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.
Too much caffeine may be bad for bone health because it can deplete calcium. Overdoing the caffeine also may affect the vitamin D in your body, which plays a critical role in your body’s bone metabolism. However, the roles of vitamin D as well as caffeine in the development of osteoporosis continue to be a source of debate. Significance: Caffeine may interfere with your body’s metabolism of vitamin D, according to a 2007 Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology study. You have vitamin D receptors, or VDRs, in your osteoblast cells. These large cells are responsible for the mineralization and synthesis of bone in your body. They create a sheet on the surface of your bones. The D receptors are nuclear hormone receptors that control the action of vitamin D-3 by controlling hormone-sensitive gene expression. These receptors are critical to good bone health. For example, a vitamin D metabolism disorder in which these receptors don’t work properly causes rickets.

Hericium erinaceus (Examine.com) was recommended strongly by several on the ImmInst.org forums for its long-term benefits to learning, apparently linked to Nerve growth factor. Highly speculative stuff, and it’s unclear whether the mushroom powder I bought was the right form to take (ImmInst.org discussions seem to universally assume one is taking an alcohol or hotwater extract). It tasted nice, though, and I mixed it into my sleeping pills (which contain melatonin & tryptophan). I’ll probably never know whether the $30 for 0.5lb was well-spent or not.
With this experiment, I broke from the previous methodology, taking the remaining and final half Nuvigil at midnight. I am behind on work and could use a full night to catch up. By 8 AM, I am as usual impressed by the Nuvigil - with Modalert or something, I generally start to feel down by mid-morning, but with Nuvigil, I feel pretty much as I did at 1 AM. Sleep: 9:51/9:15/8:27
Recent developments include biosensor-equipped smart pills that sense the appropriate environment and location to release pharmacological agents. Medimetrics (Eindhoven, Netherlands) has developed a pill called IntelliCap with drug reservoir, pH and temperature sensors that release drugs to a defined region of the gastrointestinal tract. This device is CE marked and is in early stages of clinical trials for FDA approval. Recently, Google announced its intent to invest and innovate in this space.
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.

Ngo has experimented with piracetam himself (“The first time I tried it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty strong for a supplement.’ I had a little bit of reflux, heartburn, but in general it was a cognitive enhancer. . . . I found it helpful”) and the neurotransmitter DMEA (“You have an idea, it helps you finish the thought. It’s for when people have difficulty finishing that last connection in the brain”).

Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants and modafinil. Part of the problem is that getting rats, or indeed students, to do puzzles in laboratories may not be a reliable guide to the drugs’ effects in the wider world. Drugs have complicated effects on individuals living complicated lives. Determining that methylphenidate enhances cognition in rats by acting on their prefrontal cortex doesn’t tell you the potential impact that its effects on mood or motivation may have on human cognition.

as scientific papers become much more accessible online due to Open Access, digitization by publishers, and cheap hosting for pirates, the available knowledge about nootropics increases drastically. This reduces the perceived risk by users, and enables them to educate themselves and make much more sophisticated estimates of risk and side-effects and benefits. (Take my modafinil page: in 1997, how could an average person get their hands on any of the papers available up to that point? Or get detailed info like the FDA’s prescribing guide? Even assuming they had a computer & Internet?)

Many of the most popular “smart drugs” (Piracetam, Sulbutiamine, Ginkgo Biloba, etc.) have been around for decades or even millenia but are still known only in medical circles or among esoteric practicioners of herbal medicine. Why is this? If these compounds have proven cognitive benefits, why are they not ubiquitous? How come every grade-school child gets fluoride for the development of their teeth (despite fluoride’s being a known neurotoxin) but not, say, Piracetam for the development of their brains? Why does the nightly news slant stories to appeal more to a fear-of-change than the promise of a richer cognitive future?

Following up on the promising but unrandomized pilot, I began randomizing my LLLT usage since I worried that more productive days were causing use rather than vice-versa. I began on 2 August 2014, and the last day was 3 March 2015 (n=167); this was twice the sample size I thought I needed, and I stopped, as before, as part of cleaning up (I wanted to know whether to get rid of it or not). The procedure was simple: by noon, I flipped a bit and either did or did not use my LED device; if I was distracted or didn’t get around to randomization by noon, I skipped the day. This was an unblinded experiment because finding a randomized on/off switch is tricky/expensive and it was easier to just start the experiment already. The question is simple too: controlling for the simultaneous blind magnesium experiment & my rare nicotine use (I did not use modafinil during this period or anything else I expect to have major influence), is the pilot correlation of d=0.455 on my daily self-ratings borne out by the experiment?


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.
The truth is, taking a smart pill will not allow you to access information that you have not already learned. If you speak English, a smart drug cannot embed the Spanish dictionary into your brain. In other words, they won't make you smarter or more intelligent. We need to throttle back our expectations and explore reality. What advantage can smart drugs provide? Brain enhancing substances have excellent health and cognitive benefits that are worth exploring.

