Nootropics are a specific group of smart drugs. But nootropics aren’t the only drugs out there that promise you some extra productivity. More students and office workers are using drugs to increase their productivity than ever before [79]. But unlike with nootropics, many have side-effects. And that is precisely what is different between nootropics and other enhancing drugs, nootropics have little to no negative side-effects.
It can easily pass through the blood-brain barrier and is known to protect the nerve tissues present in the brain. There is evidence that the acid plays an instrumental role in preventing strokes in adults by decreasing the number of free radicals in the body.  It increases the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that most Alzheimer’s patients are a deficit in.
Starting from the studies in my meta-analysis, we can try to estimate an upper bound on how big any effect would be, if it actually existed. One of the most promising null results, Southon et al 1994, turns out to be not very informative: if we punch in the number of kids, we find that they needed a large effect size (d=0.81) before they could see anything:
Expect to experience an increase in focus and a drastic reduction in reaction time [11][12][13][14][15][16]. You’ll have an easier time quickly switching between different mental tasks, and will experience an increase in general cognitive ability [17][18]. Queal Flow also improves cognition and motivation, by means of reducing anxiety and stress [19][20][21][22][23]. If you’re using Flow regularly for a longer period of time, it’s also very likely to improve your mental health in the long term (reducing cognitive decline), and might even improve your memory [24][25].
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.
Lebowitz says that if you're purchasing supplements to improve your brain power, you're probably wasting your money. "There is nothing you can buy at your local health food store that will improve your thinking skills," Lebowitz says. So that turmeric latte you've been drinking everyday has no additional brain benefits compared to a regular cup of java.
The chemical Huperzine-A (Examine.com) is extracted from a moss. It is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor (instead of forcing out more acetylcholine like the -racetams, it prevents acetylcholine from breaking down). My experience report: One for the null hypothesis files - Huperzine-A did nothing for me. Unlike piracetam or fish oil, after a full bottle (Source Naturals, 120 pills at 200μg each), I noticed no side-effects, no mental improvements of any kind, and no changes in DNB scores from straight Huperzine-A.
On the other end of the spectrum is the nootropic stack, a practice where individuals create a cocktail or mixture of different smart drugs for daily intake. The mixture and its variety actually depend on the goals of the user. Many users have said that nootropic stacking is more effective for delivering improved cognitive function in comparison to single nootropics.
Spaced repetition at midnight: 3.68. (Graphing preceding and following days: ▅▄▆▆▁▅▆▃▆▄█ ▄ ▂▄▄▅) DNB starting 12:55 AM: 30/34/41. Transcribed Sawaragi 2005, then took a walk. DNB starting 6:45 AM: 45/44/33. Decided to take a nap and then take half the armodafinil on awakening, before breakfast. I wound up oversleeping until noon (4:28); since it was so late, I took only half the armodafinil sublingually. I spent the afternoon learning how to do value of information calculations, and then carefully working through 8 or 9 examples for my various pages, which I published on Lesswrong. That was a useful little project. DNB starting 12:09 AM: 30/38/48. (To graph the preceding day and this night: ▇▂█▆▅▃▃▇▇▇▁▂▄ ▅▅▁▁▃▆) Nights: 9:13; 7:24; 9:13; 8:20; 8:31.
In general, I feel a little bit less alert, but still close to normal. By 6PM, I have a mild headache, but I try out 30 rounds of gbrainy (haven’t played it in months) and am surprised to find that I reach an all-time high; no idea whether this is due to DNB or not, since Gbrainy is very heavily crystallized (half the challenge disappears as you learn how the problems work), but it does indicate I’m not deluding myself about mental ability. (To give a figure: my last score well before I did any DNB was 64, and I was doing well that day; on modafinil, I had a 77.) I figure the headache might be food related, eat, and by 7:30 the headache is pretty much gone and I’m fine up to midnight.
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The price is not as good as multivitamins or melatonin. The studies showing effects generally use pretty high dosages, 1-4g daily. I took 4 capsules a day for roughly 4g of omega acids. The jar of 400 is 100 days’ worth, and costs ~$17, or around 17¢ a day. The general health benefits push me over the edge of favoring its indefinite use, but looking to economize. Usually, small amounts of packaged substances are more expensive than bulk unprocessed, so I looked at fish oil fluid products; and unsurprisingly, liquid is more cost-effective than pills (but like with the powders, straight fish oil isn’t very appetizing) in lieu of membership somewhere or some other price-break. I bought 4 bottles (16 fluid ounces each) for $53.31 total (thanks to coupons & sales), and each bottle lasts around a month and a half for perhaps half a year, or ~$100 for a year’s supply. (As it turned out, the 4 bottles lasted from 4 December 2010 to 17 June 2011, or 195 days.) My next batch lasted 19 August 2011-20 February 2012, and cost $58.27. Since I needed to buy empty 00 capsules (for my lithium experiment) and a book (Stanovich 2010, for SIAI work) from Amazon, I bought 4 more bottles of 16fl oz Nature’s Answer (lemon-lime) at $48.44, which I began using 27 February 2012. So call it ~$70 a year.


