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.)
Methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, is a stimulant first synthesised in the 1940s. More accurately, it’s a psychostimulant - often prescribed for ADHD - that is intended as a drug to help focus and concentration. It also reduces fatigue and (potentially) enhances cognition. Similar to Modafinil, Ritalin is believed to reduce dissipation of dopamine to help focus. Ritalin is a Class B drug in the UK, and possession without a prescription can result in a 5 year prison sentence. Please note: Side Effects Possible. See this article for more on Ritalin.
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.
When it comes to coping with exam stress or meeting that looming deadline, the prospect of a "smart drug" that could help you focus, learn and think faster is very seductive. At least this is what current trends on university campuses suggest. Just as you might drink a cup of coffee to help you stay alert, an increasing number of students and academics are turning to prescription drugs to boost academic performance.
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.
My intent here is not to promote illegal drugs or promote the abuse of prescription drugs. In fact, I have identified which drugs require a prescription. If you are a servicemember and you take a drug (such as Modafinil and Adderall) without a prescription, then you will fail a urinalysis test. Thus, you will most likely be discharged from the military.
Two studies investigated the effects of MPH on reversal learning in simple two-choice tasks (Clatworthy et al., 2009; Dodds et al., 2008). In these tasks, participants begin by choosing one of two stimuli and, after repeated trials with these stimuli, learn that one is usually rewarded and the other is usually not. The rewarded and nonrewarded stimuli are then reversed, and participants must then learn to choose the new rewarded stimulus. Although each of these studies found functional neuroimaging correlates of the effects of MPH on task-related brain activity (increased blood oxygenation level-dependent signal in frontal and striatal regions associated with task performance found by Dodds et al., 2008, using fMRI and increased dopamine release in the striatum as measured by increased raclopride displacement by Clatworthy et al., 2009, using PET), neither found reliable effects on behavioral performance in these tasks. The one significant result concerning purely behavioral measures was Clatworthy et al.’s (2009) finding that participants who scored higher on a self-report personality measure of impulsivity showed more performance enhancement with MPH. MPH’s effect on performance in individuals was also related to its effects on individuals’ dopamine activity in specific regions of the caudate nucleus.
Texas-based entrepreneur and podcaster Mansal Denton takes phenylpiracetam, a close relative of piracetam originally developed by the Soviet Union as a medication for cosmonauts, to help them endure the stresses of life in space. “I have a much easier time articulating certain things when I take it, so I typically do a lot of recording [of podcasts] on those days,” he says.
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.

Most research on these nootropics suggest they have some benefits, sure, but as Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir explain in the journal Nature, nobody knows their long-term effects. And we don’t know how extended use might change your brain chemistry in the long run. Researchers are getting closer to what makes these substances do what they do, but very little is certain right now. If you’re looking to live out your own Limitless fantasy, do your research first, and proceed with caution.
The concept of neuroenhancement and the use of substances to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals, is certainly not a new one. In fact, one of the first cognitive enhancement drugs, Piracetam, was developed over fifty years ago by psychologist and chemist C.C. Giurgea. Although he did not know the exact mechanism, Giurgia believed the drug boosted brain power and so began his exploration into "smart pills", or nootropics, a term he coined from the Greek nous, meaning "mind," and trepein, meaning "to bend.  
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:

Smart drugs, formally known as nootropics, are medications, supplements, and other substances that improve some aspect of mental function. In the broadest sense, smart drugs can include common stimulants such as caffeine, herbal supplements like ginseng, and prescription medications for conditions such as ADHD, Alzheimer's disease, and narcolepsy. These substances can enhance concentration, memory, and learning.


