Stimulants are drugs that accelerate the central nervous system (CNS) activity. They have the power to make us feel more awake, alert and focused, providing us with a needed energy boost. Unfortunately, this class encompasses a wide range of drugs, some which are known solely for their side-effects and addictive properties. This is the reason why many steer away from any stimulants, when in fact some greatly benefit our cognitive functioning and can help treat some brain-related impairments and health issues.
One symptom of Alzheimer's disease is a reduced brain level of the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It is thought that an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease might be to increase brain levels of acetylcholine. Another possible treatment would be to slow the death of neurons that contain acetylcholine. Two drugs, Tacrine and Donepezil, are both inhibitors of the enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) that breaks down acetylcholine. These drugs are approved in the US for treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
Despite some positive findings, a lot of studies find no effects of enhancers in healthy subjects. For instance, although some studies suggest moderate enhancing effects in well-rested subjects, modafinil mostly shows enhancing effects in cases of sleep deprivation. A recent study by Martha Farah and colleagues found that Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) had only small effects on cognition but users believed that their performance was enhanced when compared to placebo.

My first dose on 1 March 2017, at the recommended 0.5ml/1.5mg was miserable, as I felt like I had the flu and had to nap for several hours before I felt well again, requiring 6h to return to normal; after waiting a month, I tried again, but after a week of daily dosing in May, I noticed no benefits; I tried increasing to 3x1.5mg but this immediately caused another afternoon crash/nap on 18 May. So I scrapped my cytisine. Oh well.

The Nature commentary is ivory tower intellectualism at its best. The authors state that society must prepare for the growing demand of such drugs; that healthy adults should be allowed drugs to enhance cognitive ability; that this is "morally equivalent" and no more unnatural than diet, sleep, or the use of computers; that we need an evidence-based approach to evaluate the risks; and that we need legal and ethical policies to ensure fair and equitable use.
It is at the top of the supplement snake oil list thanks to tons of correlations; for a review, see Luchtman & Song 2013 but some specifics include Teenage Boys Who Eat Fish At Least Once A Week Achieve Higher Intelligence Scores, anti-inflammatory properties (see Fish Oil: What the Prescriber Needs to Know on arthritis), and others - Fish oil can head off first psychotic episodes (study; Seth Roberts commentary), Fish Oil May Fight Breast Cancer, Fatty Fish May Cut Prostate Cancer Risk & Walnuts slow prostate cancer, Benefits of omega-3 fatty acids tally up, Serum Phospholipid Docosahexaenonic Acid Is Associated with Cognitive Functioning during Middle Adulthood endless anecdotes.

