or combined dose) because the L-theanine can help blunt the anxiety and “shakiness” that can come with ingesting too much caffeine.
I tried taking whole pills at 1 and 3 AM. I felt kind of bushed at 9 AM after all the reading, and the 50 minute nap didn’t help much - I was sleep only around 10 minutes and spent most of it thinking or meditation. Just as well the 3D driver is still broken; I doubt the scores would be reasonable. Began to perk up again past 10 AM, then felt more bushed at 1 PM, and so on throughout the day; kind of gave up and began watching & finishing anime (Amagami and Voices of a Distant Star) for the rest of the day with occasional reading breaks (eg. to start James C. Scotts Seeing Like A State, which is as described so far). As expected from the low quality of the day, the recovery sleep was bigger than before: a full 10 hours rather than 9:40; the next day, I slept a normal 8:50, and the following day ~8:20 (woken up early); 10:20 (slept in); 8:44; 8:18 (▁▇▁▁). It will be interesting to see whether my excess sleep remains in the hour range for ’good modafinil nights and two hours for bad modafinil nights.
Since LLLT was so cheap, seemed safe, was interesting, just trying it would involve minimal effort, and it would be a favor to lostfalco, I decided to try it. I purchased off eBay a $13 48 LED illuminator light IR Infrared Night Vision+Power Supply For CCTV. Auto Power-On Sensor, only turn-on when the surrounding is dark. IR LED wavelength: 850nm. Powered by DC 12V 500mA adaptor. It arrived in 4 days, on 7 September 2013. It fits handily in my palm. My cellphone camera verified it worked and emitted infrared - important because there’s no visible light at all (except in complete darkness I can make out a faint red light), no noise, no apparent heat (it took about 30 minutes before the lens or body warmed up noticeably when I left it on a table). This was good since I worried that there would be heat or noise which made blinding impossible; all I had to do was figure out how to randomly turn the power on and I could run blinded self-experiments with it.
Adrafinil is Modafinil’s predecessor, because the scientists tested it as a potential narcolepsy drug. It was first produced in 1974 and immediately showed potential as a wakefulness-promoting compound. Further research showed that Adrafinil is metabolized into its component parts in the liver, that is into inactive modafinil acid. Ultimately, Modafinil has been proclaimed the primary active compound in Adrafinil.
The above are all reasons to expect that even if I do excellent single-subject design self-experiments, there will still be the old problem of internal validity versus external validity: an experiment may be wrong or erroneous or unlucky in some way (lack of internal validity) or be right but not matter to anyone else (lack of external validity). For example, alcohol makes me sad & depressed; I could run the perfect blind randomized experiment for hundreds of trials and be extremely sure that alcohol makes me less happy, but would that prove that alcohol makes everyone sad or unhappy? Of course not, and as far as I know, for a lot of people alcohol has the opposite effect. So my hypothetical alcohol experiment might have tremendous internal validity (it does prove that I am sadder after inebriating), and zero external validity (someone who has never tried alcohol learns nothing about whether they will be depressed after imbibing). Keep this in mind if you are minded to take the experiments too seriously.
So it's no surprise that as soon as medical science develops a treatment for a disease, we often ask if it couldn't perhaps make a healthy person even healthier. Take Viagra, for example: developed to help men who couldn't get erections, it's now used by many who function perfectly well without a pill but who hope it will make them exceptionally virile.
In 3, you’re considering adding a new supplement, not stopping a supplement you already use. The I don’t try Adderall case has value $0, the Adderall fails case is worth -$40 (assuming you only bought 10 pills, and this number should be increased by your analysis time and a weighted cost for potential permanent side effects), and the Adderall succeeds case is worth $X-40-4099, where $X is the discounted lifetime value of the increased productivity due to Adderall, minus any discounted long-term side effect costs. If you estimate Adderall will work with p=.5, then you should try out Adderall if you estimate that 0.5 \times (X-4179) > 0 ~> $X>4179$. (Adderall working or not isn’t binary, and so you might be more comfortable breaking down the various how effective Adderall is cases when eliciting X, by coming up with different levels it could work at, their values, and then using a weighted sum to get X. This can also give you a better target with your experiment- this needs to show a benefit of at least Y from Adderall for it to be worth the cost, and I’ve designed it so it has a reasonable chance of showing that.)