A 100mg dose of caffeine (half of a No-Doz or one cup of strong coffee) with 200mg of L-theanine is what the nootropics subreddit recommends in their beginner’s FAQ, and many nootropic sellers, like Peak Nootropics, suggest the same. In my own experiments, I used a pre-packaged combination from Nootrobox called Go Cubes. They’re essentially chewable coffee cubes (not as gross as it sounds) filled with that same beginner dose of caffeine, L-theanine, as well as a few B vitamins thrown into the mix. After eating an entire box of them (12 separate servings—not all at once), I can say eating them made me feel more alert and energetic, but less jittery than my usual three cups of coffee every day. I noticed enough of a difference in the past two weeks that I’ll be looking into getting some L-theanine supplements to take with my daily coffee.
“As a neuro-optometrist who cares for many brain-injured patients experiencing visual challenges that negatively impact the progress of many of their other therapies, Cavin’s book is a god-send! The very basic concept of good nutrition among all the conflicting advertisements and various “new” food plans and diets can be enough to put anyone into a brain fog much less a brain injured survivor! Cavin’s book is straightforward and written from not only personal experience but the validation of so many well-respected contemporary health care researchers and practitioners! I will certainly be recommending this book as a “Survival/Recovery 101” resource for all my patients including those without brain injuries because we all need optimum health and well-being and it starts with proper nourishment! Kudos to Cavin Balaster!”
Finally, it’s not clear that caffeine results in performance gains after long-term use; homeostasis/tolerance is a concern for all stimulants, but especially for caffeine. It is plausible that all caffeine consumption does for the long-term chronic user is restore performance to baseline. (Imagine someone waking up and drinking coffee, and their performance improves - well, so would the performance of a non-addict who is also slowly waking up!) See for example, James & Rogers 2005, Sigmon et al 2009, and Rogers et al 2010. A cross-section of thousands of participants in the Cambridge brain-training study found caffeine intake showed negligible effect sizes for mean and component scores (participants were not told to use caffeine, but the training was recreational & difficult, so one expects some difference).

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).


(We already saw that too much iodine could poison both adults and children, and of course too little does not help much - iodine would seem to follow a U-curve like most supplements.) The listed doses at iherb.com often are ridiculously large: 10-50mg! These are doses that seems to actually be dangerous for long-term consumption, and I believe these are doses that are designed to completely suffocate the thyroid gland and prevent it from absorbing any more iodine - which is useful as a short-term radioactive fallout prophylactic, but quite useless from a supplementation standpoint. Fortunately, there are available doses at Fitzgerald 2012’s exact dose, which is roughly the daily RDA: 0.15mg. Even the contrarian materials seem to focus on a modest doubling or tripling of the existing RDA, so the range seems relatively narrow. I’m fairly confident I won’t overshoot if I go with 0.15-1mg, so let’s call this 90%.

Natural and herbal nootropics are by far the safest and best smart drugs to ingest. For this reason, they’re worth covering first. Our recommendation is always to stick with natural brain fog cures. Herbal remedies for enhancing mental cognition are often side-effect free. These substances are superior for both long-term safety and effectiveness. They are also well-studied and have deep roots in traditional medicine.


Racetams are often used as a smart drug by finance workers, students, and individuals in high-pressure jobs as a way to help them get into a mental flow state and work for long periods of time. Additionally, the habits and skills that an individual acquires while using a racetam can still be accessed when someone is not taking racetams because it becomes a habit.

The acid is also known to restore the vitamin C and E levels in the body. Alpha Lipoic Acid’s potent antioxidant property protects brain cells from damage during an injury. This helps in making sure that your brain functions normally even if there is any external or internal brain injury. OptiMind, one of the best nootropic supplements that you can find today contains Alpha Lipoic Acid that can help in enhancing your brain’s capabilities.