Smart pills containing Aniracetam may also improve communication between the brain’s hemispheres. This benefit makes Aniracetam supplements ideal for enhancing creativity and stabilizing mood. But, the anxiolytic effects of Aniracetam may be too potent for some. There are reports of some users who find that it causes them to feel unmotivated or sedated. Though, it may not be an issue if you only seek the anti-stress and anxiety-reducing effects.
As expected since most of the data overlaps with the previous LLLT analysis, the LLLT variable correlates strongly; the individual magnesium variables may look a little more questionable but were justified in the magnesium citrate analysis. The Noopept result looks a little surprising - almost zero effect? Let’s split by dose (which was the point of the whole rigmarole of changing dose levels):
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.
Taken together, the available results are mixed, with slightly more null results than overall positive findings of enhancement and evidence of impairment in one reversal learning task. As the effect sizes listed in Table 5 show, the effects when found are generally substantial. When drug effects were assessed as a function of placebo performance, genotype, or self-reported impulsivity, enhancement was found to be greatest for participants who performed most poorly on placebo, had a COMT genotype associated with poorer executive function, or reported being impulsive in their everyday lives. In sum, the effects of stimulants on cognitive control are not robust, but MPH and d-AMP appear to enhance cognitive control in some tasks for some people, especially those less likely to perform well on cognitive control tasks.
“I am nearly four years out from my traumatic brain injury and I have been through 100’s of hours of rehabilitation therapy. I have been surprised by how little attention is given to adequate nutrition for recovering from TBI. I’m always looking for further opportunities to recover and so this book fell into the right hands. Cavin outlines the science and reasoning behind the diet he suggests, but the real power in this book comes when he writes, “WE.” WE can give our brains proper nutrition. Now I’m excited to drink smoothies and eat breakfasts that look like dinners! I will recommend this book to my friends.
Another interpretation of the mixed results in the literature is that, in some cases at least, individual differences in response to stimulants have led to null results when some participants in the sample are in fact enhanced and others are not. This possibility is not inconsistent with the previously mentioned ones; both could be at work. Evidence has already been reviewed that ability level, personality, and COMT genotype modulate the effect of stimulants, although most studies in the literature have not broken their samples down along these dimensions. There may well be other as-yet-unexamined individual characteristics that determine drug response. The equivocal nature of the current literature may reflect a mixture of substantial cognitive-enhancement effects for some individuals, diluted by null effects or even counteracted by impairment in others.
Long-term use is different, and research-backed efficacy is another question altogether. The nootropic market is not regulated, so a company can make claims without getting in trouble for making those claims because they’re not technically selling a drug. This is why it’s important to look for well-known brands and standardized nootropic herbs where it’s easier to calculate the suggested dose and be fairly confident about what you’re taking.
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.
Some people aren’t satisfied with a single supplement—the most devoted self-improvers buy a variety of different compounds online and create their own custom regimens, which they call “stacks.” According to Kaleigh Rogers, writing in Vice last year, companies will now take their customers’ genetic data from 23andMe or another source and use it to recommend the right combinations of smart drugs to optimize each individual’s abilities. The problem with this practice is that there’s no evidence the practice works. (And remember, the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements.) Find out the 9 best foods to boost your brain health.
Jesper Noehr, 30, reels off the ingredients in the chemical cocktail he’s been taking every day before work for the past six months. It’s a mixture of exotic dietary supplements and research chemicals that he says gives him an edge in his job without ill effects: better memory, more clarity and focus and enhanced problem-solving abilities. “I can keep a lot of things on my mind at once,” says Noehr, who is chief technology officer for a San Francisco startup.
Taken together, the available results are mixed, with slightly more null results than overall positive findings of enhancement and evidence of impairment in one reversal learning task. As the effect sizes listed in Table 5 show, the effects when found are generally substantial. When drug effects were assessed as a function of placebo performance, genotype, or self-reported impulsivity, enhancement was found to be greatest for participants who performed most poorly on placebo, had a COMT genotype associated with poorer executive function, or reported being impulsive in their everyday lives. In sum, the effects of stimulants on cognitive control are not robust, but MPH and d-AMP appear to enhance cognitive control in some tasks for some people, especially those less likely to perform well on cognitive control tasks.

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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.
Four of the studies focused on middle and high school students, with varied results. Boyd, McCabe, Cranford, and Young (2006) found a 2.3% lifetime prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use in their sample, and McCabe, Teter, and Boyd (2004) found a 4.1% lifetime prevalence in public school students from a single American public school district. Poulin (2001) found an 8.5% past-year prevalence in public school students from four provinces in the Atlantic region of Canada. A more recent study of the same provinces found a 6.6% and 8.7% past-year prevalence for MPH and AMP use, respectively (Poulin, 2007).
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.)
One last note on tolerance; after the first few days of using smart drugs, just like with other drugs, you may not get the same effects as before. You’ve just experienced the honeymoon period. This is where you feel a large effect the first few times, but after that, you can’t replicate it. Be careful not to exceed recommended doses, and try cycling to get the desired effects again.
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?

Another classic approach to the assessment of working memory is the span task, in which a series of items is presented to the subject for repetition, transcription, or recognition. The longest series that can be reproduced accurately is called the forward span and is a measure of working memory capacity. The ability to reproduce the series in reverse order is tested in backward span tasks and is a more stringent test of working memory capacity and perhaps other working memory functions as well. The digit span task from the Wechsler (1981) IQ test was used in four studies of stimulant effects on working memory. One study showed that d-AMP increased digit span (de Wit et al., 2002), and three found no effects of d-AMP or MPH (Oken, Kishiyama, & Salinsky, 1995; Schmedtje, Oman, Letz, & Baker, 1988; Silber, Croft, Papafotiou, & Stough, 2006). A spatial span task, in which subjects must retain and reproduce the order in which boxes in a scattered spatial arrangement change color, was used by Elliott et al. (1997) to assess the effects of MPH on working memory. For subjects in the group receiving placebo first, MPH increased spatial span. However, for the subjects who received MPH first, there was a nonsignificant opposite trend. The group difference in drug effect is not easily explained. The authors noted that the subjects in the first group performed at an overall lower level, and so, this may be another manifestation of the trend for a larger enhancement effect for less able subjects.
There are seven primary classes used to categorize smart drugs: Racetams, Stimulants, Adaptogens, Cholinergics, Serotonergics, Dopaminergics, and Metabolic Function Smart Drugs. Despite considerable overlap and no clear border in the brain and body’s responses to these substances, each class manifests its effects through a different chemical pathway within the body.