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.
That doesn’t necessarily mean all smart drugs – now and in the future – will be harmless, however. The brain is complicated. In trying to upgrade it, you risk upsetting its intricate balance. “It’s not just about more, it’s about having to be exquisitely and exactly right. And that’s very hard to do,” says Arnstein. “What’s good for one system may be bad for another system,” adds Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “It’s clear from the experimental literature that you can affect memory with pharmacological agents, but the problem is keeping them safe.”
Herbal supplements have been used for centuries to treat a wide range of medical conditions. Studies have shown that certain herbs may improve memory and cognition, and they can be used to help fight the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. These herbs are considered safe when taken in normal doses, but care should be taken as they may interfere with other medications.
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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.

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.
Many laboratory tasks have been developed to study working memory, each of which taxes to varying degrees aspects such as the overall capacity of working memory, its persistence over time, and its resistance to interference either from task-irrelevant stimuli or among the items to be retained in working memory (i.e., cross-talk). Tasks also vary in the types of information to be retained in working memory, for example, verbal or spatial information. The question of which of these task differences correspond to differences between distinct working memory systems and which correspond to different ways of using a single underlying system is a matter of debate (e.g., D’Esposito, Postle, & Rypma, 2000; Owen, 2000). For the present purpose, we ignore this question and simply ask, Do MPH and d-AMP affect performance in the wide array of tasks that have been taken to operationalize working memory? If the literature does not yield a unanimous answer to this question, then what factors might be critical in determining whether stimulant effects are manifest?
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.”
Took pill #6 at 12:35 PM. Hard to be sure. I ultimately decided that it was Adderall because I didn’t have as much trouble as I normally would in focusing on reading and then finishing my novel (Surface Detail) despite my family watching a movie, though I didn’t notice any lack of appetite. Call this one 60-70% Adderall. I check the next evening and it was Adderall.
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.
Recent developments include biosensor-equipped smart pills that sense the appropriate environment and location to release pharmacological agents. Medimetrics (Eindhoven, Netherlands) has developed a pill called IntelliCap with drug reservoir, pH and temperature sensors that release drugs to a defined region of the gastrointestinal tract. This device is CE marked and is in early stages of clinical trials for FDA approval. Recently, Google announced its intent to invest and innovate in this space.
I do recommend a few things, like modafinil or melatonin, to many adults, albeit with misgivings about any attempt to generalize like that. (It’s also often a good idea to get powders, see the appendix.) Some of those people are helped; some have told me that they tried and the suggestion did little or nothing. I view nootropics as akin to a biological lottery; one good discovery pays for all. I forge on in the hopes of further striking gold in my particular biology. Your mileage will vary. All you have to do, all you can do is to just try it. Most of my experiences were in my 20s as a right-handed 5’11 white male weighing 190-220lbs, fitness varying over time from not-so-fit to fairly fit. In rough order of personal effectiveness weighted by costs+side-effects, I rank them as follows:
We can read off the results from the table or graph: the nicotine days average 1.1% higher, for an effect size of 0.24; however, the 95% credible interval (equivalent of confidence interval) goes all the way from 0.93 to -0.44, so we cannot exclude 0 effect and certainly not claim confidence the effect size must be >0.1. Specifically, the analysis gives a 66% chance that the effect size is >0.1. (One might wonder if any increase is due purely to a training effect - getting better at DNB. Probably not25.)
Table 3 lists the results of 24 tasks from 22 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on learning, assessed by a variety of declarative and nondeclarative memory tasks. Results for the 24 tasks are evenly split between enhanced learning and null results, but they yield a clearer pattern when the nature of the learning task and the retention interval are taken into account. In general, with single exposures of verbal material, no benefits are seen immediately following learning, but later recall and recognition are enhanced. Of the six articles reporting on memory performance (Camp-Bruno & Herting, 1994; Fleming, Bigelow, Weinberger, & Goldberg, 1995; Rapoport, Busbaum, & Weingartner, 1980; Soetens, D’Hooge, & Hueting, 1993; Unrug, Coenen, & van Luijtelaar, 1997; Zeeuws & Soetens 2007), encompassing eight separate experiments, only one of the experiments yielded significant memory enhancement at short delays (Rapoport et al., 1980). In contrast, retention was reliably enhanced by d-AMP when subjects were tested after longer delays, with recall improved after 1 hr through 1 week (Soetens, Casaer, D’Hooge, & Hueting, 1995; Soetens et al., 1993; Zeeuws & Soetens, 2007). Recognition improved after 1 week in one study (Soetens et al., 1995), while another found recognition improved after 2 hr (Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007). The one long-term memory study to examine the effects of MPH found a borderline-significant reduction in errors when subjects answered questions about a story (accompanied by slides) presented 1 week before (Brignell, Rosenthal, & Curran, 2007).
There is no clear answer to this question. Many of the smart drugs have decades of medical research and widespread use behind them, as well as only minor, manageable, or nonexistent side effects, but are still used primarily as a crutch for people already experiencing cognitive decline, rather than as a booster-rocket for people with healthy brains. Unfortunately, there is a bias in Western medicine in favor of prescribing drugs once something bad has already begun, rather than for up-front prevention. There’s also the principle of “leave well enough alone” – in this case, extended to mean, don’t add unnecessary or unnatural drugs to the human body in place of a normal diet. [Smart Drug Smarts would argue that the average human diet has strayed so far from what is physiologically “normal” that leaving well enough alone is already a failed proposition.]
Because these drugs modulate important neurotransmitter systems such as dopamine and noradrenaline, users take significant risks with unregulated use. There has not yet been any definitive research into modafinil's addictive potential, how its effects might change with prolonged sleep deprivation, or what side effects are likely at doses outside the prescribed range.
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…
“Certain people might benefit from certain combinations of certain things,” he told me. “But across populations, there is still no conclusive proof that substances of this class improve cognitive functions.” And with no way to reliably measure the impact of a given substance on one’s mental acuity, one’s sincere beliefs about “what works” probably have a lot to do with, say, how demanding their day was, or whether they ate breakfast, or how susceptible they are to the placebo effect.

