A real-life 'Limitless' pill? Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pursue brain hacking with nootropics, or 'smart drugs'

Some doctors are cautioning the use of these dietary supplements.

ByABC News
March 29, 2017, 10:21 PM

— -- From late nights out to early mornings on the job, 30-year-old entrepreneur Erin Finnegan says she has a secret boost that keeps her going.

She uses “nootropics,” also called “smart drugs,” or supplements claiming to boost brain function, helping to improve memory, focus and maybe even make you brilliant.

“I’m bicoastal, I’m in New York and I’m here [in Los Angeles], and a lot of times traveling,” Finnegan said.

Much like how actor Bradley Cooper played a character who took a pill and his focus went from zero to 100 in the movie “Limitless,” there are some saying the effects of these supplements are nonfiction. Countless users on Reddit swear by these pills, heralding benefits from “increased focus” to “mental stimulation.”

Finnegan said nootropics is one of the keys to her success.

“I would not give them up willingly,” she said. “The additional focus that I can have with them, yes, it does sustain the speed I am going at now and the many things, I would have to take a couple things off my plate if I wanted to keep going without them.”

And she takes a pill every day.

“It’s not like press a button and all of a sudden turbo charge and switch into ‘nootropics mode,’” she said. “I found that it helped lessen the time it took me to switch gears, if that makes sense.”

But some doctors are questioning if the claims are too good to be true.

“The lack of controlled trials the lack of rigorous scientific research and the lack of studies that actually try to study all of these different types of nootropics in certain combinations altogether,” said Dr. Richard Isaacson, who is a neurologist and the Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine.

Nootropics stacks, or pills, are mixes of different components and can include different ingredients from caffeine and L-Theanine -- a type of amino acid -- to herbal supplements to the brain-boosting supplement, piracetam.

Although they claim to alter brain function, nootropics are marketed not as a drug but as a type of dietary supplement, which means they don’t need FDA approval.

Geoff Woo, 29-year-old co-founder of nootropics company Nootrobox, said he got interested in the supplement because he “wanted to be smarter.”

“I grew up very competitive and wanting to be the best version of myself possible,” Woo said. “If there's one really smart person in the world, great we have another Einstein, but if everyone was super smart there's like an exponential amount of information and innovation.”

Four years ago, Woo was working at a venture capital firm when he started digging around the internet and experimenting.

“We were tinkering with things from laboratories from China, from off-label compounds, everything,” he said.

Today, it’s become much more than a hobby for Woo. He says business is booming, and he caught the attention and financial backing of top Silicon Valley titans like early Facebook investor Andreesen Horowitz and Yahoo’s Marisa Mayer. He even made his pitch on an episode of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” but didn’t get any bites.

"I’ve tried nootropics, that’s what people use to go on 48-hour coding binges," Shark Chris Sacca told Woo when he appeared in a "Shark Tank" episode that aired in December. "But at the end of the day, you’re left with a headache, lack of recall, sometimes. I’m worried about the long term consequences so I’m out."

Inside Woo’s tightly controlled lab, located an hour outside of Los Angeles, his team pumps out thousands of little pills every day.

“For our company, we have four different pills, or four different types of stacks,” he said.

Woo claims his pills to do everything from boosting “immediate clarity, energy and flow” to enhancing "memory, stamina and resilience.”

“The whole notion is approaching the human body as if we were from an engineer's perspective. So optimizing shortcuts to being better, more productive versions of ourselves,” he said. “I think we all want to be better versions of ourselves. I think that's one of the distinguishing factors of being human.”

Nootrobox’s products are supplements so they are not FDA approved, but Woo said everything his company produces is “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA, which he said, “is the highest level of safety that the FDA gives for all things that one can consume.”

“It's based on understanding of biological mechanisms,” Woo said. “Our science team, which consists of actually practicing doctors and M.D. Ph.D.s, walk through that and actually validate any cross indications.”

But some experts caution that this temporary boost could have side effects, with many citing the lack of studies about long-term impacts.

“You may have several ingredients on the label and there may be one of the many ingredients on there that may interact with your blood pressure medicines or it may interact with something else,” Dr. Isaacson said. “While these drugs by itself may be generally safe, it's hard to generalize. They may interact with other things ... so that's why we always recommend discussion of approval by a treating physician.”

Despite potential side effects, there are some who are taking multiple nootropic pills a day. Megan Klimen is a self-proclaimed “bio-hacker” who has been experimenting with nootropics for years. On a stressful day, she said she’ll take about eight to 10 pills.

“So on a daily basis, I take ‘The Rise,’ I take the KADO 3, which is this mix of the vitamins that you need, it’s got vitamin D, it’s got K, it’s got Omega 3, it’s got DHA,” she said. “Before I found the Nootrobox, I had 12 different ones that I was taking, but those 12 different ones are summed up in these really well.”

Eric Matzner created his company Nootroo after becoming fascinating in reading about the supplements online. He said he takes over 40 supplements each day.

“I get most of my energy from the ingredients in Nootroo,” he said. “There’s a form of caffeine, a really advanced form of caffeine called Purenergy. That’s a caffeine crystal ... I love ubiquinol I take a ton of it ... I’ll take like 300 or more milligrams a day.”

Matzner said nootropics are a whole new take on science and health care, and some users believe they could be the future.

“We’re talking about ... a new type of biology where we’re taking these things into our own hands but also to try and proactively go from baseline to above,” said Matzner.