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.
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...
Smart pills containing Aniracetam may also improve communication between the brain’s hemispheres. This benefit makes Aniracetam supplements ideal for enhancing creativity and stabilizing mood. But, the anxiolytic effects of Aniracetam may be too potent for some. There are reports of some users who find that it causes them to feel unmotivated or sedated. Though, it may not be an issue if you only seek the anti-stress and anxiety-reducing effects.

In our list of synthetic smart drugs, Noopept may be the genius pill to rule them all. Up to 1000 times stronger than Piracetam, Noopept may not be suitable for everyone. This nootropic substance requires much smaller doses for enhanced cognitive function. There are plenty of synthetic alternatives to Adderall and prescription ADHD medications. Noopept may be worth a look if you want something powerful over the counter.
Exercise is also important, says Lebowitz. Studies have shown it sharpens focus, elevates your mood and improves concentration. Likewise, maintaining a healthy social life and getting enough sleep are vital, too. Studies have consistently shown that regularly skipping out on the recommended eight hours can drastically impair critical thinking skills and attention.
I noticed what may have been an effect on my dual n-back scores; the difference is not large (▃▆▃▃▂▂▂▂▄▅▂▄▂▃▅▃▄ vs ▃▄▂▂▃▅▂▂▄▁▄▃▅▂▃▂▄▂▁▇▃▂▂▄▄▃▃▂▃▂▂▂▃▄▄▃▆▄▄▂▃▄▃▁▂▂▂▃▂▄▂▁▁▂▄▁▃▂▄) and appears mostly in the averages - Toomim’s quick two-sample t-test gave p=0.23, although a another analysis gives p=0.138112. One issue with this before-after quasi-experiment is that one would expect my scores to slowly rise over time and hence a fish oil after would yield a score increase - the 3.2 point difference could be attributable to that, placebo effect, or random variation etc. But an accidentally noticed effect (d=0.28) is a promising start. An experiment may be worth doing given that fish oil does cost a fair bit each year: randomized blocks permitting an fish-oil-then-placebo comparison would take care of the first issue, and then blinding (olive oil capsules versus fish oil capsules?) would take care of the placebo worry.
Amphetamines have a long track record as smart drugs, from the workaholic mathematician Paul Erdös, who relied on them to get through 19-hour maths binges, to the writer Graham Greene, who used them to write two books at once. More recently, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts in magazines about their widespread use in certain industries, such as journalism, the arts and finance.
If you haven’t seen the movie, imagine unfathomable brain power in capsule form. Picture a drug from another universe. It can transform an unsuccessful couch potato into a millionaire financial mogul. Ingesting the powerful smart pill boosts intelligence and turns you into a prodigy. Its results are instant. Sounds great, right? If only it were real.

Nicotine absorption through the stomach is variable and relatively reduced in comparison with absorption via the buccal cavity and the small intestine. Drinking, eating, and swallowing of tobacco smoke by South American Indians have frequently been reported. Tenetehara shamans reach a state of tobacco narcosis through large swallows of smoke, and Tapirape shams are said to eat smoke by forcing down large gulps of smoke only to expel it again in a rapid sequence of belches. In general, swallowing of tobacco smoke is quite frequently likened to drinking. However, although the amounts of nicotine swallowed in this way - or in the form of saturated saliva or pipe juice - may be large enough to be behaviorally significant at normal levels of gastric pH, nicotine, like other weak bases, is not significantly absorbed.
So what’s the catch? Well, it’s potentially addictive for one. Anything that messes with your dopamine levels can be. And Patel says there are few long-term studies on it yet, so we don’t know how it will affect your brain chemistry down the road, or after prolonged, regular use. Also, you can’t get it very easily, or legally for that matter, if you live in the U.S. It’s classified as a schedule IV controlled substance. That’s where Adrafinil comes in.
The Nature commentary is ivory tower intellectualism at its best. The authors state that society must prepare for the growing demand of such drugs; that healthy adults should be allowed drugs to enhance cognitive ability; that this is "morally equivalent" and no more unnatural than diet, sleep, or the use of computers; that we need an evidence-based approach to evaluate the risks; and that we need legal and ethical policies to ensure fair and equitable use.

