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Certain pharmaceuticals could also qualify as nootropics. For at least the past 20 years, a lot of people—students, especially—have turned to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs like Ritalin and Adderall for their supposed concentration-strengthening effects. While there’s some evidence that these stimulants can improve focus in people without ADHD, they have also been linked, in both people with and without an ADHD diagnosis, to insomnia, hallucinations, seizures, heart trouble and sudden death, according to a 2012 review of the research in the journal Brain and Behavior. They’re also addictive.

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:


These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”
Using prescription ADHD medications, racetams, and other synthetic nootropics can boost brain power. Yes, they can work. Even so, we advise against using them long-term since the research on their safety is still new. Use them at your own risk. For the majority of users, stick with all natural brain supplements for best results. What is your favorite smart pill for increasing focus and mental energy? Tell us about your favorite cognitive enhancer in the comments below.
Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
along with the previous bit of globalization is an important factor: shipping is ridiculously cheap. The most expensive S&H in my modafinil price table is ~$15 (and most are international). To put this in perspective, I remember in the 90s you could easily pay $15 for domestic S&H when you ordered online - but it’s 2013, and the dollar has lost at least half its value, so in real terms, ordering from abroad may be like a quarter of what it used to cost, which makes a big difference to people dipping their toes in and contemplating a small order to try out this ’nootropics thing they’ve heard about.

By the end of 2009, at least 25 studies reported surveys of college students’ rates of nonmedical stimulant use. Of the studies using relatively smaller samples, prevalence was, in chronological order, 16.6% (lifetime; Babcock & Byrne, 2000), 35.3% (past year; Low & Gendaszek, 2002), 13.7% (lifetime; Hall, Irwin, Bowman, Frankenberger, & Jewett, 2005), 9.2% (lifetime; Carroll, McLaughlin, & Blake, 2006), and 55% (lifetime, fraternity students only; DeSantis, Noar, & Web, 2009). Of the studies using samples of more than a thousand students, somewhat lower rates of nonmedical stimulant use were found, although the range extends into the same high rates as the small studies: 2.5% (past year, Ritalin only; Teter, McCabe, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2003), 5.4% (past year; McCabe & Boyd, 2005), 4.1% (past year; McCabe, Knight, Teter, & Wechsler, 2005), 11.2% (past year; Shillington, Reed, Lange, Clapp, & Henry, 2006), 5.9% (past year; Teter, McCabe, LaGrange, Cranford, & Boyd, 2006), 16.2% (lifetime; White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop, 2006), 1.7% (past month; Kaloyanides, McCabe, Cranford, & Teter, 2007), 10.8% (past year; Arria, O’Grady, Caldeira, Vincent, & Wish, 2008); 5.3% (MPH only, lifetime; Du-Pont, Coleman, Bucher, & Wilford, 2008); 34% (lifetime; DeSantis, Webb, & Noar, 2008), 8.9% (lifetime; Rabiner et al., 2009), and 7.5% (past month; Weyandt et al., 2009).
Nootropics are a responsible way of using smart drugs to enhance productivity. As defined by Giurgea in the 1960’s, nootropics should have little to no side-effects. With nootropics, there should be no dependency. And maybe the effects of nootropics are smaller than for instance Adderall, you still improve your productivity without risking your life. This is what separates nootropics from other drugs.

