Taken together, these considerations suggest that the cognitive effects of stimulants for any individual in any task will vary based on dosage and will not easily be predicted on the basis of data from other individuals or other tasks. Optimizing the cognitive effects of a stimulant would therefore require, in effect, a search through a high-dimensional space whose dimensions are dose; individual characteristics such as genetic, personality, and ability levels; and task characteristics. The mixed results in the current literature may be due to the lack of systematic optimization.


Many of the food-derived ingredients that are often included in nootropics—omega-3s in particular, but also flavonoids—do seem to improve brain health and function. But while eating fatty fish, berries and other healthy foods that are high in these nutrients appears to be good for your brain, the evidence backing the cognitive benefits of OTC supplements that contain these and other nutrients is weak.

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.
Nootrobox co-founder Geoffrey Woo declines a caffeinated drink in favour of a capsule of his newest product when I meet him in a San Francisco coffee shop. The entire industry has a “wild west” aura about it, he tells me, and Nootrobox wants to fix it by pushing for “smarter regulation” so safe and effective drugs that are currently unclassified can be brought into the fold. Predictably, both companies stress the higher goal of pushing forward human cognition. “I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created,” says Nootroo founder Eric Matzner.

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.
The abuse of drugs is something that can lead to large negative outcomes. If you take Ritalin (Methylphenidate) or Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) but don’t have ADHD, you may experience more focus. But what many people don’t know is that the drug is very similar to amphetamines. And the use of Ritalin is associated with serious adverse events of drug dependence, overdose and suicide attempts [80]. Taking a drug for another reason than originally intended is stupid, irresponsible and very dangerous.
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).
Low level laser therapy (LLLT) is a curious treatment based on the application of a few minutes of weak light in specific near-infrared wavelengths (the name is a bit of a misnomer as LEDs seem to be employed more these days, due to the laser aspect being unnecessary and LEDs much cheaper). Unlike most kinds of light therapy, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with circadian rhythms or zeitgebers. Proponents claim efficacy in treating physical injuries, back pain, and numerous other ailments, recently extending it to case studies of mental issues like brain fog. (It’s applied to injured parts; for the brain, it’s typically applied to points on the skull like F3 or F4.) And LLLT is, naturally, completely safe without any side effects or risk of injury.
“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.
One curious thing that leaps out looking at the graphs is that the estimated underlying standard deviations differ: the nicotine days have a strikingly large standard deviation, indicating greater variability in scores - both higher and lower, since the means weren’t very different. The difference in standard deviations is just 6.6% below 0, so the difference almost reaches our usual frequentist levels of confidence too, which we can verify by testing:
Phenylpiracetam (Phenotropil) is one of the best smart drugs in the racetam family. It has the highest potency and bioavailability among racetam nootropics. This substance is almost the same as Piracetam; only it contains a phenyl group molecule. The addition to its chemical structure improves blood-brain barrier permeability. This modification allows Phenylpiracetam to work faster than other racetams. Its cognitive enhancing effects can last longer as well.
The easiest way to use 2mg was to use half a gum; I tried not chewing it but just holding it in my cheek. The first night I tried, this seemed to work well for motivation; I knocked off a few long-standing to-do items. Subsequently, I began using it for writing, where it has been similarly useful. One difficult night, I wound up using the other half (for a total of 4mg over ~5 hours), and it worked but gave me a fairly mild headache and a faint sensation of nausea; these may have been due to forgetting to eat dinner, but this still indicates 3mg should probably be my personal ceiling until and unless tolerance to lower doses sets in.