Vinpocetine walks a line between herbal and pharmaceutical product. It’s a synthetic derivative of a chemical from the periwinkle plant, and due to its synthetic nature we feel it’s more appropriate as a ‘smart drug’. Plus, it’s illegal in the UK. Vinpocetine is purported to improve cognitive function by improving blood flow to the brain, which is why it's used in some 'study drugs' or 'smart pills'.
Several chemical influences can completely disconnect those circuits so they’re no longer able to excite each other. “That’s what happens when we’re tired, when we’re stressed.” Drugs like caffeine and nicotine enhance the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which helps restore function to the circuits. Hence people drink tea and coffee, or smoke cigarettes, “to try and put [the] prefrontal cortex into a more optimal state”.
I almost resigned myself to buying patches to cut (and let the nicotine evaporate) and hope they would still stick on well enough afterwards to be indistinguishable from a fresh patch, when late one sleepless night I realized that a piece of nicotine gum hanging around on my desktop for a week proved useless when I tried it, and that was the answer: if nicotine evaporates from patches, then it must evaporate from gum as well, and if gum does evaporate, then to make a perfect placebo all I had to do was cut some gum into proper sizes and let the pieces sit out for a while. (A while later, I lost a piece of gum overnight and consumed the full 4mg to no subjective effect.) Google searches led to nothing indicating I might be fooling myself, and suggested that evaporation started within minutes in patches and a patch was useless within a day. Just a day is pushing it (who knows how much is left in a useless patch?), so I decided to build in a very large safety factor and let the gum sit for around a month rather than a single day.
Remember: The strictest definition of nootropics today says that for a substance to be a true brain-boosting nootropic it must have low toxicity and few side effects. Therefore, by definition, a nootropic is safe to use. However, when people start stacking nootropics indiscriminately, taking megadoses, or importing them from unknown suppliers that may have poor quality control, it’s easy for safety concerns to start creeping in.
Sleep itself is an underrated cognition enhancer. It is involved in enhancing long-term memories as well as creativity. For instance, it is well established that during sleep memories are consolidated-a process that "fixes" newly formed memories and determines how they are shaped. Indeed, not only does lack of sleep make most of us moody and low on energy, cutting back on those precious hours also greatly impairs cognitive performance. Exercise and eating well also enhance aspects of cognition. It turns out that both drugs and "natural" enhancers produce similar physiological changes in the brain, including increased blood flow and neuronal growth in structures such as the hippocampus. Thus, cognition enhancers should be welcomed but not at the expense of our health and well being.
Another classic approach to the assessment of working memory is the span task, in which a series of items is presented to the subject for repetition, transcription, or recognition. The longest series that can be reproduced accurately is called the forward span and is a measure of working memory capacity. The ability to reproduce the series in reverse order is tested in backward span tasks and is a more stringent test of working memory capacity and perhaps other working memory functions as well. The digit span task from the Wechsler (1981) IQ test was used in four studies of stimulant effects on working memory. One study showed that d-AMP increased digit span (de Wit et al., 2002), and three found no effects of d-AMP or MPH (Oken, Kishiyama, & Salinsky, 1995; Schmedtje, Oman, Letz, & Baker, 1988; Silber, Croft, Papafotiou, & Stough, 2006). A spatial span task, in which subjects must retain and reproduce the order in which boxes in a scattered spatial arrangement change color, was used by Elliott et al. (1997) to assess the effects of MPH on working memory. For subjects in the group receiving placebo first, MPH increased spatial span. However, for the subjects who received MPH first, there was a nonsignificant opposite trend. The group difference in drug effect is not easily explained. The authors noted that the subjects in the first group performed at an overall lower level, and so, this may be another manifestation of the trend for a larger enhancement effect for less able subjects.
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.)
Hall, Irwin, Bowman, Frankenberger, & Jewett (2005)		Large public university undergraduates (N = 379)	13.7% (lifetime)	27%: use during finals week; 12%: use when party; 15.4%: use before tests; 14%: believe stimulants have a positive effect on academic achievement in the long run		M = 2.06 (SD = 1.19) purchased stimulants from other students; M = 2.81 (SD = 1.40) have been given stimulants by other studentsb

In nootropic stacks, it’s almost always used as a counterbalance to activating ingredients like caffeine. L-Theanine, in combination with caffeine, increases alertness, reaction time, and general attention [40, 41]. At the same time, it reduces possible headaches and removes the jitteriness caused by caffeine [42]. It takes the edge of other nootropic compounds.
As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩

Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants and modafinil. Part of the problem is that getting rats, or indeed students, to do puzzles in laboratories may not be a reliable guide to the drugs’ effects in the wider world. Drugs have complicated effects on individuals living complicated lives. Determining that methylphenidate enhances cognition in rats by acting on their prefrontal cortex doesn’t tell you the potential impact that its effects on mood or motivation may have on human cognition.
Most of the most solid fish oil results seem to meliorate the effects of age; in my 20s, I’m not sure they are worth the cost. But I would probably resume fish oil in my 30s or 40s when aging really becomes a concern. So the experiment at most will result in discontinuing for a decade. At $X a year, that’s a net present value of sum $ map (\n -> 70 / (1 + 0.05)^n) [1..10] = $540.5.
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.
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