Of all the smart drugs in the world, Modafinil is most often touted as the best. It’s a powerful cognitive enhancer, great for boosting alertness, and has very few, mild side effects that most healthy users will never experience. And no, you can’t have any. Sorry. Modafinil is a prescription medication used to treat disorders like narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and for those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.

The evidence? Ritalin is FDA-approved to treat ADHD. It has also been shown to help patients with traumatic brain injury concentrate for longer periods, but does not improve memory in those patients, according to a 2016 meta-analysis of several trials. A study published in 2012 found that low doses of methylphenidate improved cognitive performance, including working memory, in healthy adult volunteers, but high doses impaired cognitive performance and a person’s ability to focus. (Since the brains of teens have been found to be more sensitive to the drug’s effect, it’s possible that methylphenidate in lower doses could have adverse effects on working memory and cognitive functions.)
An unusual intervention is infrared/near-infrared light of particular wavelengths (LLLT), theorized to assist mitochondrial respiration and yielding a variety of therapeutic benefits. Some have suggested it may have cognitive benefits. LLLT sounds strange but it’s simple, easy, cheap, and just plausible enough it might work. I tried out LLLT treatment on a sporadic basis 2013-2014, and statistically, usage correlated strongly & statistically-significantly with increases in my daily self-ratings, and not with any sleep disturbances. Excited by that result, I did a randomized self-experiment 2014-2015 with the same procedure, only to find that the causal effect was weak or non-existent. I have stopped using LLLT as likely not worth the inconvenience.
Caffeine keeps you awake, which keeps you coding. It may also be a nootropic, increasing brain-power. Both desirable results. However, it also inhibits vitamin D receptors, and as such decreases the body’s uptake of this-much-needed-vitamin. OK, that’s not so bad, you’re not getting the maximum dose of vitamin D. So what? Well, by itself caffeine may not cause you any problems, but combined with cutting off a major source of the vitamin - the production via sunlight - you’re leaving yourself open to deficiency in double-quick time.

Chocolate or cocoa powder (Examine.com), contains the stimulants caffeine and the caffeine metabolite theobromine, so it’s not necessarily surprising if cocoa powder was a weak stimulant. It’s also a witch’s brew of chemicals such as polyphenols and flavonoids some of which have been fingered as helpful10, which all adds up to an unclear impact on health (once you control for eating a lot of sugar).

If you could take a drug to boost your brainpower, would you? This question, faced by Bradley Cooper’s character in the big-budget movie Limitless, is now facing students who are frantically revising for exams. Although they are nowhere near the strength of the drug shown in the film, mind-enhancing drugs are already on the pharmacy shelves, and many people are finding the promise of sharper thinking through chemistry highly seductive.
When I worked on the Bulletproof Diet book, I wanted to verify that the effects I was getting from Bulletproof Coffee were not coming from modafinil, so I stopped using it and measured my cognitive performance while I was off of it. What I found was that on Bulletproof Coffee and the Bulletproof Diet, my mental performance was almost identical to my performance on modafinil. I still travel with modafinil, and I’ll take it on occasion, but while living a Bulletproof lifestyle I rarely feel the need.

A randomized non-blind self-experiment of LLLT 2014-2015 yields a causal effect which is several times smaller than a correlative analysis and non-statistically-significant/very weak Bayesian evidence for a positive effect. This suggests that the earlier result had been driven primarily by reverse causation, and that my LLLT usage has little or no benefits.

There is evidence to suggest that modafinil, methylphenidate, and amphetamine enhance cognitive processes such as learning and working memory...at least on certain laboratory tasks. One study found that modafinil improved cognitive task performance in sleep-deprived doctors. Even in non-sleep deprived healthy volunteers, modafinil improved planning and accuracy on certain cognitive tasks. Similarly, methylphenidate and amphetamine also enhanced performance of healthy subjects in certain cognitive tasks.

