However, when I didn’t stack it with Choline, I would get what users call “racetam headaches.” Choline, as Patel explains, is not a true nootropic, but it’s still a pro-cognitive compound that many take with other nootropics in a stack. It’s an essential nutrient that humans need for functions like memory and muscle control, but we can’t produce it, and many Americans don’t get enough of it. The headaches I got weren’t terribly painful, but they were uncomfortable enough that I stopped taking Piracetam on its own. Even without the headache, though, I didn’t really like the level of focus Piracetam gave me. I didn’t feel present when I used it, even when I tried to mix in caffeine and L-theanine. And while it seemed like I could focus and do my work faster, I was making more small mistakes in my writing, like skipping words. Essentially, it felt like my brain was moving faster than I could.
If stimulants truly enhance cognition but do so to only a small degree, this raises the question of whether small effects are of practical use in the real world. Under some circumstances, the answer would undoubtedly be yes. Success in academic and occupational competitions often hinges on the difference between being at the top or merely near the top. A scholarship or a promotion that can go to only one person will not benefit the runner-up at all. Hence, even a small edge in the competition can be important.
A “smart pill” is a drug that increases the cognitive ability of anyone taking it, whether the user is cognitively impaired or normal. The Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu Giurgea is often credited with first proposing, in the 1960s, that smart pills should be developed to increase the intelligence of the general population (see Giurgea, 1984). He is quoted as saying, “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain” (Gazzaniga, 2005, p. 71). In their best-selling book, Smart Drugs and Nutrients, Dean and Morgenthaler (1990) reviewed a large number of substances that have been used by healthy individuals with the goal of increasing cognitive ability. These include synthetic and natural products that affect neurotransmitter levels, neurogenesis, and blood flow to the brain. Although many of these substances have their adherents, none have become widely used. Caffeine and nicotine may be exceptions to this generalization, as one motivation among many for their use is cognitive enhancement (Julien, 2001).
For illustration, consider amphetamines, Ritalin, and modafinil, all of which have been proposed as cognitive enhancers of attention. These drugs exhibit some positive effects on cognition, especially among individuals with lower baseline abilities. However, individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance following drug treatment (for details, see de Jongh, Bolt, Schermer, & Olivier, 2008). For instance, Randall, Shneerson, and File (2005) found that modafinil improved performance only among individuals with lower IQ, not among those with higher IQ. [See also Finke et al 2010 on visual attention.] Farah, Haimm, Sankoorikal, & Chatterjee 2009 found a similar nonlinear relationship of dose to response for amphetamines in a remote-associates task, with low-performing individuals showing enhanced performance but high-performing individuals showing reduced performance. Such ∩-shaped dose-response curves are quite common (see Cools & Robbins, 2004)
More than once I have seen results indicating that high-IQ types benefit the least from random nootropics; nutritional deficits are the premier example, because high-IQ types almost by definition suffer from no major deficiencies like iodine. But a stimulant modafinil may be another such nootropic (see Cognitive effects of modafinil in student volunteers may depend on IQ, Randall et al 2005), which mentions:
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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.
Only two of the eight experiments reviewed in this section found that stimulants enhanced performance, on a nonverbal fluency task in one case and in Raven’s Progressive Matrices in the other. The small number of studies of any given type makes it difficult to draw general conclusions about the underlying executive function systems that might be influenced.
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.)
Another ingredient used in this formula is GABA or Gamma-Aminobutyric acid; it’s the second most common neurotransmitter found in the human brain. Being an inhibitory neurotransmitter it helps calm and reduce neuronal activity; this calming effect makes GABA an excellent ingredient in anti-anxiety medication. Lecithin is another ingredient found in Smart Pill and is a basic compound found in every cell of the body, with cardiovascular benefits it can also help restore the liver. Another effect is that it works with neurological functions such as memory or attention, thus improving brain Effectiveness.
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You have the highest density of mitochondria in your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps to explain why I feel Unfair Advantage in my head first. You have the second highest density in your heart, which is probably why I feel it in the center of my chest next. Mitochondrial energizers can have profound nootropic effects! At higher doses mitochondrial energizers also make for an excellent pre-workout supplements.
Let's start with the basics of what smart drugs are and what they aren't. The field of cosmetic psychopharmacology is still in its infancy, but the use of smart drugs is primed to explode during our lifetimes, as researchers gain increasing understanding of which substances affect the brain and how they do so. For many people, the movie Limitless was a first glimpse into the possibility of "a pill that can make you smarter," and while that fiction is a long way from reality, the possibilities - in fact, present-day certainties visible in the daily news - are nevertheless extremely exciting.