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.
Common environmental toxins – pesticides, for example – cause your brain to release glutamate (a neurotransmitter). Your brain needs glutamate to function, but when you create too much of it it becomes toxic and starts killing neurons. Oxaloacetate protects rodents from glutamate-induced brain damage.[17] Of course, we need more research to determine whether or not oxaloacetate has the same effect on humans.
A big part is that we are finally starting to apply complex systems science to psycho-neuro-pharmacology and a nootropic approach. The neural system is awesomely complex and old-fashioned reductionist science has a really hard time with complexity. Big companies spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to separate the effects of just a single molecule from placebo – and nootropics invariably show up as “stacks” of many different ingredients (ours, Qualia , currently has 42 separate synergistic nootropics ingredients from alpha GPC to bacopa monnieri and L-theanine). That kind of complex, multi pathway input requires a different methodology to understand well that goes beyond simply what’s put in capsules.
In most cases, cognitive enhancers have been used to treat people with neurological or mental disorders, but there is a growing number of healthy, "normal" people who use these substances in hopes of getting smarter. Although there are many companies that make "smart" drinks, smart power bars and diet supplements containing certain "smart" chemicals, there is little evidence to suggest that these products really work. Results from different laboratories show mixed results; some labs show positive effects on memory and learning; other labs show no effects. There are very few well-designed studies using normal healthy people.
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.
An expert in legal and ethical issues surrounding health care technology, Associate Professor Eric Swirsky suggested that both groups have valid arguments, but that neither group is asking the right questions. Prof Swirsky is the clinical associate professor of biomedical and health information sciences in the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences.
Brain focus pills mostly contain chemical components like L-theanine which is naturally found in green and black tea. It’s associated with enhancing alertness, cognition, relaxation, arousal, and reducing anxiety to a large extent.  Theanine is an amino and glutamic acid that has been proven to be a safe psychoactive substance. Some studies suggest that this compound influences, the expression in the genes present in the brain which is responsible for aggression, fear, and memory. This, in turn, helps in balancing the behavioral responses to stress and also helps in improving specific conditions, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Overall, the studies listed in Table 1 vary in ways that make it difficult to draw precise quantitative conclusions from them, including their definitions of nonmedical use, methods of sampling, and demographic characteristics of the samples. For example, some studies defined nonmedical use in a way that excluded anyone for whom a drug was prescribed, regardless of how and why they used it (Carroll et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Kaloyanides et al., 2007; Low & Gendaszek, 2002; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; McCabe et al., 2004; Rabiner et al., 2009; Shillington et al., 2006; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; Weyandt et al., 2009), whereas others focused on the intent of the user and counted any use for nonmedical purposes as nonmedical use, even if the user had a prescription (Arria et al., 2008; Babcock & Byrne, 2000; Boyd et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Herman-Stahl et al., 2007; Poulin, 2001, 2007; White et al., 2006), and one did not specify its definition (Barrett, Darredeau, Bordy, & Pihl, 2005). Some studies sampled multiple institutions (DuPont et al., 2008; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; Poulin, 2001, 2007), some sampled only one (Babcock & Byrne, 2000; Barrett et al., 2005; Boyd et al., 2006; Carroll et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Kaloyanides et al., 2007; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; McCabe et al., 2004; Shillington et al., 2006; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; White et al., 2006), and some drew their subjects primarily from classes in a single department at a single institution (DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Low & Gendaszek, 2002). With few exceptions, the samples were all drawn from restricted geographical areas. Some had relatively high rates of response (e.g., 93.8%; Low & Gendaszek 2002) and some had low rates (e.g., 10%; Judson & Langdon, 2009), the latter raising questions about sample representativeness for even the specific population of students from a given region or institution.
Kratom (Erowid, Reddit) is a tree leaf from Southeast Asia; it’s addictive to some degree (like caffeine and nicotine), and so it is regulated/banned in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Bhutan among others - but not the USA. (One might think that kratom’s common use there indicates how very addictive it must be, except it literally grows on trees so it can’t be too hard to get.) Kratom is not particularly well-studied (and what has been studied is not necessarily relevant - I’m not addicted to any opiates!), and it suffers the usual herbal problem of being an endlessly variable food product and not a specific chemical with the fun risks of perhaps being poisonous, but in my reading it doesn’t seem to be particularly dangerous or have serious side-effects.
A record of nootropics I have tried, with thoughts about which ones worked and did not work for me. These anecdotes should be considered only as anecdotes, and one’s efforts with nootropics a hobby to put only limited amounts of time into due to the inherent limits of drugs as a force-multiplier compared to other things like programming1; for an ironic counterpoint, I suggest the reader listen to a video of Jonathan Coulton’s I Feel Fantastic while reading.
The advantage of adrafinil is that it is legal & over-the-counter in the USA, so one removes the small legal risk of ordering & possessing modafinil without a prescription, and the retailers may be more reliable because they are not operating in a niche of dubious legality. Based on comments from others, the liver problem may have been overblown, and modafinil vendors post-2012 seem to have become more unstable, so I may give adrafinil (from another source than Antiaging Central) a shot when my modafinil/armodafinil run out.

