The next morning, four giant pills’ worth of the popular piracetam-and-choline stack made me... a smidge more alert, maybe? (Or maybe that was just the fact that I had slept pretty well the night before. It was hard to tell.) Modafinil, which many militaries use as their “fatigue management” pill of choice, boasts glowing reviews from satisfied users. But in the United States, civilians need a prescription to get it; without one, they are stuck using adrafinil, a precursor substance that the body metabolizes into modafinil after ingestion. Taking adrafinil in lieu of coffee just made me keenly aware that I hadn’t had coffee.
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 flanker task is designed to tax cognitive control by requiring subjects to respond based on the identity of a target stimulus (H or S) and not the more numerous and visually salient stimuli that flank the target (as in a display such as HHHSHHH). Servan-Schreiber, Carter, Bruno, and Cohen (1998) administered the flanker task to subjects on placebo and d-AMP. They found an overall speeding of responses but, more importantly, an increase in accuracy that was disproportionate for the incongruent conditions, that is, the conditions in which the target and flankers did not match and cognitive control was needed.
The smart pill that FDA approved is called Abilify MyCite. This tiny pill has a drug and an ingestible sensor. The sensor gets activated when it comes into contact with stomach fluid to detect when the pill has been taken. The data is then transmitted to a wearable patch that eventually conveys the information to a paired smartphone app. Doctors and caregivers, with the patient’s consent, can then access the data via a web portal.
Those who have taken them swear they do work – though not in the way you might think. Back in 2015, a review of the evidence found that their impact on intelligence is “modest”. But most people don’t take them to improve their mental abilities. Instead, they take them to improve their mental energy and motivation to work. (Both drugs also come with serious risks and side effects – more on those later).
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.

As I am not any of the latter, I didn’t really expect a mental benefit. As it happens, I observed nothing. What surprised me was something I had forgotten about: its physical benefits. My performance in Taekwondo classes suddenly improved - specifically, my endurance increased substantially. Before, classes had left me nearly prostrate at the end, but after, I was weary yet fairly alert and happy. (I have done Taekwondo since I was 7, and I have a pretty good sense of what is and is not normal performance for my body. This was not anything as simple as failing to notice increasing fitness or something.) This was driven home to me one day when in a flurry before class, I prepared my customary tea with piracetam, choline & creatine; by the middle of the class, I was feeling faint & tired, had to take a break, and suddenly, thunderstruck, realized that I had absentmindedly forgot to actually drink it! This made me a believer.

One item always of interest to me is sleep; a stimulant is no good if it damages my sleep (unless that’s what it is supposed to do, like modafinil) - anecdotes and research suggest that it does. Over the past few days, my Zeo sleep scores continued to look normal. But that was while not taking nicotine much later than 5 PM. In lieu of a different ml measurer to test my theory that my syringe is misleading me, I decide to more directly test nicotine’s effect on sleep by taking 2ml at 10:30 PM, and go to bed at 12:20; I get a decent ZQ of 94 and I fall asleep in 16 minutes, a bit below my weekly average of 19 minutes. The next day, I take 1ml directly before going to sleep at 12:20; the ZQ is 95 and time to sleep is 14 minutes.
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? 
The idea of a digital pill that records when it has been consumed is a sound one, but as the FDA notes, there is no evidence to say it actually increases the likelihood patients that have a history of inconsistent consumption will follow their prescribed course of treatment. There is also a very strange irony in schizophrenia being the first condition this technology is being used to target.
Another interpretation of the mixed results in the literature is that, in some cases at least, individual differences in response to stimulants have led to null results when some participants in the sample are in fact enhanced and others are not. This possibility is not inconsistent with the previously mentioned ones; both could be at work. Evidence has already been reviewed that ability level, personality, and COMT genotype modulate the effect of stimulants, although most studies in the literature have not broken their samples down along these dimensions. There may well be other as-yet-unexamined individual characteristics that determine drug response. The equivocal nature of the current literature may reflect a mixture of substantial cognitive-enhancement effects for some individuals, diluted by null effects or even counteracted by impairment in others.