2ml is supposed to translate to 24mg, which is a big dose. I do not believe any of the commercial patches go much past that. I asked Wedrifid, whose notes inspired my initial interest, and he was taking perhaps 2-4mg, and expressed astonishment that I might be taking 24mg. (2mg is in line with what I am told by another person - that 2mg was so much that they actually felt a little sick. On the other hand, in one study, the subjects could not reliably distinguish between 1mg and placebo24.) 24mg is particularly troubling in that I weigh ~68kg, and nicotine poisoning and the nicotine LD50 start, for me, at around 68mg of nicotine. (I reflected that the entire jar could be a useful murder weapon, although nicotine presumably would be caught in an autopsy’s toxicology screen; I later learned nicotine was an infamous weapon in the 1800s before any test was developed. It doesn’t seem used anymore, but there are still fatal accidents due to dissolved nicotine.) The upper end of the range, 10mg/kg or 680mg for me, is calculated based on experienced smokers. Something is wrong here - I can’t see why I would have nicotine tolerance comparable to a hardened smoker, inasmuch as my maximum prior exposure was second-hand smoke once in a blue moon. More likely is that either the syringe is misleading me or the seller NicVape sold me something more dilute than 12mg/ml. (I am sure that it’s not simply plain water; when I mix the drops with regular water, I can feel the propylene glycol burning as it goes down.) I would rather not accuse an established and apparently well-liked supplier of fraud, nor would I like to simply shrug and say I have a mysterious tolerance and must experiment with doses closer to the LD50, so the most likely problem is a problem with the syringe. The next day I altered the procedure to sucking up 8ml, squirting out enough fluid to move the meniscus down to 7ml, and then ejecting the rest back into the container. The result was another mild clean stimulation comparable to the previous 1ml days. The next step is to try a completely different measuring device, which doesn’t change either.

More than once I have seen results indicating that high-IQ types benefit the least from random nootropics; nutritional deficits are the premier example, because high-IQ types almost by definition suffer from no major deficiencies like iodine. But a stimulant modafinil may be another such nootropic (see Cognitive effects of modafinil in student volunteers may depend on IQ, Randall et al 2005), which mentions:
Productivity is the most cited reason for using nootropics. With all else being equal, smart drugs are expected to give you that mental edge over other and advance your career. Nootropics can also be used for a host of other reasons. From studying to socialising. And from exercise and health to general well-being. Different nootropics cater to different audiences.

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Two additional studies assessed the effects of d-AMP on visual–motor sequence learning, a form of nondeclarative, procedural learning, and found no effect (Kumari et al., 1997; Makris, Rush, Frederich, Taylor, & Kelly, 2007). In a related experimental paradigm, Ward, Kelly, Foltin, and Fischman (1997) assessed the effect of d-AMP on the learning of motor sequences from immediate feedback and also failed to find an effect.
In paired-associates learning, subjects are presented with pairs of stimuli and must learn to recall the second item of the pair when presented with the first. For these tasks, as with tasks involving memory for individual items, there is a trend for stimulants to enhance performance with longer delays. For immediate measures of learning, no effects of d-AMP or MPH were observed by Brumaghim and Klorman (1998); Fleming et al. (1995); Hurst, Radlow, and Weidner (1968); or Strauss et al. (1984). However, when Hurst et al.’s subjects were tested a week later, they recalled more if their initial learning had been carried out with d-AMP than with placebo. Weitzner (1965) assessed paired-associates learning with an immediate cued-recall test and found facilitation when the associate word was semantically related to the cue, provided it was not also related to other cue words. Finally, Burns, House, French, and Miller (1967) found a borderline-significant impairment of performance with d-AMP on a nonverbal associative learning task.