At this point I began to get bored with it and the lack of apparent effects, so I began a pilot trial: I’d use the LED set for 10 minutes every few days before 2PM, record, and in a few months look for a correlation with my daily self-ratings of mood/productivity (for 2.5 years I’ve asked myself at the end of each day whether I did more, the usual, or less work done that day than average, so 2=below-average, 3=average, 4=above-average; it’s ad hoc, but in some factor analyses I’ve been playing with, it seems to load on a lot of other variables I’ve measured, so I think it’s meaningful).
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Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes. Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals. The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.
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Googling, you sometimes see correlational studies like Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men and Women Is Associated with Better Cognitive Test Performance; in this one, the correlated performance increase from eating chocolate was generally fairly modest (say, <10%), and the maximum effects were at 10g/day of what was probably milk chocolate, which generally has 10-40% chocolate liquor in it, suggesting any experiment use 1-4g. More interesting is the blind RCT experiment Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort11, which found improvements at ~1g; the most dramatic improvement of the 4 tasks (on the Threes correct) saw a difference of 2 to 6 at the end of the hour of testing, while several of the other tests converged by the end or saw the controls winning (Sevens correct). Crews et al 2008 found no cognitive benefit, and an fMRI experiment found the change in brain oxygen levels it wanted but no improvement to reaction times.
The soft gels are very small; one needs to be a bit careful - Vitamin D is fat-soluble and overdose starts in the range of 70,000 IU35, so it would take at least 14 pills, and it’s unclear where problems start with chronic use. Vitamin D, like many supplements, follows a U-shaped response curve (see also Melamed et al 2008 and Durup et al 2012) - too much can be quite as bad as too little. Too little, though, is likely very bad. The previously cited studies with high acute doses worked out to <1,000 IU a day, so they may reassure us about the risks of a large acute dose but not tell us much about smaller chronic doses; the mortality increases due to too-high blood levels begin at ~140nmol/l and reading anecdotes online suggest that 5k IU daily doses tend to put people well below that (around 70-100nmol/l). I probably should get a blood test to be sure, but I have something of a needle phobia.
Absorption of nicotine across biological membranes depends on pH. Nicotine is a weak base with a pKa of 8.0 (Fowler, 1954). In its ionized state, such as in acidic environments, nicotine does not rapidly cross membranes…About 80 to 90% of inhaled nicotine is absorbed during smoking as assessed using C14-nicotine (Armitage et al., 1975). The efficacy of absorption of nicotine from environmental smoke in nonsmoking women has been measured to be 60 to 80% (Iwase et al., 1991)…The various formulations of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), such as nicotine gum, transdermal patch, nasal spray, inhaler, sublingual tablets, and lozenges, are buffered to alkaline pH to facilitate the absorption of nicotine through cell membranes. Absorption of nicotine from all NRTs is slower and the increase in nicotine blood levels more gradual than from smoking (Table 1). This slow increase in blood and especially brain levels results in low abuse liability of NRTs (Henningfield and Keenan, 1993; West et al., 2000). Only nasal spray provides a rapid delivery of nicotine that is closer to the rate of nicotine delivery achieved with smoking (Sutherland et al., 1992; Gourlay and Benowitz, 1997; Guthrie et al., 1999). The absolute dose of nicotine absorbed systemically from nicotine gum is much less than the nicotine content of the gum, in part, because considerable nicotine is swallowed with subsequent first-pass metabolism (Benowitz et al., 1987). Some nicotine is also retained in chewed gum. A portion of the nicotine dose is swallowed and subjected to first-pass metabolism when using other NRTs, inhaler, sublingual tablets, nasal spray, and lozenges (Johansson et al., 1991; Bergstrom et al., 1995; Lunell et al., 1996; Molander and Lunell, 2001; Choi et al., 2003). Bioavailability for these products with absorption mainly through the mucosa of the oral cavity and a considerable swallowed portion is about 50 to 80% (Table 1)…Nicotine is poorly absorbed from the stomach because it is protonated (ionized) in the acidic gastric fluid, but is well absorbed in the small intestine, which has a more alkaline pH and a large surface area. Following the administration of nicotine capsules or nicotine in solution, peak concentrations are reached in about 1 h (Benowitz et al., 1991; Zins et al., 1997; Dempsey et al., 2004). The oral bioavailability of nicotine is about 20 to 45% (Benowitz et al., 1991; Compton et al., 1997; Zins et al., 1997). Oral bioavailability is incomplete because of the hepatic first-pass metabolism. Also the bioavailability after colonic (enema) administration of nicotine (examined as a potential therapy for ulcerative colitis) is low, around 15 to 25%, presumably due to hepatic first-pass metabolism (Zins et al., 1997). Cotinine is much more polar than nicotine, is metabolized more slowly, and undergoes little, if any, first-pass metabolism after oral dosing (Benowitz et al., 1983b; De Schepper et al., 1987; Zevin et al., 1997).