Unfortunately, cognitive enhancement falls between the stools of research funding, which makes it unlikely that such research programs will be carried out. Disease-oriented funders will, by definition, not support research on normal healthy individuals. The topic intersects with drug abuse research only in the assessment of risk, leaving out the study of potential benefits, as well as the comparative benefits of other enhancement methods. As a fundamentally applied research question, it will not qualify for support by funders of basic science. The pharmaceutical industry would be expected to support such research only if cognitive enhancement were to be considered a legitimate indication by the FDA, which we hope would happen only after considerably more research has illuminated its risks, benefits, and societal impact. Even then, industry would have little incentive to delve into all of the issues raised here, including the comparison of drug effects to nonpharmaceutical means of enhancing cognition.
The nonmedical use of substances—often dubbed smart drugs—to increase memory or concentration is known as pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE), and it rose in all 15 nations included in the survey. The study looked at prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin—prescribed medically to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—as well as the sleep-disorder medication modafinil and illegal stimulants such as cocaine.

I decided to try out day-time usage on 2 consecutive days, taking the 100mg at noon or 1 PM. On both days, I thought I did feel more energetic but nothing extraordinary (maybe not even as strong as the nicotine), and I had trouble falling asleep on Halloween, thinking about the meta-ethics essay I had been writing diligently on both days. Not a good use compared to staying up a night.
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The magnesium was neither randomized nor blinded and included mostly as a covariate to avoid confounding (the Noopept coefficient & t-value increase somewhat without the Magtein variable), so an OR of 1.9 is likely too high; in any case, this experiment was too small to reliably detect any effect (~26% power, see bootstrap power simulation in the magnesium section) so we can’t say too much.
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.
Cognitive control is a broad concept that refers to guidance of cognitive processes in situations where the most natural, automatic, or available action is not necessarily the correct one. Such situations typically evoke a strong inclination to respond but require people to resist responding, or they evoke a strong inclination to carry out one type of action but require a different type of action. The sources of these inclinations that must be overridden are various and include overlearning (e.g., the overlearned tendency to read printed words in the Stroop task), priming by recent practice (e.g., the tendency to respond in the go/no-go task when the majority of the trials are go trials, or the tendency to continue sorting cards according to the previously correct dimension in the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test [WCST]; Grant & Berg, 1948) and perceptual salience (e.g., the tendency to respond to the numerous flanker stimuli as opposed to the single target stimulus in the flanker task). For the sake of inclusiveness, we also consider the results of studies of reward processing in this section, in which the response tendency to be overridden comes from the desire to have the reward immediately.
Stimulants are the smart drugs most familiar to people, starting with widely-used psychostimulants caffeine and nicotine, and the more ill-reputed subclass of amphetamines. Stimulant drugs generally function as smart drugs in the sense that they promote general wakefulness and put the brain and body “on alert” in a ready-to-go state. Basically, any drug whose effects reduce drowsiness will increase the functional IQ, so long as the user isn’t so over-stimulated they’re shaking or driven to distraction.
Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)

This mental stimulation is what increases focus and attention span in the user. The FDA permitted treatments for Modafinil include extreme sleepiness and shift work disorder. It can also get prescribed for narcolepsy, and obstructive sleep apnea. Modafinil is not FDA approved for the treatment of ADHD. Yet, many medical professionals feel it is a suitable Adderall alternative.
The smart pill that FDA approved is called Abilify MyCite. This tiny pill has a drug and an ingestible sensor. The sensor gets activated when it comes into contact with stomach fluid to detect when the pill has been taken. The data is then transmitted to a wearable patch that eventually conveys the information to a paired smartphone app. Doctors and caregivers, with the patient’s consent, can then access the data via a web portal.

