Demystifying the World of Nootropics

What are these ‘smart drugs’ and can they really improve your mental performance?

Tessa Love
Published in
7 min readSep 17, 2019


Illustration: Jon Han

InIn the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper plays a writer named Eddie Morra who has hit a rough patch. He’s struggling to complete his book and, due to his lack of success, his girlfriend leaves him. Then Morra has a chance encounter with an old acquaintance who gives him something that will change his life: NZT-48, a “smart drug” that makes Morra’s brain function at peak capacity. After taking the pill, he finishes his book and spends the rest of the movie on an upward trajectory to success, financial and otherwise, essentially living a new life as the smartest man on Earth.

Limitless previewed something a growing portion of the population (Silicon Valley and beyond) is now after: achieving mental enhancement via substances that improve cognitive function, which are now known as nootropics. The world of nootropics is a broad and relatively new subset of DIY biohacking and self-optimization. The main idea behind them is to improve a diverse set of brain skills, including creativity, mental clarity, focus, and memory, mainly through the use of something that stimulates or inhibits certain neurotransmitters.

A wide range of substances fall under the nootropics umbrella, including but not limited to prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil, over-the-counter dietary supplements such as ginkgo biloba and B-vitamins, things as banal as caffeine, or some combination of all of the above.

The current market

In 2017, a study from the International Journal of Drug Policy found that around 30% of Americans had used some kind of prescription “smart drug” in the last year, up from 20% in 2015, with the most commonly used being Ritalin, Adderall, and Modafinil. For over-the-counter options, the most popular nootropics are caffeine, L-theanine, and creatine, according to a report from Zion Market Research. And a recent report from Grand View Research estimated that the over-the-counter nootropics space could reach $10.7 billion annually by 2025.

When it comes to over-the-counter nootropics and supplements, there’s not a lot of hard science to…