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.
Popular among computer programmers, oxiracetam, another racetam, has been shown to be effective in recovery from neurological trauma and improvement to long-term memory. It is believed to effective in improving attention span, memory, learning capacity, focus, sensory perception, and logical thinking. It also acts as a stimulant, increasing mental energy, alertness, and motivation.
Another empirical question concerns the effects of stimulants on motivation, which can affect academic and occupational performance independent of cognitive ability. Volkow and colleagues (2004) showed that MPH increased participants’ self-rated interest in a relatively dull mathematical task. This is consistent with student reports that prescription stimulants make schoolwork seem more interesting (e.g., DeSantis et al., 2008). To what extent are the motivational effects of prescription stimulants distinct from their cognitive effects, and to what extent might they be more robust to differences in individual traits, dosage, and task? Are the motivational effects of stimulants responsible for their usefulness when taken by normal healthy individuals for cognitive enhancement?
The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.
One often-cited study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology looked at cognitive function in the elderly and showed that racetam helped to improve their brain function.19 Another study, which was published in Psychopharmacology, looked at adult volunteers (including those who are generally healthy) and found that piracetam helped improve their memory.20
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.
According to clinical psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School Professor, Emily Deans, “there's probably nothing dangerous about the occasional course of nootropics...beyond that, it's possible to build up a tolerance if you use them often enough." Her recommendation is to seek pharmaceutical-grade products which she says are more accurate regarding dosage and less likely to be contaminated.
Not that everyone likes to talk about using the drugs. People don’t necessarily want to reveal how they get their edge and there is stigma around people trying to become smarter than their biology dictates, says Lawler. Another factor is undoubtedly the risks associated with ingesting substances bought on the internet and the confusing legal statuses of some. Phenylpiracetam, for example, is a prescription drug in Russia. It isn’t illegal to buy in the US, but the man-made chemical exists in a no man’s land where it is neither approved nor outlawed for human consumption, notes Lawler.
A rough translation for the word “nootropic” comes from the Greek for “to bend or shape the mind.” And already, there are dozens of over-the-counter (OTC) products—many of which are sold widely online or in stores—that claim to boost creativity, memory, decision-making or other high-level brain functions. Some of the most popular supplements are a mixture of food-derived vitamins, lipids, phytochemicals and antioxidants that studies have linked to healthy brain function. One popular pick on Amazon, for example, is an encapsulated cocktail of omega-3s, B vitamins and plant-derived compounds that its maker claims can improve memory, concentration and focus.
But notice that most of the cost imbalance is coming from the estimate of the benefit of IQ - if it quadrupled to a defensible $8000, that would be close to the experiment cost! So in a way, what this VoI calculation tells us is that what is most valuable right now is not that iodine might possibly increase IQ, but getting a better grip on how much any IQ intervention is worth.
Weyandt et al. (2009) Large public university undergraduates (N = 390) 7.5% (past 30 days) Highest rated reasons were to perform better on schoolwork, perform better on tests, and focus better in class 21.2% had occasionally been offered by other students; 9.8% occasionally or frequently have purchased from other students; 1.4% had sold to other students
If I stop tonight and do nothing Monday (and I sleep the normal eight hours and do not pay any penalty), then that’ll be 4 out of 5 days on modafinil, each saving 3 or 4 hours. Each day took one pill which cost me $1.20, but each pill saved let’s call it 3.5 hours; if I value my time at minimum wage, or 7.25/hr (federal minimum wage), then that 3.5 hours is worth $25.37, which is much more than $1.20, ~21x more.
Dosage is apparently 5-10mg a day. (Prices can be better elsewhere; selegiline is popular for treating dogs with senile dementia, where those 60x5mg will cost $2 rather than $3531. One needs a veterinarian’s prescription to purchase from pet-oriented online pharmacies, though.) I ordered it & modafinil from Nubrain.com at $35 for 60x5mg; Nubrain delayed and eventually canceled my order - and my enthusiasm. Between that and realizing how much of a premium I was paying for Nubrain’s deprenyl, I’m tabling deprenyl along with nicotine & modafinil for now. Which is too bad, because I had even ordered 20g of PEA from Smart Powders to try out with the deprenyl. (My later attempt to order some off the Silk Road also failed when the seller canceled the order.)
However, when I didn’t stack it with Choline, I would get what users call “racetam headaches.” Choline, as Patel explains, is not a true nootropic, but it’s still a pro-cognitive compound that many take with other nootropics in a stack. It’s an essential nutrient that humans need for functions like memory and muscle control, but we can’t produce it, and many Americans don’t get enough of it. The headaches I got weren’t terribly painful, but they were uncomfortable enough that I stopped taking Piracetam on its own. Even without the headache, though, I didn’t really like the level of focus Piracetam gave me. I didn’t feel present when I used it, even when I tried to mix in caffeine and L-theanine. And while it seemed like I could focus and do my work faster, I was making more small mistakes in my writing, like skipping words. Essentially, it felt like my brain was moving faster than I could.
My predictions were substantially better than random chance7, so my default belief - that Adderall does affect me and (mostly) for the better - is borne out. I usually sleep very well and 3 separate incidents of horrible sleep in a few weeks seems rather unlikely (though I didn’t keep track of dates carefully enough to link the Zeo data with the Adderall data). Between the price and the sleep disturbances, I don’t think Adderall is personally worthwhile.
As for newer nootropic drugs, there are unknown risks. “Piracetam has been studied for decades,” says cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Hill, the founder of a neurofeedback company in Los Angeles called Peak Brain Institute. But “some of [the newer] compounds are things that some random editor found in a scientific article, copied the formula down and sent it to China and had a bulk powder developed three months later that they’re selling. Please don’t take it, people!”