Evidence in support of the neuroprotective effects of flavonoids has increased significantly in recent years, although to date much of this evidence has emerged from animal rather than human studies. Nonetheless, with a view to making recommendations for future good practice, we review 15 existing human dietary intervention studies that have examined the effects of particular types of flavonoid on cognitive performance. The studies employed a total of 55 different cognitive tests covering a broad range of cognitive domains. Most studies incorporated at least one measure of executive function/working memory, with nine reporting significant improvements in performance as a function of flavonoid supplementation compared to a control group. However, some domains were overlooked completely (e.g. implicit memory, prospective memory), and for the most part there was little consistency in terms of the particular cognitive tests used making across study comparisons difficult. Furthermore, there was some confusion concerning what aspects of cognitive function particular tests were actually measuring. Overall, while initial results are encouraging, future studies need to pay careful attention when selecting cognitive measures, especially in terms of ensuring that tasks are actually sensitive enough to detect treatment effects.
Many over the counter and prescription smart drugs fall under the category of stimulants. These substances contribute to an overall feeling of enhanced alertness and attention, which can improve concentration, focus, and learning. While these substances are often considered safe in moderation, taking too much can cause side effects such as decreased cognition, irregular heartbeat, and cardiovascular problems.
Two variants of the Towers of London task were used by Elliott et al. (1997) to study the effects of MPH on planning. The object of this task is for subjects to move game pieces from one position to another while adhering to rules that constrain the ways in which they can move the pieces, thus requiring subjects to plan their moves several steps ahead. Neither version of the task revealed overall effects of the drug, but one version showed impairment for the group that received the drug first, and the other version showed enhancement for the group that received the placebo first.
The data from 2-back and 3-back tasks are more complex. Three studies examined performance in these more challenging tasks and found no effect of d-AMP on average performance (Mattay et al., 2000, 2003; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007). However, in at least two of the studies, the overall null result reflected a mixture of reliably enhancing and impairing effects. Mattay et al. (2000) examined the performance of subjects with better and worse working memory capacity separately and found that subjects whose performance on placebo was low performed better on d-AMP, whereas subjects whose performance on placebo was high were unaffected by d-AMP on the 2-back and impaired on the 3-back tasks. Mattay et al. (2003) replicated this general pattern of data with subjects divided according to genotype. The specific gene of interest codes for the production of Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), an enzyme that breaks down dopamine and norepinephrine. A common polymorphism determines the activity of the enzyme, with a substitution of methionine for valine at Codon 158 resulting in a less active form of COMT. The met allele is thus associated with less breakdown of dopamine and hence higher levels of synaptic dopamine than the val allele. Mattay et al. (2003) found that subjects who were homozygous for the val allele were able to perform the n-back faster with d-AMP; those homozygous for met were not helped by the drug and became significantly less accurate in the 3-back condition with d-AMP. In the case of the third study finding no overall effect, analyses of individual differences were not reported (Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007).
The surveys just reviewed indicate that many healthy, normal students use prescription stimulants to enhance their cognitive performance, based in part on the belief that stimulants enhance cognitive abilities such as attention and memorization. Of course, it is possible that these users are mistaken. One possibility is that the perceived cognitive benefits are placebo effects. Another is that the drugs alter students’ perceptions of the amount or quality of work accomplished, rather than affecting the work itself (Hurst, Weidner, & Radlow, 1967). A third possibility is that stimulants enhance energy, wakefulness, or motivation, which improves the quality and quantity of work that students can produce with a given, unchanged, level of cognitive ability. To determine whether these drugs enhance cognition in normal individuals, their effects on cognitive task performance must be assessed in relation to placebo in a masked study design.
Imagine a pill you can take to speed up your thought processes, boost your memory, and make you more productive. If it sounds like the ultimate life hack, you’re not alone. There are pills that promise that out there, but whether they work is complicated. Here are the most popular cognitive enhancers available, and what science actually says about them.

