The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.
In addition, while the laboratory research reviewed here is of interest concerning the effects of stimulant drugs on specific cognitive processes, it does not tell us about the effects on cognition in the real world. How do these drugs affect academic performance when used by students? How do they affect the total knowledge and understanding that students take with them from a course? How do they affect various aspects of occupational performance? Similar questions have been addressed in relation to students and workers with ADHD (Barbaresi, Katusic, Colligan, Weaver, & Jacobsen, 2007; Halmøy, Fasmer, Gillberg, & Haavik, 2009; see also Advokat, 2010) but have yet to be addressed in the context of cognitive enhancement of normal individuals.
Gibson and Green (2002), talking about a possible link between glucose and cognition, wrote that research in the area …is based on the assumption that, since glucose is the major source of fuel for the brain, alterations in plasma levels of glucose will result in alterations in brain levels of glucose, and thus neuronal function. However, the strength of this notion lies in its common-sense plausibility, not in scientific evidence… (p. 185).

Vitamin B12 is also known as Cobalamin and is a water-soluble essential vitamin.  A (large) deficiency of Vitamin B12 will ultimately lead to cognitive impairment [52]. Older people and people who don’t eat meat are at a higher risk than young people who eat more meat. And people with depression have less Vitamin B12 than the average population [53].
Some data suggest that cognitive enhancers do improve some types of learning and memory, but many other data say these substances have no effect. The strongest evidence for these substances is for the improvement of cognitive function in people with brain injury or disease (for example, Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury). Although "popular" books and companies that sell smart drugs will try to convince you that these drugs work, the evidence for any significant effects of these substances in normal people is weak. There are also important side-effects that must be considered. Many of these substances affect neurotransmitter systems in the central nervous system. The effects of these chemicals on neurological function and behavior is unknown. Moreover, the long-term safety of these substances has not been adequately tested. Also, some substances will interact with other substances. A substance such as the herb ma-huang may be dangerous if a person stops taking it suddenly; it can also cause heart attacks, stroke, and sudden death. Finally, it is important to remember that products labeled as "natural" do not make them "safe."

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.
With all these studies pointing to the nootropic benefits of some essential oils, it can logically be concluded then that some essential oils can be considered “smart drugs.” However, since essential oils have so much variety and only a small fraction of this wide range has been studied, it cannot be definitively concluded that absolutely all essential oils have brain-boosting benefits. The connection between the two is strong, however.
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.

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.
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.

l-theanine (Examine.com) is occasionally mentioned on Reddit or Imminst or LessWrong32 but is rarely a top-level post or article; this is probably because theanine was discovered a very long time ago (>61 years ago), and it’s a pretty straightforward substance. It’s a weak relaxant/anxiolytic (Google Scholar) which is possibly responsible for a few of the health benefits of tea, and which works synergistically with caffeine (and is probably why caffeine delivered through coffee feels different from the same amount consumed in tea - in one study, separate caffeine and theanine were a mixed bag, but the combination beat placebo on all measurements). The half-life in humans seems to be pretty short, with van der Pijl 2010 putting it ~60 minutes. This suggests to me that regular tea consumption over a day is best, or at least that one should lower caffeine use - combining caffeine and theanine into a single-dose pill has the problem of caffeine’s half-life being much longer so the caffeine will be acting after the theanine has been largely eliminated. The problem with getting it via tea is that teas can vary widely in their theanine levels and the variations don’t seem to be consistent either, nor is it clear how to estimate them. (If you take a large dose in theanine like 400mg in water, you can taste the sweetness, but it’s subtle enough I doubt anyone can actually distinguish the theanine levels of tea; incidentally, r-theanine - the useless racemic other version - anecdotally tastes weaker and less sweet than l-theanine.)
Sometimes called smart drugs, brain boosters, or memory-enhancing drugs, the term "nootropics" was coined by scientist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, who developed the compound piracetam as a brain enhancer, according to The Atlantic. The word is derived from the Greek noo, meaning mind, and trope, which means "change" in French. In essence, all nootropics aim to change your mind by enhancing functions like memory or attention.
In the United States, people consume more coffee than fizzy drink, tea and juice combined. Alas, no one has ever estimated its impact on economic growth – but plenty of studies have found myriad other benefits. Somewhat embarrassingly, caffeine has been proven to be better than the caffeine-based commercial supplement that Woo’s company came up with, which is currently marketed at $17.95 for 60 pills.
Given the size of the literature just reviewed, it is surprising that so many basic questions remain open. Although d-AMP and MPH appear to enhance retention of recently learned information and, in at least some individuals, also enhance working memory and cognitive control, there remains great uncertainty regarding the size and robustness of these effects and their dependence on dosage, individual differences, and specifics of the task.
Among the questions to be addressed in the present article are, How widespread is the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement? Who uses them, for what specific purposes? Given that nonmedical use of these substances is illegal, how are they obtained? Furthermore, do these substances actually enhance cognition? If so, what aspects of cognition do they enhance? Is everyone able to be enhanced, or are some groups of healthy individuals helped by these drugs and others not? The goal of this article is to address these questions by reviewing and synthesizing findings from the existing scientific literature. We begin with a brief overview of the psychopharmacology of the two most commonly used prescription stimulants.
Nootropics – sometimes called smart drugs – are compounds that enhance brain function. They’re becoming a popular way to give your mind an extra boost. According to one Telegraph report, up to 25% of students at leading UK universities have taken the prescription smart drug modafinil [1], and California tech startup employees are trying everything from Adderall to LSD to push their brains into a higher gear [2].
*Disclaimer: No statements on this website have been reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration. No products mentioned on this website are intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any diseases. brs.brainreference.com is sponsored by BRS Publishers. All editorials on this site were written by editors compensated by BRS Publishers and do not claim or state to be medical professionals giving medical advice. This website is only for the purpose of providing information. Please consult with your doctor before starting any mental health program or dietary supplement. All product pictures were photographed by us and used in conjunction with stock photos who are representing lab technicians and not doctors. If you feel any of this information is inaccurate contact us and we will verify and implement your correction within about 48 business hours. Also note that we have multiple affiliates and we are paid commission on various products by different companies. If you wish to advertise with us, please contact us. Any and all trademarks, logos and service marks displayed on this site are registered or unregistered Trademarks of their respective owners.
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
Nootropics are becoming increasingly popular as a tool for improving memory, information recall, and focus. Though research has not yet determined the mechanism for how nootropics work, it is clear that they provide significant cognitive benefits. Additionally, through a variety of hypothesized biological mechanisms, these compounds are thought to have the potential to improve vision.