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.”
First off, overwhelming evidence suggests that smart drugs actually work. A meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Oxford showed that Modafinil has significant cognitive benefits for those who do not suffer from sleep deprivation. The drug improves their ability to plan and make decisions and has a positive effect on learning and creativity. Another study, by researchers at Imperial College London, showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
Racetams, specifically Piracetam, an ingredient popular in over-the-counter nootropics, are synthetic stimulants designed to improve brain function. Patel notes Piracetam is the granddaddy of all racetams, and the term “nootropic” was originally coined to describe its effects. However, despite its popularity and how long it’s been around and in use, researchers don’t know what its mechanism of action is. Patel explained that the the most prominent hypothesis suggests Piracetam enhances neuronal function by increasing membrane fluidity in the brain, but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. And Patel elaborated that most studies on Piracetam aren’t done with the target market for nootropics in mind, the young professional:
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.
Similarly, we could try applying Nick Bostrom’s reversal test and ask ourselves, how would we react to a virus which had no effect but to eliminate sleep from alternating nights and double sleep in the intervening nights? We would probably grouch about it for a while and then adapt to our new hedonistic lifestyle of partying or working hard. On the other hand, imagine the virus had the effect of eliminating normal sleep but instead, every 2 minutes, a person would fall asleep for a minute. This would be disastrous! Besides the most immediate problems like safely driving vehicles, how would anything get done? You would hold a meeting and at any point, a third of the participants would be asleep. If the virus made it instead 2 hours on, one hour off, that would be better but still problematic: there would be constant interruptions. And so on, until we reach our present state of 16 hours on, 8 hours off. Given that we rejected all the earlier buffer sizes, one wonders if 16:8 can be defended as uniquely suited to circumstances. Is that optimal? It may be, given the synchronization with the night-day cycle, but I wonder; rush hour alone stands as an argument against synchronized sleep - wouldn’t our infrastructure would be much cheaper if it only had to handle the average daily load rather than cope with the projected peak loads? Might not a longer cycle be better? The longer the day, the less we are interrupted by sleep; it’s a hoary cliche about programmers that they prefer to work in long sustained marathons during long nights rather than sprint occasionally during a distraction-filled day, to the point where some famously adopt a 28 hour day (which evenly divides a week into 6 days). Are there other occupations which would benefit from a 20 hour waking period? Or 24 hour waking period? We might not know because without chemical assistance, circadian rhythms would overpower anyone attempting such schedules. It certainly would be nice if one had long time chunks in which could read a challenging book in one sitting, without heroic arrangements.↩
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?)
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.
Nature magazine conducted a poll asking its readers about their cognitive-enhancement practices and their attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. Hundreds of college faculty and other professionals responded, and approximately one fifth reported using drugs for cognitive enhancement, with Ritalin being the most frequently named (Maher, 2008). However, the nature of the sample—readers choosing to answer a poll on cognitive enhancement—is not representative of the academic or general population, making the results of the poll difficult to interpret. By analogy, a poll on Vermont vacations, asking whether people vacation in Vermont, what they think about Vermont, and what they do if and when they visit, would undoubtedly not yield an accurate estimate of the fraction of the population that takes its vacations in Vermont.
Regardless, while in the absence of piracetam, I did notice some stimulant effects (somewhat negative - more aggressive than usual while driving) and similar effects to piracetam, I did not notice any mental performance beyond piracetam when using them both. The most I can say is that on some nights, I seemed to be less easily tired when writing or editing or n-backing (and I felt less tired than ICON 2011 than ICON 2010), but those were also often nights I was also trying out all the other things I had gotten in that order from Smart Powders, and I am still dis-entangling what was responsible. (Probably the l-theanine or sulbutiamine.)
If you want to make sure that whatever you’re taking is safe, search for nootropics that have been backed by clinical trials and that have been around long enough for any potential warning signs about that specific nootropic to begin surfacing. There are supplements and nootropics that have been tested in a clinical setting, so there are options out there.