After I ran out of creatine, I noticed the increased difficulty, and resolved to buy it again at some point; many months later, there was a Smart Powders sale so bought it in my batch order, $12 for 1000g. As before, it made Taekwondo classes a bit easier. I paid closer attention this second time around and noticed that as one would expect, it only helped with muscular fatigue and did nothing for my aerobic issues. (I hate aerobic exercise, so it’s always been a weak point.) I eventually capped it as part of a sulbutiamine-DMAE-creatine-theanine mix. This ran out 1 May 2013. In March 2014, I spent $19 for 1kg of micronized creatine monohydrate to resume creatine use and also to use it as a placebo in a honey-sleep experiment testing Seth Roberts’s claim that a few grams of honey before bedtime would improve sleep quality: my usual flour placebo being unusable because the mechanism might be through simple sugars, which flour would digest into. (I did not do the experiment: it was going to be a fair amount of messy work capping the honey and creatine, and I didn’t believe Roberts’s claims for a second - my only reason to do it would be to prove the claim wrong but he’d just ignore me and no one else cares.) I didn’t try measuring out exact doses but just put a spoonful in my tea each morning (creatine is tasteless). The 1kg lasted from 25 March to 18 September or 178 days, so ~5.6g & $0.11 per day.
How should the mixed results just summarized be interpreted vis-á-vis the cognitive-enhancing potential of prescription stimulants? One possibility is that d-AMP and MPH enhance cognition, including the retention of just-acquired information and some or all forms of executive function, but that the enhancement effect is small. If this were the case, then many of the published studies were underpowered for detecting enhancement, with most samples sizes under 50. It follows that the observed effects would be inconsistent, a mix of positive and null findings.
Feeling behind, I resolved to take some armodafinil the next morning, which I did - but in my hurry I failed to recall that 200mg armodafinil was probably too much to take during the day, with its long half life. As a result, I felt irritated and not that great during the day (possibly aggravated by some caffeine - I wish some studies would be done on the possible interaction of modafinil and caffeine so I knew if I was imagining it or not). Certainly not what I had been hoping for. I went to bed after midnight (half an hour later than usual), and suffered severe insomnia. The time wasn’t entirely wasted as I wrote a short story and figured out how to make nicotine gum placebos during the hours in the dark, but I could have done without the experience. All metrics omitted because it was a day usage.

The absence of a suitable home for this needed research on the current research funding landscape exemplifies a more general problem emerging now, as applications of neuroscience begin to reach out of the clinical setting and into classrooms, offices, courtrooms, nurseries, marketplaces, and battlefields (Farah, 2011). Most of the longstanding sources of public support for neuroscience research are dedicated to basic research or medical applications. As neuroscience is increasingly applied to solving problems outside the medical realm, it loses access to public funding. The result is products and systems reaching the public with less than adequate information about effectiveness and/or safety. Examples include cognitive enhancement with prescription stimulants, event-related potential and fMRI-based lie detection, neuroscience-based educational software, and anti-brain-aging computer programs. Research and development in nonmedical neuroscience are now primarily the responsibility of private corporations, which have an interest in promoting their products. Greater public support of nonmedical neuroscience research, including methods of cognitive enhancement, will encourage greater knowledge and transparency concerning the efficacy and safety of these products and will encourage the development of products based on social value rather than profit value.
A week later: Golden Sumatran, 3 spoonfuls, a more yellowish powder. (I combined it with some tea dregs to hopefully cut the flavor a bit.) Had a paper to review that night. No (subjectively noticeable) effect on energy or productivity. I tried 4 spoonfuls at noon the next day; nothing except a little mental tension, for lack of a better word. I think that was just the harbinger of what my runny nose that day and the day before was, a head cold that laid me low during the evening.
The leadership position in the market is held by the Americas. The region has favorable reimbursement policies and a high rate of incidence for chronic and lifestyle diseases which has impacted the market significantly. Moreover, the region's developed economies have a strong affinity toward the adoption of highly advanced technology. This falls in line with these countries well-develop healthcare sectors.
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.
So, I thought I might as well experiment since I have it. I put the 23 remaining pills into gel capsules with brown rice as filling, made ~30 placebo capsules, and will use the one-bag blinding/randomization method. I don’t want to spend the time it would take to n-back every day, so I will simply look for an effect on my daily mood/productivity self-rating; hopefully Noopept will add a little on average above and beyond my existing practices like caffeine+piracetam (yes, Noopept may be as good as piracetam, but since I still have a ton of piracetam from my 3kg order, I am primarily interested in whether Noopept adds onto piracetam rather than replaces). 10mg doses seem to be on the low side for Noopept users, weakening the effect, but on the other hand, if I were to take 2 capsules at a time, then I’d halve the sample size; it’s not clear what is the optimal tradeoff between dose and n for statistical power.
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).
But perhaps the biggest difference between Modafinil and other nootropics like Piracetam, according to Patel, is that Modafinil studies show more efficacy in young, healthy people, not just the elderly or those with cognitive deficits. That’s why it’s great for (and often prescribed to) military members who are on an intense tour, or for those who can’t get enough sleep for physiological reasons. One study, by researchers at Imperial College London, and published in Annals of Surgery, even showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
It isn’t unlikely to hear someone from Silicon Valley say the following: “I’ve just cycled off a stack of Piracetam and CDP-Choline because I didn’t get the mental acuity I was expecting. I will try a blend of Noopept and Huperzine A for the next two weeks and see if I can increase my output by 10%. We don’t have immortality yet and I would really like to join the three comma club before it’s all over.”