So what’s the catch? Well, it’s potentially addictive for one. Anything that messes with your dopamine levels can be. And Patel says there are few long-term studies on it yet, so we don’t know how it will affect your brain chemistry down the road, or after prolonged, regular use. Also, you can’t get it very easily, or legally for that matter, if you live in the U.S. It’s classified as a schedule IV controlled substance. That’s where Adrafinil comes in.
Recent developments include biosensor-equipped smart pills that sense the appropriate environment and location to release pharmacological agents. Medimetrics (Eindhoven, Netherlands) has developed a pill called IntelliCap with drug reservoir, pH and temperature sensors that release drugs to a defined region of the gastrointestinal tract. This device is CE marked and is in early stages of clinical trials for FDA approval. Recently, Google announced its intent to invest and innovate in this space.

While the mechanism is largely unknown, one commonly mechanism possibility is that light of the relevant wavelengths is preferentially absorbed by the protein cytochrome c oxidase, which is a key protein in mitochondrial metabolism and production of ATP, substantially increasing output, and this extra output presumably can be useful for cellular activities like healing or higher performance.
Even though smart drugs come with a long list of benefits, their misuse can cause negative side effects. Excess use can cause anxiety, fear, headaches, increased blood pressure, and more. Considering this, it is imperative to study usage instructions: how often can you take the pill, the correct dosage and interaction with other medication/supplements.
The word “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by a Romanian scientist, Corneliu Giurgea, who combined the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.” Caffeine and nicotine can be considered mild nootropics, while prescription Ritalin, Adderall and Provigil (modafinil, a drug for treating narcolepsy) lie at the far end of the spectrum when prescribed off-label as cognitive enhancers. Even microdosing of LSD is increasingly viewed as a means to greater productivity.
Caffeine (; FDA adverse events) is of course the most famous stimulant around. But consuming 200mg or more a day, I have discovered the downside: it is addictive and has a nasty withdrawal - headaches, decreased motivation, apathy, and general unhappiness. (It’s a little amusing to read academic descriptions of caffeine addiction9; if caffeine were a new drug, I wonder what Schedule it would be in and if people might be even more leery of it than modafinil.) Further, in some ways, aside from the ubiquitous placebo effect, caffeine combines a mix of weak performance benefits (Lorist & Snel 2008, Nehlig 2010) with some possible decrements, anecdotally and scientifically:
However, normally when you hear the term nootropic kicked around, people really mean a “cognitive enhancer” — something that does benefit thinking in some way (improved memory, faster speed-of-processing, increased concentration, or a combination of these, etc.), but might not meet the more rigorous definition above.  “Smart drugs” is another largely-interchangeable term.
Ongoing studies are looking into the possible pathways by which nootropic substances function. Researchers have postulated that the mental health advantages derived from these substances can be attributed to their effects on the cholinergic and dopaminergic systems of the brain. These systems regulate two important neurotransmitters, acetylcholine and dopamine.
Since dietary supplements do not require double-blind, placebo-controlled, pharmaceutical-style human studies before going to market, there is little incentive for companies to really prove that something does what they say it does. This means that, in practice, nootropics may not live up to all the grandiose, exuberant promises advertised on the bottle in which they come. The flip side, though? There’s no need to procure a prescription in order to try them out. Good news for aspiring biohackers—and for people who have no aspirations to become biohackers, but still want to be Bradley Cooper in Limitless (me).
Many over the counter and prescription smart drugs fall under the category of stimulants. These substances contribute to an overall feeling of enhanced alertness and attention, which can improve concentration, focus, and learning. While these substances are often considered safe in moderation, taking too much can cause side effects such as decreased cognition, irregular heartbeat, and cardiovascular problems.