Critics will often highlight ethical issues and the lack of scientific evidence for these drugs. Ethical arguments typically take the form of “tampering with nature.” Alena Buyx discusses this argument in a neuroethics project called Smart Drugs: Ethical Issues. She says that critics typically ask if it is ethically superior to accept what is “given” instead of striving for what is “made”. My response to this is simple. Just because it is natural does not mean it is superior.


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.
So is there a future in smart drugs? Some scientists are more optimistic than others. Gary Lynch, a professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine argues that recent advances in neuroscience have opened the way for the smart design of drugs, configured for specific biological targets in the brain. “Memory enhancement is not very far off,” he says, although the prospects for other kinds of mental enhancement are “very difficult to know… To me, there’s an inevitability to the thing, but a timeline is difficult.”
I have also tried to get in contact with senior executives who have experience with these drugs (either themselves or in their firms), but without success. I have to wonder: Are they completely unaware of the drugs’ existence? Or are they actively suppressing the issue? For now, companies can ignore the use of smart drugs. And executives can pretend as if these drugs don’t exist in their workplaces. But they can’t do it forever.
Many people quickly become overwhelmed by the volume of information and number of products on the market. Because each website claims its product is the best and most effective, it is easy to feel confused and unable to decide. Smart Pill Guide is a resource for reliable information and independent reviews of various supplements for brain enhancement.

Several studies have assessed the effect of MPH and d-AMP on tasks tapping various other aspects of spatial working memory. Three used the spatial working memory task from the CANTAB battery of neuropsychological tests (Sahakian & Owen, 1992). In this task, subjects search for a target at different locations on a screen. Subjects are told that locations containing a target in previous trials will not contain a target in future trials. Efficient performance therefore requires remembering and avoiding these locations in addition to remembering and avoiding locations already searched within a trial. Mehta et al. (2000) found evidence of greater accuracy with MPH, and Elliott et al. (1997) found a trend for the same. In Mehta et al.’s study, this effect depended on subjects’ working memory ability: the lower a subject’s score on placebo, the greater the improvement on MPH. In Elliott et al.’s study, MPH enhanced performance for the group of subjects who received the placebo first and made little difference for the other group. The reason for this difference is unclear, but as mentioned above, this may reflect ability differences between the groups. More recently, Clatworthy et al. (2009) undertook a positron emission tomography (PET) study of MPH effects on two tasks, one of which was the CANTAB spatial working memory task. They failed to find consistent effects of MPH on working memory performance but did find a systematic relation between the performance effect of the drug in each individual and its effect on individuals’ dopamine activity in the ventral striatum.


Finally, two tasks measuring subjects’ ability to control their responses to monetary rewards were used by de Wit et al. (2002) to assess the effects of d-AMP. When subjects were offered the choice between waiting 10 s between button presses for high-probability rewards, which would ultimately result in more money, and pressing a button immediately for lower probability rewards, d-AMP did not affect performance. However, when subjects were offered choices between smaller rewards delivered immediately and larger rewards to be delivered at later times, the normal preference for immediate rewards was weakened by d-AMP. That is, subjects were more able to resist the impulse to choose the immediate reward in favor of the larger reward.
Before you try nootropics, I suggest you start with the basics: get rid of the things in your diet and life that reduce cognitive performance first. That is easiest. Then, add in energizers like Brain Octane and clean up your diet. Then, go for the herbals and the natural nootropics. Use the pharmaceuticals selectively only after you’ve figured out your basics.
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