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).
That is, perhaps light of the right wavelength can indeed save the brain some energy by making it easier to generate ATP. Would 15 minutes of LLLT create enough ATP to make any meaningful difference, which could possibly cause the claimed benefits? The problem here is like that of the famous blood-glucose theory of willpower - while the brain does indeed use up more glucose while active, high activity uses up very small quantities of glucose/energy which doesn’t seem like enough to justify a mental mechanism like weak willpower.↩
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.
Powders are good for experimenting with (easy to vary doses and mix), but not so good for regular taking. I use OO gel capsules with a Capsule Machine: it’s hard to beat $20, it works, it’s not that messy after practice, and it’s not too bad to do 100 pills. However, I once did 3kg of piracetam + my other powders, and doing that nearly burned me out on ever using capsules again. If you’re going to do that much, something more automated is a serious question! (What actually wound up infuriating me the most was when capsules would stick in either the bottom or top try - requiring you to very gingerly pull and twist them out, lest the two halves slip and spill powder - or when the two halves wouldn’t lock and you had to join them by hand. In contrast: loading the gel caps could be done automatically without looking, after some experience.)
“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.
Some cognitive enhancers, such as donepezil and galantamine, are prescribed for elderly patients with impaired reasoning and memory deficits caused by various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease with dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and vascular dementia. Children and young adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often treated with the cognitive enhancers Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts). Persons diagnosed with narcolepsy find relief from sudden attacks of sleep through wake-promoting agents such as Provigil (modafinil). Generally speaking, cognitive enhancers improve working and episodic (event-specific) memory, attention, vigilance, and overall wakefulness but act through different brain systems and neurotransmitters to exert their enhancing effects.
"Where can you draw the line between Red Bull, six cups of coffee and a prescription drug that keeps you more alert," says Michael Schrage of the MIT Center for Digital Business, who has studied the phenomenon. "You can't draw the line meaningfully - some organizations have cultures where it is expected that employees go the extra mile to finish an all-nighter. "
Legal issues aside, this wouldn’t be very difficult to achieve. Many companies already have in-house doctors who give regular health check-ups — including drug tests — which could be employed to control and regulate usage. Organizations could integrate these drugs into already existing wellness programs, alongside healthy eating, exercise, and good sleep.
Many people find it difficult to think clearly when they are stressed out. Ongoing stress leads to progressive mental fatigue and an eventual breakdown. Luckily, there are several ways that nootropics can help relieve stress. One is through the natural promotion of feelings of relaxation and the other is by replenishing the brain chemicals drained by stress.

“Love this book! Still reading and can’t wait to see what else I learn…and I am not brain injured! Cavin has already helped me to take steps to address my food sensitivity…seems to be helping and I am only on day 5! He has also helped me to help a family member who has suffered a stroke. Thank you Cavin, for sharing all your knowledge and hard work with us! This book is for anyone that wants to understand and implement good nutrition with all the latest research to back it up. Highly recommend!”
An unusual intervention is infrared/near-infrared light of particular wavelengths (LLLT), theorized to assist mitochondrial respiration and yielding a variety of therapeutic benefits. Some have suggested it may have cognitive benefits. LLLT sounds strange but it’s simple, easy, cheap, and just plausible enough it might work. I tried out LLLT treatment on a sporadic basis 2013-2014, and statistically, usage correlated strongly & statistically-significantly with increases in my daily self-ratings, and not with any sleep disturbances. Excited by that result, I did a randomized self-experiment 2014-2015 with the same procedure, only to find that the causal effect was weak or non-existent. I have stopped using LLLT as likely not worth the inconvenience.

So, I have started a randomized experiment; should take 2 months, given the size of the correlation. If that turns out to be successful too, I’ll have to look into methods of blinding - for example, some sort of electronic doohickey which turns on randomly half the time and which records whether it’s on somewhere one can’t see. (Then for the experiment, one hooks up the LED, turns the doohickey on, and applies directly to forehead, checking the next morning to see whether it was really on or off).

MPH was developed more recently and marketed primarily for ADHD, although it is sometimes prescribed off label or used nonmedically to increase alertness, energy, or concentration in conditions other than ADHD. Both MPH and AMP are on the list of substances banned from sports competitions by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Docherty, 2008). Both also have the potential for abuse and dependence, which detracts from their usefulness and is the reason for their classification as Schedule II controlled substances. Although the risk of developing dependence on these drugs is believed to be low for individuals taking them for ADHD, the Schedule II classification indicates that these drugs have a high potential for abuse and that abuse may lead to severe dependence.
2 commenters point out that my possible lack of result is due to my mistaken assumption that if nicotine is absorbable through skin, mouth, and lungs it ought to be perfectly fine to absorb it through my stomach by drinking it (rather than vaporizing it and breathing it with an e-cigarette machine) - it’s apparently known that absorption differs in the stomach.
Before you try nootropics, I suggest you start with the basics: get rid of the things in your diet and life that reduce cognitive performance first. That is easiest. Then, add in energizers like Brain Octane and clean up your diet. Then, go for the herbals and the natural nootropics. Use the pharmaceuticals selectively only after you’ve figured out your basics.