I took the pill at 11 PM the evening of (technically, the day before); that day was a little low on sleep than usual, since I had woken up an hour or half-hour early. I didn’t yawn at all during the movie (merely mediocre to my eyes with some questionable parts)22. It worked much the same as it did the previous time - as I walked around at 5 AM or so, I felt perfectly alert. I made good use of the hours and wrote up my memories of ICON 2011.
This calculation - reaping only \frac{7}{9} of the naive expectation - gives one pause. How serious is the sleep rebound? In another article, I point to a mice study that sleep deficits can take 28 days to repay. What if the gain from modafinil is entirely wiped out by repayment and all it did was defer sleep? Would that render modafinil a waste of money? Perhaps. Thinking on it, I believe deferring sleep is of some value, but I cannot decide whether it is a net profit.
Took full pill at 10:21 PM when I started feeling a bit tired. Around 11:30, I noticed my head feeling fuzzy but my reading seemed to still be up to snuff. I would eventually finish the science book around 9 AM the next day, taking some very long breaks to walk the dog, write some poems, write a program, do Mnemosyne review (memory performance: subjectively below average, but not as bad as I would have expected from staying up all night), and some other things. Around 4 AM, I reflected that I felt much as I had during my nightwatch job at the same hour of the day - except I had switched sleep schedules for the job. The tiredness continued to build and my willpower weakened so the morning wasn’t as productive as it could have been - but my actual performance when I could be bothered was still pretty normal. That struck me as kind of interesting that I can feel very tired and not act tired, in line with the anecdotes.
I split the 2 pills into 4 doses for each hour from midnight to 4 AM. 3D driver issues in Debian unstable prevented me from using Brain Workshop, so I don’t have any DNB scores to compare with the armodafinil DNB scores. I had the subjective impression that I was worse off with the Modalert, although I still managed to get a fair bit done so the deficits couldn’t’ve been too bad. The apathy during the morning felt worse than armodafinil, but that could have been caused by or exacerbated by an unexpected and very stressful 2 hour drive through rush hour and multiple accidents; the quick hour-long nap at 10 AM was half-waking half-light-sleep according to the Zeo, but seemed to help a bit. As before, I began to feel better in the afternoon and by evening felt normal, doing my usual reading. That night, the Zeo recorded my sleep as lasting ~9:40, when it was usually more like 8:40-9:00 (although I am not sure that this was due to the modafinil inasmuch as once a week or so I tend to sleep in that long, as I did a few days later without any influence from the modafinil); assuming the worse, the nap and extra sleep cost me 2 hours for a net profit of ~7 hours. While it’s not clear how modafinil affects recovery sleep (see the footnote in the essay), it’s still interesting to ponder the benefits of merely being able to delay sleep18.
** = Important note - whilst BrainZyme is scientifically proven to support concentration and mental performance, it is not a replacement for a good diet, moderate exercise or sleep. BrainZyme is also not a drug, medicine or pharmaceutical. It is a natural-sourced, vegan food supplement with ingredients that are scientifically proven to support cognition, concentration, mental performance and reduction of tiredness. You should always consult with your Doctor if you require medical attention.
Most people I talk to about modafinil seem to use it for daytime usage; for me that has not ever worked out well, but I had nothing in particular to show against it. So, as I was capping the last of my piracetam-caffeine mix and clearing off my desk, I put the 4 remaining Modalerts pills into capsules with the last of my creatine powder and then mixed them with 4 of the theanine-creatine pills. Like the previous Adderall trial, I will pick one pill blindly each day and guess at the end which it was. If it was active (modafinil-creatine), take a break the next day; if placebo (theanine-creatine), replace the placebo and try again the next day. We’ll see if I notice anything on DNB or possibly gwern.net edits.
Yes, according to a new policy at Duke University, which says that the “unauthorized use of prescription medicine to enhance academic performance” should be treated as cheating.” And no, according to law professor Nita Farahany, herself based at Duke University, who has called the policy “ill-conceived,” arguing that “banning smart drugs disempowers students from making educated choices for themselves.”
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.
Similar to the way in which some athletes used anabolic steroids (muscle-building hormones) to artificially enhance their physique, some students turned to smart drugs, particularly Ritalin and Adderall, to heighten their intellectual abilities. A 2005 study reported that, at some universities in the United States, as many as 7 percent of respondents had used smart drugs at least once in their lifetime and 2.1 percent had used smart drugs in the past month. Modafinil was used increasingly by persons who sought to recover quickly from jet lag and who were under heavy work demands. Military personnel were given the same drug when sent on missions with extended flight times.
Legal issues aside, this wouldn’t be very difficult to achieve. Many companies already have in-house doctors who give regular health check-ups — including drug tests — which could be employed to control and regulate usage. Organizations could integrate these drugs into already existing wellness programs, alongside healthy eating, exercise, and good sleep.
A key ingredient of Noehr’s chemical “stack” is a stronger racetam called Phenylpiracetam. He adds a handful of other compounds considered to be mild cognitive enhancers. One supplement, L-theanine, a natural constituent in green tea, is claimed to neutralise the jittery side-effects of caffeine. Another supplement, choline, is said to be important for experiencing the full effects of racetams. Each nootropic is distinct and there can be a lot of variation in effect from person to person, says Lawler. Users semi-annonymously compare stacks and get advice from forums on sites such as Reddit. Noehr, who buys his powder in bulk and makes his own capsules, has been tweaking chemicals and quantities for about five years accumulating more than two dozens of jars of substances along the way. He says he meticulously researches anything he tries, buys only from trusted suppliers and even blind-tests the effects (he gets his fiancée to hand him either a real or inactive capsule).
A fundamental aspect of human evolution has been the drive to augment our capabilities. The neocortex is the neural seat of abstract and higher order cognitive processes. As it grew, so did our ability to create. The invention of tools and weapons, writing, the steam engine, and the computer have exponentially increased our capacity to influence and understand the world around us. These advances are being driven by improved higher-order cognitive processing.1Fascinatingly, the practice of modulating our biology through naturally occurring flora predated all of the above discoveries. Indeed, Sumerian clay slabs as old as 5000 BC detail medicinal recipes which include over 250 plants2. The enhancement of human cognition through natural compounds followed, as people discovered plants containing caffeine, theanine, and other cognition-enhancing, or nootropic, agents.
Neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change and reorganize itself in response to intrinsic and extrinsic factors, indicates great potential for us to enhance brain function by medical or other interventions. Psychotherapy has been shown to induce structural changes in the brain. Other interventions that positively influence neuroplasticity include meditation, mindfulness , and compassion.
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Googling, you sometimes see correlational studies like Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men and Women Is Associated with Better Cognitive Test Performance; in this one, the correlated performance increase from eating chocolate was generally fairly modest (say, <10%), and the maximum effects were at 10g/day of what was probably milk chocolate, which generally has 10-40% chocolate liquor in it, suggesting any experiment use 1-4g. More interesting is the blind RCT experiment Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort11, which found improvements at ~1g; the most dramatic improvement of the 4 tasks (on the Threes correct) saw a difference of 2 to 6 at the end of the hour of testing, while several of the other tests converged by the end or saw the controls winning (Sevens correct). Crews et al 2008 found no cognitive benefit, and an fMRI experiment found the change in brain oxygen levels it wanted but no improvement to reaction times.