Coconut oil was recommended by Pontus Granström on the Dual N-Back mailing list for boosting energy & mental clarity. It is fairly cheap (~$13 for 30 ounces) and tastes surprisingly good; it has a very bad reputation in some parts, but seems to be in the middle of a rehabilitation. Seth Robert’s Buttermind experiment found no mental benefits to coconut oil (and benefits to eating butter), but I wonder.
Although piracetam has a history of “relatively few side effects,” it has fallen far short of its initial promise for treating any of the illnesses associated with cognitive decline, according to Lon Schneider, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “We don’t use it at all and never have.”
Nootroo and Nootrobox are two San Francisco nootropics startups that launched last year. Their founders come from the tech scene and their products are squarely aimed at the tech crowd seeking the convenience of not having to build their own combinations. Each claims big-name Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors among their users, though neither will name them.
The infinite promise of stacking is why, whatever weight you attribute to the evidence of their efficacy, nootropics will never go away: With millions of potential iterations of brain-enhancing regimens out there, there is always the tantalizing possibility that seekers haven’t found the elusive optimal combination of pills and powders for them—yet. Each “failure” is but another step in the process-of-elimination journey to biological self-actualization, which may be just a few hundred dollars and a few more weeks of amateur alchemy away.
It isn’t unlikely to hear someone from Silicon Valley say the following: “I’ve just cycled off a stack of Piracetam and CDP-Choline because I didn’t get the mental acuity I was expecting. I will try a blend of Noopept and Huperzine A for the next two weeks and see if I can increase my output by 10%. We don’t have immortality yet and I would really like to join the three comma club before it’s all over.”
One curious thing that leaps out looking at the graphs is that the estimated underlying standard deviations differ: the nicotine days have a strikingly large standard deviation, indicating greater variability in scores - both higher and lower, since the means weren’t very different. The difference in standard deviations is just 6.6% below 0, so the difference almost reaches our usual frequentist levels of confidence too, which we can verify by testing:
The search to find more effective drugs to increase mental ability and intelligence capacity with neither toxicity nor serious side effects continues. But there are limitations. Although the ingredients may be separately known to have cognition-enhancing effects, randomized controlled trials of the combined effects of cognitive enhancement compounds are sparse.
Adrafinil is a prodrug for Modafinil, which means it can be metabolized into Modafinil to give you a similar effect. And you can buy it legally just about anywhere. But there are a few downsides. Patel explains that you have to take a lot more to achieve a similar effect as Modafinil, wait longer for it to kick in (45-60 minutes), there are more potential side effects, and there aren’t any other benefits to taking it.
Because smart drugs like modafinil, nicotine, and Adderall come with drawbacks, I developed my own line of nootropics, including Forbose and SmartMode, that’s safe, widely available, and doesn’t require a prescription. Forskolin, found in Forbose, has been a part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation. [8]
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