…researchers have added a new layer to the smart pill conversation. Adderall, they’ve found, makes you think you’re doing better than you actually are….Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job….But the results of the new University of Pennsylvania study, funded by the U.S. Navy and not yet published but presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference last month, are consistent with much of the existing research. As a group, no overall statistically-significant improvement or impairment was seen as a result of taking Adderall. The research team tested 47 subjects, all in their 20s, all without a diagnosis of ADHD, on a variety of cognitive functions, from working memory-how much information they could keep in mind and manipulate-to raw intelligence, to memories for specific events and faces….The last question they asked their subjects was: How and how much did the pill influence your performance on today’s tests? Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job on the tasks they’d been given, even though their performance did not show an improvement over that of those who had taken the placebo. According to Irena Ilieva…it’s the first time since the 1960s that a study on the effects of amphetamine, a close cousin of Adderall, has asked how subjects perceive the effect of the drug on their performance.
If you could take a pill that would help you study and get better grades, would you? Off-label use of “smart drugs” – pharmaceuticals meant to treat disorders like ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s – are becoming increasingly popular among college students hoping to get ahead, by helping them to stay focused and alert for longer periods of time. But is this cheating? Should their use as cognitive enhancers be approved by the FDA, the medical community, and society at large? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
Adderall is a mix of 4 amphetamine salts (FDA adverse events), and not much better than the others (but perhaps less addictive); as such, like caffeine or methamphetamine, it is not strictly a nootropic but a cognitive enhancer and can be tricky to use right (for how one should use stimulants, see How To Take Ritalin Correctly). I ordered 10x10mg Adderall IR off Silk Road (Wikipedia). On the 4th day after confirmation from seller, the package arrived. It was a harmless looking little padded mailer. Adderall as promised: 10 blue pills with markings, in a double ziplock baggy (reasonable, it’s not cocaine or anything). They matched pretty much exactly the descriptions of the generic I had found online. (Surprisingly, apparently both the brand name and the generic are manufactured by the same pharmacorp.)

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.
The goal of this article has been to synthesize what is known about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement and what is known about the cognitive effects of these drugs. We have eschewed discussion of ethical issues in favor of simply trying to get the facts straight. Although ethical issues cannot be decided on the basis of facts alone, neither can they be decided without relevant facts. Personal and societal values will dictate whether success through sheer effort is as good as success with pharmacologic help, whether the freedom to alter one’s own brain chemistry is more important than the right to compete on a level playing field at school and work, and how much risk of dependence is too much risk. Yet these positions cannot be translated into ethical decisions in the real world without considerable empirical knowledge. Do the drugs actually improve cognition? Under what circumstances and for whom? Who will be using them and for what purposes? What are the mental and physical health risks for frequent cognitive-enhancement users? For occasional users?
One reason I like modafinil is that it enhances dopamine release, but it binds to your dopamine receptors differently than addictive substances like cocaine and amphetamines do, which may be part of the reason modafinil shares many of the benefits of other stimulants but doesn’t cause addiction or withdrawal symptoms. [3] [4] It does increase focus, problem-solving abilities, and wakefulness, but it is not in the same class of drugs as Adderall, and it is not a classical stimulant. Modafinil is off of patent, so you can get it generically, or order it from India. It’s a prescription drug, so you need to talk to a physician.
×