Even party drugs are going to work: Biohackers are taking recreational drugs like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline in microdoses—about a tenth of what constitutes a typical dose—with the goal of becoming more focused and creative. Many who’ve tried it report positive results, but real research on the practice—and its safety—is a long way off. “Whether microdosing with LSD improves creativity and cognition remains to be determined in an objective experiment using double-blind, placebo-controlled methodology,” Sahakian says.

That study is also interesting for finding benefits to chronic piracetam+choline supplementation in the mice, which seems connected to a Russian study which reportedly found that piracetam (among other more obscure nootropics) increased secretion of BDNF in mice. See also Drug heuristics on a study involving choline supplementation in pregnant rats.↩


More photos from this reportage are featured in Quartz’s new book The Objects that Power the Global Economy. You may not have seen these objects before, but they’ve already changed the way you live. Each chapter examines an object that is driving radical change in the global economy. This is from the chapter on the drug modafinil, which explores modifying the mind for a more productive life. 

“Love this book! Still reading and can’t wait to see what else I learn…and I am not brain injured! Cavin has already helped me to take steps to address my food sensitivity…seems to be helping and I am only on day 5! He has also helped me to help a family member who has suffered a stroke. Thank you Cavin, for sharing all your knowledge and hard work with us! This book is for anyone that wants to understand and implement good nutrition with all the latest research to back it up. Highly recommend!”

Creatine is a substance that’s produced in the human body. It is initially produced in the kidneys, and the process is completed in the liver. It is then stored in the brain tissues and muscles, to support the energy demands of a human body. Athletes and bodybuilders use creatine supplements to relieve fatigue and increase the recovery of the muscle tissues affected by vigorous physical activities. Apart from helping the tissues to recover faster, creatine also helps in enhancing the mental functions in sleep-deprived adults, and it also improves the performance of difficult cognitive tasks.
Caffeine dose dependently decreased the 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) induced VDR expression and at concentrations of 1 and 10mM, VDR expression was decreased by about 50-70%, respectively. In addition, the 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) induced alkaline phosphatase activity was also reduced at similar doses thus affecting the osteoblastic function. The basal ALP activity was not affected with increasing doses of caffeine. Overall, our results suggest that caffeine affects 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) stimulated VDR protein expression and 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) mediated actions in human osteoblast cells.
Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
If stimulants truly enhance cognition but do so to only a small degree, this raises the question of whether small effects are of practical use in the real world. Under some circumstances, the answer would undoubtedly be yes. Success in academic and occupational competitions often hinges on the difference between being at the top or merely near the top. A scholarship or a promotion that can go to only one person will not benefit the runner-up at all. Hence, even a small edge in the competition can be important.
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.

As already mentioned, AMPs and MPH are classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Schedule II substances, which means that buying or selling them is a felony offense. This raises the question of how the drugs are obtained by students for nonmedical use. Several studies addressed this question and yielded reasonably consistent answers.
My first impression of ~1g around 12:30PM was that while I do not feel like running around, within an hour I did feel like the brain fog was lighter than before. The effect wasn’t dramatic, so I can’t be very confident. Operationalizing brain fog for an experiment might be hard: it doesn’t necessarily feel like I would do better on dual n-back. I took 2 smaller doses 3 and 6 hours later, to no further effect. Over the following weeks and months, I continued to randomly alternate between potassium & non-potassium days. I noticed no effects other than sleep problems.
l-Theanine – A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that concurrent caffeine and l-theanine use had synergistic psychoactive effects that promoted alertness, attention, and task switching;[29] these effects were most pronounced during the first hour post-dose.[29] However, the European Food Safety Authority reported that, when L-theanine is used by itself (i.e. without caffeine), there is insufficient information to determine if these effects exist.[34]
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