The evidence? A 2012 study in Greece found it can boost cognitive function in adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a type of disorder marked by forgetfulness and problems with language, judgement, or planning that are more severe than average “senior moments,” but are not serious enough to be diagnosed as dementia. In some people, MCI will progress into dementia.
Tyrosine (Examine.com) is an amino acid; people on the Imminst.org forums (as well as Wikipedia) suggest that it helps with energy and coping with stress. I ordered 4oz (bought from Smart Powders) to try it out, and I began taking 1g with my usual caffeine+piracetam+choline mix. It does not dissolve easily in hot water, and is very chalky and not especially tasty. I have not noticed any particular effects from it.
Before taking any supplement or chemical, people want to know if there will be long term effects or consequences, When Dr. Corneliu Giurgea first authored the term “nootropics” in 1972, he also outlined the characteristics that define nootropics. Besides the ability to benefit memory and support the cognitive processes, Dr. Giurgea believed that nootropics should be safe and non-toxic.
Power times prior times benefit minus cost of experimentation: (0.20 \times 0.30 \times 540) - 41 = -9. So the VoI is negative: because my default is that fish oil works and I am taking it, weak information that it doesn’t work isn’t enough. If the power calculation were giving us 40% reliable information, then the chance of learning I should drop fish oil is improved enough to make the experiment worthwhile (going from 20% to 40% switches the value from -$9 to +$23.8).
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.)
A number of so-called ‘smart drugs’ or cognitive enhancers have captured attention recently, from stimulants such as modafinil, to amphetamines (often prescribed under the name Adderall) and methylphenidate (also known by its brand name Ritalin). According to widespread news reports, students have begun using these drugs to enhance their performance in school and college, and are continuing to do so in their professional lives.
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”).
I am not alone in thinking of the potential benefits of smart drugs in the military. In their popular novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, P.W. Singer and August Cole tell the story of a future war using drug-like nootropic implants and pills, such as Modafinil. DARPA is also experimenting with neurological technology and enhancements such as the smart drugs discussed here. As demonstrated in the following brain initiatives: Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT), Augmented Cognition, and High-quality Interface Systems such as their Next-Generational Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3).
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.
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.
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.
Popular smart drugs on the market include methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin) and amphetamine (Adderall), stimulants normally used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. In recent years, another drug called modafinil has emerged as the new favourite amongst college students. Primarily used to treat excessive sleepiness associated with the sleep disorder narcolepsy, modafinil increases alertness and energy.
Flow diagram of epidemiology literature search completed July 1, 2010. Search terms were nonmedical use, nonmedical use, misuse, or illicit use, and prescription stimulants, dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, Ritalin, or Adderall. Stages of subsequent review used the information contained in the titles, abstracts, and articles to determine whether articles reported studies of the extent of nonmedical prescription stimulant use by students and related questions addressed in the present article including students’ motives and frequency of use.
In the nearer future, Lynch points to nicotinic receptor agents – molecules that act on the neurotransmitter receptors affected by nicotine – as ones to watch when looking out for potential new cognitive enhancers. Sarter agrees: a class of agents known as α4β2* nicotinic receptor agonists, he says, seem to act on mechanisms that control attention. Among the currently known candidates, he believes they come closest “to fulfilling the criteria for true cognition enhancers.”

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”).


It arrived as described, a little bottle around the volume of a soda can. I had handy a plastic syringe with milliliter units which I used to measure out the nicotine-water into my tea. I began with half a ml the first day, 1ml the second day, and 2ml the third day. (My Zeo sleep scores were 85/103/86 (▁▇▁), and the latter had a feline explanation; these values are within normal variation for me, so if nicotine affects my sleep, it does so to a lesser extent than Adderall.) Subjectively, it’s hard to describe. At half a ml, I didn’t really notice anything; at 1 and 2ml, I thought I began to notice it - sort of a cleaner caffeine. It’s nice so far. It’s not as strong as I expected. I looked into whether the boiling water might be breaking it down, but the answer seems to be no - boiling tobacco is a standard way to extract nicotine, actually, and nicotine’s own boiling point is much higher than water; nor do I notice a drastic difference when I take it in ordinary water. And according to various e-cigarette sources, the liquid should be good for at least a year.
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.
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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