I have a needle phobia, so injections are right out; but from the images I have found, it looks like testosterone enanthate gels using DMSO resemble other gels like Vaseline. This suggests an easy experimental procedure: spoon an appropriate dose of testosterone gel into one opaque jar, spoon some Vaseline gel into another, and pick one randomly to apply while not looking. If one gel evaporates but the other doesn’t, or they have some other difference in behavior, the procedure can be expanded to something like and then half an hour later, take a shower to remove all visible traces of the gel. Testosterone itself has a fairly short half-life of 2-4 hours, but the gel or effects might linger. (Injections apparently operate on a time-scale of weeks; I’m not clear on whether this is because the oil takes that long to be absorbed by surrounding materials or something else.) Experimental design will depend on the specifics of the obtained substance. As a controlled substance (Schedule III in the US), supplies will be hard to obtain; I may have to resort to the Silk Road.
Also known as Arcalion or Bisbuthiamine and Enerion, Sulbutiamine is a compound of the Sulphur group and is an analog to vitamin B1, which is known to pass the blood-brain barrier easily. Sulbutiamine is found to circulate faster than Thiamine from blood to brain. It is recommended for patients suffering from mental fatigue caused due to emotional and psychological stress. The best part about this compound is that it does not have most of the common side effects linked with a few nootropics.
The one indisputable finding from the literature so far is that many people are seeking cognitive enhancement. Beyond that, the literature yields only partial and tentative answers to the questions just raised. Given the potential impact of cognitive enhancement on society, more research is needed. For research on the epidemiology of cognitive enhancement, studies focused on the cognitive-enhancement practices and experiences of students and nonstudent workers are needed. For research on the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants, larger samples are needed. Only with substantially larger samples will it be possible to assess small but potentially important benefits, as well as risks, and to distinguish individual differences in drug response. Large samples would also be required to compare these effects to the cognitive effects of improved sleep, exercise, nutrition, and stress management. To include more ecologically valid measures of cognition in academic and work environments would in addition require the equivalent of a large clinical trial.
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.
Running low on gum (even using it weekly or less, it still runs out), I decided to try patches. Reading through various discussions, I couldn’t find any clear verdict on what patch brands might be safer (in terms of nicotine evaporation through a cut or edge) than others, so I went with the cheapest Habitrol I could find as a first try of patches (Nicotine Transdermal System Patch, Stop Smoking Aid, 21 mg, Step 1, 14 patches) in May 2013. I am curious to what extent nicotine might improve a long time period like several hours or a whole day, compared to the shorter-acting nicotine gum which feels like it helps for an hour at most and then tapers off (which is very useful in its own right for kicking me into starting something I have been procrastinating on). I have not decided whether to try another self-experiment.
The information learned in the tasks reviewed so far was explicit, declarative, and consistent within each experiment. In contrast, probabilistic and procedural learning tasks require the subject to gradually extract a regularity in the associations among stimuli from multiple presentations in which the correct associations are only presented some of the time, with incorrect associations also presented. Findings are mixed in these tasks. Breitenstein and colleagues (2004, 2006) showed subjects drawings of common objects accompanied by nonsense word sounds in training sessions that extended over multiple days. They found faster learning of the to-be-learned, higher probability pairings between sessions (consistent with enhanced retention over longer delays). Breitenstein et al. (2004) found that this enhancement remained a year later. Schlösser et al. (2009) tested subjects’ probabilistic learning ability in the context of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, comparing performance and brain activation with MPH and placebo. MPH did not affect learning performance as measured by accuracy. Although subjects were overall faster in responding on MPH, this difference was independent of the difficulty of the learning task, and the authors accordingly attributed it to response processes rather than learning.
The Trail Making Test is a paper-and-pencil neuropsychological test with two parts, one of which requires shifting between stimulus categories. Part A simply requires the subject to connect circled numbers in ascending order. Part B requires the subject to connect circled numbers and letters in an interleaved ascending order (1, A, 2, B, 3, C….), a task that places heavier demands on cognitive control. Silber et al. (2006) analyzed the effect of d-AMP on Trails A and B and failed to find an effect.
That said, there are plenty of studies out there that point to its benefits. One study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, suggests brain function in elderly patients can be greatly improved after regular dosing with Piracetam. Another study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that Piracetam improved memory in most adult volunteers. And another, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, suggests it can help students, especially dyslexic students, improve their nonverbal learning skills, like reading ability and reading comprehension. Basically, researchers know it has an effect, but they don’t know what or how, and pinning it down requires additional research.
I take my piracetam in the form of capped pills consisting (in descending order) of piracetam, choline bitartrate, anhydrous caffeine, and l-tyrosine. On 8 December 2012, I happened to run out of them and couldn’t fetch more from my stock until 27 December. This forms a sort of (non-randomized, non-blind) short natural experiment: did my daily 1-5 mood/productivity ratings fall during 8-27 December compared to November 2012 & January 2013? The graphed data28 suggests to me a decline:
Bacopa is a supplement herb often used for memory or stress adaptation. Its chronic effects reportedly take many weeks to manifest, with no important acute effects. Out of curiosity, I bought 2 bottles of Bacognize Bacopa pills and ran a non-randomized non-blinded ABABA quasi-self-experiment from June 2014 to September 2015, measuring effects on my memory performance, sleep, and daily self-ratings of mood/productivity. Because of the very slow onset, small effective sample size, definite temporal trends probably unrelated to Bacopa, and noise in the variables, the results were as expected, ambiguous, and do not strongly support any correlation between Bacopa and memory/sleep/self-rating (+/-/- respectively).
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if you are already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.