12:18 PM. (There are/were just 2 Adderall left now.) I manage to spend almost the entire afternoon single-mindedly concentrating on transcribing two parts of a 1996 Toshio Okada interview (it was very long, and the formatting more challenging than expected), which is strong evidence for Adderall, although I did feel fairly hungry while doing it. I don’t go to bed until midnight and & sleep very poorly - despite taking triple my usual melatonin! Inasmuch as I’m already fairly sure that Adderall damages my sleep, this makes me even more confident (>80%). When I grumpily crawl out of bed and check: it’s Adderall. (One Adderall left.)
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But though it’s relatively new on the scene with ambitious young professionals, creatine has a long history with bodybuilders, who have been taking it for decades to improve their muscle #gains. In the US, sports supplements are a multibillion-dollar industry – and the majority contain creatine. According to a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs last year, 22% of adults said they had taken a sports supplement in the last year. If creatine was going to have a major impact in the workplace, surely we would have seen some signs of this already.

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For the sake of organizing the review, we have divided the literature according to the general type of cognitive process being studied, with sections devoted to learning and to various kinds of executive function. Executive function is a broad and, some might say, vague concept that encompasses the processes by which individual perceptual, motoric, and mnemonic abilities are coordinated to enable appropriate, flexible task performance, especially in the face of distracting stimuli or alternative competing responses. Two major aspects of executive function are working memory and cognitive control, responsible for the maintenance of information in a short-term active state for guiding task performance and responsible for inhibition of irrelevant information or responses, respectively. A large enough literature exists on the effects of stimulants on these two executive abilities that separate sections are devoted to each. In addition, a final section includes studies of miscellaneous executive abilities including planning, fluency, and reasoning that have also been the subjects of published studies.
Rogers RD, Blackshaw AJ, Middleton HC, Matthews K, Hawtin K, Crowley C, Robbins TW. Tryptophan depletion impairs stimulus-reward learning while methylphenidate disrupts attentional control in healthy young adults: Implications for the monoaminergic basis of impulsive behaviour. Psychopharmacology. 1999;146:482–491. doi: 10.1007/PL00005494. [PubMed] [CrossRef]
Adrafinil is a prodrug for Modafinil, which means it can be metabolized into Modafinil to give you a similar effect. And you can buy it legally just about anywhere. But there are a few downsides. Patel explains that you have to take a lot more to achieve a similar effect as Modafinil, wait longer for it to kick in (45-60 minutes), there are more potential side effects, and there aren’t any other benefits to taking it.
Enhanced learning was also observed in two studies that involved multiple repeated encoding opportunities. Camp-Bruno and Herting (1994) found MPH enhanced summed recall in the Buschke Selective Reminding Test (Buschke, 1973; Buschke & Fuld, 1974) when 1-hr and 2-hr delays were combined, although individually only the 2-hr delay approached significance. Likewise, de Wit, Enggasser, and Richards (2002) found no effect of d-AMP on the Hopkins Verbal Learning Test (Brandt, 1991) after a 25-min delay. Willett (1962) tested rote learning of nonsense syllables with repeated presentations, and his results indicate that d-AMP decreased the number of trials needed to reach criterion.
A synthetic derivative of Piracetam, aniracetam is believed to be the second most widely used nootropic in the Racetam family, popular for its stimulatory effects because it enters the bloodstream quickly. Initially developed for memory and learning, many anecdotal reports also claim that it increases creativity. However, clinical studies show no effect on the cognitive functioning of healthy adult mice.
But, thanks to the efforts of a number of remarkable scientists, researchers and plain-old neurohackers, we are beginning to put together a “whole systems” model of how all the different parts of the human brain work together and how they mesh with the complex regulatory structures of the body. It’s going to take a lot more data and collaboration to dial this model in, but already we are empowered to design stacks that can meaningfully deliver on the promise of nootropics “to enhance the quality of subjective experience and promote cognitive health, while having extremely low toxicity and possessing very few side effects.” It’s a type of brain hacking that is intended to produce noticeable cognitive benefits.