Federal law classifies most nootropics as dietary supplements, which means that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate manufacturers’ statements about their benefits (as the giant “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” disclaimer on the label indicates). And the types of claims that the feds do allow supplement companies to make are often vague and/or supported by less-than-compelling scientific evidence. “If you find a study that says that an ingredient caused neurons to fire on rat brain cells in a petri dish,” says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “you can probably get away with saying that it ‘enhances memory’ or ‘promotes brain health.’”
Smart pills have huge potential and several important applications, particularly in diagnosis. Smart pills are growing as a highly effective method of endoscopy, particularly for gastrointestinal diseases. Urbanization and rapid lifestyle changes leaning toward unhealthy diets and poor eating habits have led to distinctive increasing lifestyle disorders such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), obesity, and gastric ulcers.
Caffeine keeps you awake, which keeps you coding. It may also be a nootropic, increasing brain-power. Both desirable results. However, it also inhibits vitamin D receptors, and as such decreases the body’s uptake of this-much-needed-vitamin. OK, that’s not so bad, you’re not getting the maximum dose of vitamin D. So what? Well, by itself caffeine may not cause you any problems, but combined with cutting off a major source of the vitamin - the production via sunlight - you’re leaving yourself open to deficiency in double-quick time.
Phenserine, as well as the drugs Aricept and Exelon, which are already on the market, work by increasing the level of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is deficient in people with the disease. A neurotransmitter is a chemical that allows communication between nerve cells in the brain. In people with Alzheimer's disease, many brain cells have died, so the hope is to get the most out of those that remain by flooding the brain with acetylcholine.
A 2015 review of various nutrients and dietary supplements found no convincing evidence of improvements in cognitive performance. While there are “plausible mechanisms” linking these and other food-sourced nutrients to better brain function, “supplements cannot replicate the complexity of natural food and provide all its potential benefits,” says Dr. David Hogan, author of that review and a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary in Canada.

And in his followup work, An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance (discussion). Kurzban seems to have successfully refuted the blood-glucose theory, with few dissenters from commenting researchers. The more recent opinion seems to be that the sugar interventions serve more as a reward-signal indicating more effort is a good idea, not refueling the engine of the brain (which would seem to fit well with research on procrastination).↩


Modafinil is a prescription smart drug most commonly given to narcolepsy patients, as it promotes wakefulness. In addition, users indicate that this smart pill helps them concentrate and boosts their motivation. Owing to Modafinil, the feeling of fatigue is reduced, and people report that their everyday functions improve because they can manage their time and resources better, as a result reaching their goals easier.

Ginsenoside Rg1, a molecule found in the plant genus panax (ginseng), is being increasingly researched as an effect nootropic. Its cognitive benefits including increasing learning ability and memory acquisition, and accelerating neural development. It targets mainly the NMDA receptors and nitric oxide synthase, which both play important roles in personal and emotional intelligence. The authors of the study cited above, say that their research findings thus far have boosted their confidence in a "bright future of cognitive drug development."
These are the most popular nootropics available at the moment. Most of them are the tried-and-tested and the benefits you derive from them are notable (e.g. Guarana). Others are still being researched and there haven’t been many human studies on these components (e.g. Piracetam). As always, it’s about what works for you and everyone has a unique way of responding to different nootropics.
The truth is that, almost 20 years ago when my brain was failing and I was fat and tired, I did not know to follow this advice. I bought $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe, took them all at once out of desperation, and got enough cognitive function to save my career and tackle my metabolic problems. With the information we have now, you don’t need to do that. Please learn from my mistakes!
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