Brain-imaging studies are consistent with the existence of small effects that are not reliably captured by the behavioral paradigms of the literature reviewed here. Typically with executive function tasks, reduced activation of task-relevant areas is associated with better performance and is interpreted as an indication of higher neural efficiency (e.g., Haier, Siegel, Tang, Abel, & Buchsbaum, 1992). Several imaging studies showed effects of stimulants on task-related activation while failing to find effects on cognitive performance. Although changes in brain activation do not necessarily imply functional cognitive changes, they are certainly suggestive and may well be more sensitive than behavioral measures. Evidence of this comes from a study of COMT variation and executive function. Egan and colleagues (2001) found a genetic effect on executive function in an fMRI study with sample sizes as small as 11 but did not find behavioral effects in these samples. The genetic effect on behavior was demonstrated in a separate study with over a hundred participants. In sum, d-AMP and MPH measurably affect the activation of task-relevant brain regions when participants’ task performance does not differ. This is consistent with the hypothesis (although by no means positive proof) that stimulants exert a true cognitive-enhancing effect that is simply too small to be detected in many studies.
(I was more than a little nonplussed when the mushroom seller included a little pamphlet educating one about how papaya leaves can cure cancer, and how I’m shortening my life by decades by not eating many raw fruits & vegetables. There were some studies cited, but usually for points disconnected from any actual curing or longevity-inducing results.)
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…Phenethylamine is intrinsically a stimulant, although it doesn’t last long enough to express this property. In other words, it is rapidly and completely destroyed in the human body. It is only when a number of substituent groups are placed here or there on the molecule that this metabolic fate is avoided and pharmacological activity becomes apparent.
Of all the smart drugs in the world, Modafinil is most often touted as the best. It’s a powerful cognitive enhancer, great for boosting alertness, and has very few, mild side effects that most healthy users will never experience. And no, you can’t have any. Sorry. Modafinil is a prescription medication used to treat disorders like narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and for those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.

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.
Another prescription stimulant medication, modafinil (known by the brand name Provigil), is usually prescribed to patients suffering from narcolepsy and shift-work sleep disorder, but it might turn out to have broader applications. “We have conducted at the University of Cambridge double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in healthy people using modafinil and have found improvements in cognition, including in working memory,” Sahakian says. However, she doesn’t think everyone should start using the drug off-label. “There are no long-term safety and efficacy studies of modafinil in healthy people, and so it is unclear what the risks might be.”
Sulbutiamine, mentioned earlier as a cholinergic smart drug, can also be classed a dopaminergic, although its mechanism is counterintuitive: by reducing the release of dopamine in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the density of dopamine receptors actually increase after continued Sulbutiamine exposure, through a compensatory mechanism. (This provides an interesting example of how dividing smart drugs into sensible “classes” is a matter of taste as well as science, especially since many of them create their discernable neural effects through still undefined mechanisms.)

For Malcolm Gladwell, “the thing with doping is that it allows you to train harder than you would have done otherwise.” He argues that we cannot easily call someone a cheater on the basis of having used a drug for this purpose. The equivalent, he explains, would be a student who steals an exam paper from the teacher, and then instead of going home and not studying at all, goes to a library and studies five times harder.
With something like creatine, you’d know if it helps you pump out another rep at the gym on a sustainable basis. With nootropics, you can easily trick yourself into believing they help your mindset. The ideal is to do a trial on yourself. Take identical looking nootropic pills and placebo pills for a couple weeks each, then see what the difference is. With only a third party knowing the difference, of course.

Hall, Irwin, Bowman, Frankenberger, & Jewett (2005) Large public university undergraduates (N = 379) 13.7% (lifetime) 27%: use during finals week; 12%: use when party; 15.4%: use before tests; 14%: believe stimulants have a positive effect on academic achievement in the long run M = 2.06 (SD = 1.19) purchased stimulants from other students; M = 2.81 (SD = 1.40) have been given stimulants by other studentsb
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This continued up to 1 AM, at which point I decided not to take a second armodafinil (why spend a second pill to gain what would likely be an unproductive set of 8 hours?) and finish up the experiment with some n-backing. My 5 rounds: 60/38/62/44/5023. This was surprising. Compare those scores with scores from several previous days: 39/42/44/40/20/28/36. I had estimated before the n-backing that my scores would be in the low-end of my usual performance (20-30%) since I had not slept for the past 41 hours, and instead, the lowest score was 38%. If one did not know the context, one might think I had discovered a good nootropic! Interesting evidence that armodafinil preserves at least one kind of mental performance.

Actually, researchers are studying substances that may improve mental abilities. These substances are called "cognitive enhancers" or "smart drugs" or "nootropics." ("Nootropic" comes from Greek - "noos" = mind and "tropos" = changed, toward, turn). The supposed effects of cognitive enhancement can be several things. For example, it could mean improvement of memory, learning, attention, concentration, problem solving, reasoning, social skills, decision making and planning.


^ EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies; European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy (2011). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to L-theanine from Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze (tea) and improvement of cognitive function (ID 1104, 1222, 1600, 1601, 1707, 1935, 2004, 2005), alleviation of psychological stress (ID 1598, 1601), maintenance of normal sleep (ID 1222, 1737, 2004) and reduction of menstrual discomfort (ID 1599) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006". EFSA Journal. 9 (6): 2238. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2238.
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