This research is in contrast to the other substances I like, such as piracetam or fish oil. I knew about withdrawal of course, but it was not so bad when I was drinking only tea. And the side-effects like jitteriness are worse on caffeine without tea; I chalk this up to the lack of theanine. (My later experiences with theanine seems to confirm this.) These negative effects mean that caffeine doesn’t satisfy the strictest definition of nootropic (having no negative effects), but is merely a cognitive enhancer (with both benefits & costs). One might wonder why I use caffeine anyway if I am so concerned with mental ability.
Even if you eat foods that contain these nutrients, Hogan says their beneficial effects are in many ways cumulative—meaning the brain perks don’t emerge unless you’ve been eating them for long periods of time. Swallowing more of these brain-enhancing compounds at or after middle-age “may be beyond the critical period” when they’re able to confer cognitive enhancements, he says.
Began double-blind trial. Today I took one pill blindly at 1:53 PM. at the end of the day when I have written down my impressions and guess whether it was one of the Adderall pills, then I can look in the baggy and count and see whether it was. there are many other procedures one can take to blind oneself (have an accomplice mix up a sequence of pills and record what the sequence was; don’t count & see but blindly take a photograph of the pill each day, etc.) Around 3, I begin to wonder whether it was Adderall because I am arguing more than usual on IRC and my heart rate seems a bit high just sitting down. 6 PM: I’ve started to think it was a placebo. My heart rate is back to normal, I am having difficulty concentrating on long text, and my appetite has shown up for dinner (although I didn’t have lunch, I don’t think I had lunch yesterday and yesterday the hunger didn’t show up until past 7). Productivity wise, it has been a normal day. All in all, I’m not too sure, but I think I’d guess it was Adderall with 40% confidence (another way of saying placebo with 60% confidence). When I go to examine the baggie at 8:20 PM, I find out… it was an Adderall pill after all. Oh dear. One little strike against Adderall that I guessed wrong. It may be that the problem is that I am intrinsically a little worse today (normal variation? come down from Adderall?).
We reviewed recent studies concerning prescription stimulant use specifically among students in the United States and Canada, using the method illustrated in Figure 1. Although less informative about the general population, these studies included questions about students’ specific reasons for using the drugs, as well as frequency of use and means of obtaining them. These studies typically found rates of use greater than those reported by the nationwide NSDUH or the MTF surveys. This probably reflects a true difference in rates of usage among the different populations. In support of that conclusion, the NSDUH data for college age Americans showed that college students were considerably more likely than nonstudents of the same age to use prescription stimulants nonmedically (odds ratio: 2.76; Herman-Stahl, Krebs, Kroutil, & Heller, 2007).
If you want to try a nootropic in supplement form, check the label to weed out products you may be allergic to and vet the company as best you can by scouring its website and research basis, and talking to other customers, Kerl recommends. "Find one that isn't just giving you some temporary mental boost or some quick fix – that’s not what a nootropic is intended to do," Cyr says.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a behavioral syndrome characterized by inattention and distractibility, restlessness, inability to sit still, and difficulty concentrating on one thing for any period of time. ADHD most commonly occurs in children, though an increasing number of adults are being diagnosed with the disorder. ADHD is three times more…


This doesn’t fit the U-curve so well: while 60mg is substantially negative as one would extrapolate from 30mg being ~0, 48mg is actually better than 15mg. But we bought the estimates of 48mg/60mg at a steep price - we ignore the influence of magnesium which we know influences the data a great deal. And the higher doses were added towards the end, so may be influenced by the magnesium starting/stopping. Another fix for the missingness is to impute the missing data. In this case, we might argue that the placebo days of the magnesium experiment were identical to taking no magnesium at all and so we can classify each NA as a placebo day, and rerun the desired analysis:

A new all-in-one nootropic mix/company run by some people active on /r/nootropics; they offered me a month’s supply for free to try & review for them. At ~$100 a month (it depends on how many months one buys), it is not cheap (John Backus estimates one could buy the raw ingredients for $25/month) but it provides convenience & is aimed at people uninterested in spending a great deal of time reviewing research papers & anecdotes or capping their own pills (ie. people with lives) and it’s unlikely I could spare the money to subscribe if TruBrain worked well for me - but certainly there was no harm in trying it out.
Because smart drugs like modafinil, nicotine, and Adderall come with drawbacks, I developed my own line of nootropics, including Forbose and SmartMode, that’s safe, widely available, and doesn’t require a prescription. Forskolin, found in Forbose, has been a part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation. [8]
NGF may sound intriguing, but the price is a dealbreaker: at suggested doses of 1-100μg (NGF dosing in humans for benefits is, shall we say, not an exact science), and a cost from sketchy suppliers of $1210/100μg/$470/500μg/$750/1000μg/$1000/1000μg/$1030/1000μg/$235/20μg. (Levi-Montalcini was presumably able to divert some of her lab’s production.) A year’s supply then would be comically expensive: at the lowest doses of 1-10μg using the cheapest sellers (for something one is dumping into one’s eyes?), it could cost anywhere up to $10,000.
An additional complexity, related to individual differences, concerns dosage. This factor, which varies across studies and may be fixed or determined by participant body weight within a study, undoubtedly influences the cognitive effects of stimulant drugs. Furthermore, single-unit recordings with animals and, more recently, imaging of humans indicate that the effects of stimulant dose are nonmonotonic; increases enhance prefrontal function only up to a point, with further increases impairing function (e.g., Arnsten, 1998; Mattay et al., 2003; Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). Yet additional complexity comes from the fact that the optimal dosage depends on the same kinds of individual characteristics just discussed and on the task (Mattay et al., 2003).

This research is in contrast to the other substances I like, such as piracetam or fish oil. I knew about withdrawal of course, but it was not so bad when I was drinking only tea. And the side-effects like jitteriness are worse on caffeine without tea; I chalk this up to the lack of theanine. (My later experiences with theanine seems to confirm this.) These negative effects mean that caffeine doesn’t satisfy the strictest definition of nootropic (having no negative effects), but is merely a cognitive enhancer (with both benefits & costs). One might wonder why I use caffeine anyway if I am so concerned with mental ability.


"Where can you draw the line between Red Bull, six cups of coffee and a prescription drug that keeps you more alert," says Michael Schrage of the MIT Center for Digital Business, who has studied the phenomenon. "You can't draw the line meaningfully - some organizations have cultures where it is expected that employees go the extra mile to finish an all-nighter. "
The power calculation indicates a 20% chance of getting useful information. My quasi-experiment has <70% chance of being right, and I preserve a general skepticism about any experiment, even one as well done as the medical student one seems to be, and give that one a <80% chance of being right; so let’s call it 70% the effect exists, or 30% it doesn’t exist (which is the case in which I save money by dropping fish oil for 10 years).

I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 9 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.
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