Racetams are the best-known smart drugs on the market, and have decades of widespread use behind them. Piracetam is a leading smart drug, commonly prescribed to seniors with Alzheimer’s or pre-dementia symptoms – but studies have shown Piracetam’s beneficial effects extend to people of all ages, as young as university students. The Racetams speed up chemical exchange between brain cells. Effects include increases in verbal learning, mental clarity, and general IQ. Other members of the Racetam family include Pramiracetam, Oxiracetam, аnԁ Aniracetam, which differ from Piracetam primarily in their potency, not their actual effects.
One fairly powerful nootropic substance that, appropriately, has fallen out of favor is nicotine. It’s the chemical that gives tobacco products their stimulating kick. It isn’t what makes them so deadly, but it does make smoking very addictive. When Europeans learned about tobacco’s use from indigenous tribes they encountered in the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, they got hooked on its mood-altering effects right away and even believed it could cure joint pain, epilepsy, and the plague. Recently, researchers have been testing the effects of nicotine that’s been removed from tobacco, and they believe that it might help treat neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia; it may also improve attention and focus. But, please, don’t start smoking or vaping. Check out these 14 weird brain exercises that make you smarter.
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…
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Perceptual–motor congruency was the basis of a study by Fitzpatrick et al. (1988) in which subjects had to press buttons to indicate the location of a target stimulus in a display. In the simple condition, the left-to-right positions of the buttons are used to indicate the left-to-right positions of the stimuli, a natural mapping that requires little cognitive control. In the rotation condition, the mapping between buttons and stimulus positions is shifted to the right by one and wrapped around, such that the left-most button is used to indicate the right-most position. Cognitive control is needed to resist responding with the other, more natural mapping. MPH was found to speed responses in this task, and the speeding was disproportionate for the rotation condition, consistent with enhancement of cognitive control.
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…Phenethylamine is intrinsically a stimulant, although it doesn’t last long enough to express this property. In other words, it is rapidly and completely destroyed in the human body. It is only when a number of substituent groups are placed here or there on the molecule that this metabolic fate is avoided and pharmacological activity becomes apparent.
As shown in Table 6, two of these are fluency tasks, which require the generation of as large a set of unique responses as possible that meet the criteria given in the instructions. Fluency tasks are often considered tests of executive function because they require flexibility and the avoidance of perseveration and because they are often impaired along with other executive functions after prefrontal damage. In verbal fluency, subjects are asked to generate as many words that begin with a specific letter as possible. Neither Fleming et al. (1995), who administered d-AMP, nor Elliott et al. (1997), who administered MPH, found enhancement of verbal fluency. However, Elliott et al. found enhancement on a more complex nonverbal fluency task, the sequence generation task. Subjects were able to touch four squares in more unique orders with MPH than with placebo.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that gastrointestinal diseases affect between 60 and 70 million Americans every year. This translates into tens of millions of endoscopy procedures. Millions of colonoscopy procedures are also performed to diagnose or screen for colorectal cancers. Conventional, rigid scopes used for these procedures are uncomfortable for patients and may cause internal bruising or lead to infection because of reuse on different patients. Smart pills eliminate the need for invasive procedures: wireless communication allows the transmission of real-time information; advances in batteries and on-board memory make them useful for long-term sensing from within the body. The key application areas of smart pills are discussed below.
But notice that most of the cost imbalance is coming from the estimate of the benefit of IQ - if it quadrupled to a defensible $8000, that would be close to the experiment cost! So in a way, what this VoI calculation tells us is that what is most valuable right now is not that iodine might possibly increase IQ, but getting a better grip on how much any IQ intervention is worth.
The stop-signal task has been used in a number of laboratories to study the effects of stimulants on cognitive control. In this task, subjects are instructed to respond as quickly as possible by button press to target stimuli except on certain trials, when the target is followed by a stop signal. On those trials, they must try to avoid responding. The stop signal can follow the target stimulus almost immediately, in which case it is fairly easy for subjects to cancel their response, or it can come later, in which case subjects may fail to inhibit their response. The main dependent measure for stop-signal task performance is the stop time, which is the average go reaction time minus the interval between the target and stop signal at which subjects inhibit 50% of their responses. De Wit and colleagues have published two studies of the effects of d-AMP on this task. De Wit, Crean, and Richards (2000) reported no significant effect of the drug on stop time for their subjects overall but a significant effect on the half of the subjects who were slowest in stopping on the baseline trials. De Wit et al. (2002) found an overall improvement in stop time in addition to replicating their earlier finding that this was primarily the result of enhancement for the subjects who were initially the slowest stoppers. In contrast, Filmore, Kelly, and Martin (2005) used a different measure of cognitive control in this task, simply the number of failures to stop, and reported no effects of d-AMP.
Does little alone, but absolutely necessary in conjunction with piracetam. (Bought from Smart Powders.) When turning my 3kg of piracetam into pills, I decided to avoid the fishy-smelling choline and go with 500g of DMAE (Examine.com); it seemed to work well when I used it before with oxiracetam & piracetam, since I had no piracetam headaches, and be considerably less bulky.
Null results are generally less likely to be published. Consistent with the operation of such a bias in the present literature, the null results found in our survey were invariably included in articles reporting the results of multiple tasks or multiple measures of a single task; published single-task studies with exclusively behavioral measures all found enhancement. This suggests that some single-task studies with null results have gone unreported. The present mixed results are consistent with those of other recent reviews that included data from normal subjects, using more limited sets of tasks or medications (Advokat, 2010; Chamberlain et al., 2010; Repantis, Schlattmann, Laisney, & Heuser, 2010).
Our 2nd choice for a Brain and Memory supplement is Clari-T by Life Seasons. We were pleased to see that their formula included 3 of the 5 necessary ingredients Huperzine A, Phosphatidylserine and Bacopin. In addition, we liked that their product came in a vegetable capsule. The product contains silica and rice bran, though, which we are not sure is necessary.
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.
There is much to be appreciated in a brain supplement like BrainPill (never mind the confusion that may stem from the generic-sounding name) that combines tried-and-tested ingredients in a single one-a-day formulation. The consistency in claims and what users see in real life is an exemplary one, which convinces us to rate this powerhouse as the second on this review list. Feeding one’s brain with nootropics and related supplements entails due diligence in research and seeking the highest quality, and we think BrainPill is up to task. Learn More...
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?
Besides Adderall, I also purchased on Silk Road 5x250mg pills of armodafinil. The price was extremely reasonable, 1.5btc or roughly $23 at that day’s exchange rate; I attribute the low price to the seller being new and needing feedback, and offering a discount to induce buyers to take a risk on him. (Buyers bear a large risk on Silk Road since sellers can easily physically anonymize themselves from their shipment, but a buyer can be found just by following the package.) Because of the longer active-time, I resolved to test the armodafinil not during the day, but with an all-nighter.
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for researchers to know just how common the “smart drug” or “neuro-enhancing” lifestyle is. However, a few recent studies suggest cognition hacking is appealing to a growing number of people. A survey conducted in 2016 found that 15% of University of Oxford students were popping pills to stay competitive, a rate that mirrored findings from other national surveys of UK university students. In the US, a 2014 study found that 18% of sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Ivy League colleges had knowingly used a stimulant at least once during their academic career, and among those who had ever used uppers, 24% said they had popped a little helper on eight or more occasions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pharmacological enhancement is also on the rise within the workplace, where modafinil, which treats sleep disorders, has become particularly popular.
We started hearing the buzz when Daytime TV Doctors, started touting these new pills that improve concentration, memory recall, focus, mental clarity and energy. And though we love the good Doctor and his purple gloves, we don’t love the droves of hucksters who prey on his loyal viewers trying to make a quick buck, often selling low-grade versions of his medical discoveries.
Adaptogens are plant-derived chemicals whose activity helps the body maintain or regain homeostasis (equilibrium between the body’s metabolic processes). Almost without exception, adaptogens are available over-the-counter as dietary supplements, not controlled drugs. Well-known adaptogens include Ginseng, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, St. Johns Wort, and Gotu Kola. Many of these traditional remedies border on being “folk wisdom,” and have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years, and are used to treat everything from anxiety and mild depression to low libido. While these smart drugs work in a many different ways (their commonality is their resultant function within the body, not their chemical makeup), it can generally be said that the cognitive boost users receive is mostly a result of fixing an imbalance in people with poor diets, body toxicity, or other metabolic problems, rather than directly promoting the growth of new brain cells or neural connections.
Finally, a workforce high on stimulants wouldn’t necessarily be more productive overall. “One thinks ‘are these things dangerous?’ – and that’s important to consider in the short term,” says Huberman. “But there’s also a different question, which is: ‘How do you feel the day afterwards?’ Maybe you’re hyper-focused for four hours, 12 hours, but then you’re below baseline for 24 or 48.”
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.
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.”
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.
^ EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies; European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy (2011). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to L-theanine from Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze (tea) and improvement of cognitive function (ID 1104, 1222, 1600, 1601, 1707, 1935, 2004, 2005), alleviation of psychological stress (ID 1598, 1601), maintenance of normal sleep (ID 1222, 1737, 2004) and reduction of menstrual discomfort (ID 1599) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006". EFSA Journal. 9 (6): 2238. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2238.