Exercise and nutrition also play an important role in neuroplasticity. Many vitamins and ingredients found naturally in food products have been shown to have cognitive enhancing effects. Some of these include vitamins B6 and B12, caffeine, phenethylamine found in chocolate and l-theanine, found in green tea, whose combined effects with caffeine are more extensively researched.
Over the last few months, as part of a new research project, I have talked with five people who regularly use drugs at work. They are all successful in their jobs, financially secure, in stable relationships, and generally content with their lives. None of them have plans to stop using the drugs, and so far they have kept the secret from their employers. But as their colleagues become more likely to start using the same drugs (people talk, after all), will they continue to do so?
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…The first time I took supplemental potassium (50% US RDA in a lot of water), it was like a brain fog lifted that I never knew I had, and I felt profoundly energized in a way that made me feel exercise was reasonable and prudent, which resulted in me and the roommate that had just supplemented potassium going for an hour long walk at 2AM. Experiences since then have not been quite so profound (which probably was so stark for me as I was likely fixing an acute deficiency), but I can still count on a moderately large amount of potassium to give me a solid, nearly side effect free performance boost for a few hours…I had been doing Bikram yoga on and off, and I think I wasn’t keeping up the practice because I wasn’t able to properly rehydrate myself.
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.
SOURCES: Marvin Hausman, MD, CEO, Axonyx Inc. Axel Unterbeck, PhD, president, chief scientific officer, Memory Pharmaceuticals. Martha Farah, PhD, professor, department of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania. Howard Gardner, PhD, Hobbs Professor of Education and Cognition, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, May 2004. Neurology, July 2002. Alzheimer's Association.
Probably most significantly, use of the term “drug” has a significant negative connotation in our culture. “Drugs” are bad: So proclaimed Richard Nixon in the War on Drugs, and Nancy “No to Drugs” Reagan decades later, and other leaders continuing to present day. The legitimate demonization of the worst forms of recreational drugs has resulted in a general bias against the elective use of any chemical to alter the body’s processes. Drug enhancement of athletes is considered cheating – despite the fact that many of these physiological shortcuts obviously work. University students and professionals seeking mental enhancements by taking smart drugs are now facing similar scrutiny.
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.
Smart pills have huge potential and several important applications, particularly in diagnosis. Smart pills are growing as a highly effective method of endoscopy, particularly for gastrointestinal diseases. Urbanization and rapid lifestyle changes leaning toward unhealthy diets and poor eating habits have led to distinctive increasing lifestyle disorders such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), obesity, and gastric ulcers.
Since coffee drinking may lead to a worsening of calcium balance in humans, we studied the serial changes of serum calcium, PTH, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D (1,25(OH)2D) vitamin D and calcium balance in young and adult rats after daily administration of caffeine for 4 weeks. In the young rats, there was an increase in urinary calcium and endogenous fecal calcium excretion after four days of caffeine administration that persisted for the duration of the experiment. Serum calcium decreased on the fourth day of caffeine administration and then returned to control levels. In contrast, the serum PTH and 1,25(OH)2D remained unchanged initially, but increased after 2 weeks of caffeine administration…In the adult rat group, an increase in the urinary calcium and endogenous fecal calcium excretion and serum levels of PTH was found after caffeine administration. However, the serum 1,25(OH)2D levels and intestinal absorption coefficient of calcium remained the same as in the adult control group.
NGF may sound intriguing, but the price is a dealbreaker: at suggested doses of 1-100μg (NGF dosing in humans for benefits is, shall we say, not an exact science), and a cost from sketchy suppliers of $1210/100μg/$470/500μg/$750/1000μg/$1000/1000μg/$1030/1000μg/$235/20μg. (Levi-Montalcini was presumably able to divert some of her lab’s production.) A year’s supply then would be comically expensive: at the lowest doses of 1-10μg using the cheapest sellers (for something one is dumping into one’s eyes?), it could cost anywhere up to $10,000.
Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless. Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others.
This research is in contrast to the other substances I like, such as piracetam or fish oil. I knew about withdrawal of course, but it was not so bad when I was drinking only tea. And the side-effects like jitteriness are worse on caffeine without tea; I chalk this up to the lack of theanine. (My later experiences with theanine seems to confirm this.) These negative effects mean that caffeine doesn’t satisfy the strictest definition of nootropic (having no negative effects), but is merely a cognitive enhancer (with both benefits & costs). One might wonder why I use caffeine anyway if I am so concerned with mental ability.
Some supplement blends, meanwhile, claim to work by combining ingredients – bacopa, cat's claw, huperzia serrata and oat straw in the case of Alpha Brain, for example – that have some support for boosting cognition and other areas of nervous system health. One 2014 study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggested that huperzia serrata, which is used in China to fight Alzheimer's disease, may help slow cell death and protect against (or slow the progression of) neurodegenerative diseases. The Alpha Brain product itself has also been studied in a company-funded small randomized controlled trial, which found Alpha Brain significantly improved verbal memory when compared to adults who took a placebo.
Hericium erinaceus (Examine.com) was recommended strongly by several on the ImmInst.org forums for its long-term benefits to learning, apparently linked to Nerve growth factor. Highly speculative stuff, and it’s unclear whether the mushroom powder I bought was the right form to take (ImmInst.org discussions seem to universally assume one is taking an alcohol or hotwater extract). It tasted nice, though, and I mixed it into my sleeping pills (which contain melatonin & tryptophan). I’ll probably never know whether the $30 for 0.5lb was well-spent or not.
As for newer nootropic drugs, there are unknown risks. “Piracetam has been studied for decades,” says cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Hill, the founder of a neurofeedback company in Los Angeles called Peak Brain Institute. But “some of [the newer] compounds are things that some random editor found in a scientific article, copied the formula down and sent it to China and had a bulk powder developed three months later that they’re selling. Please don’t take it, people!”

The concept of neuroenhancement and the use of substances to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals, is certainly not a new one. In fact, one of the first cognitive enhancement drugs, Piracetam, was developed over fifty years ago by psychologist and chemist C.C. Giurgea. Although he did not know the exact mechanism, Giurgia believed the drug boosted brain power and so began his exploration into "smart pills", or nootropics, a term he coined from the Greek nous, meaning "mind," and trepein, meaning "to bend.  
An entirely different set of questions concerns cognitive enhancement in younger students, including elementary school and even preschool children. Some children can function adequately in school without stimulants but perform better with them; medicating such children could be considered a form of cognitive enhancement. How often does this occur? What are the roles and motives of parents, teachers, and pediatricians in these cases? These questions have been discussed elsewhere and deserve continued attention (Diller, 1996; Singh & Keller, 2010).
There is no clear answer to this question. Many of the smart drugs have decades of medical research and widespread use behind them, as well as only minor, manageable, or nonexistent side effects, but are still used primarily as a crutch for people already experiencing cognitive decline, rather than as a booster-rocket for people with healthy brains. Unfortunately, there is a bias in Western medicine in favor of prescribing drugs once something bad has already begun, rather than for up-front prevention. There’s also the principle of “leave well enough alone” – in this case, extended to mean, don’t add unnecessary or unnatural drugs to the human body in place of a normal diet. [Smart Drug Smarts would argue that the average human diet has strayed so far from what is physiologically “normal” that leaving well enough alone is already a failed proposition.]
Sounds too good to be true? Welcome to the world of ‘Nootropics’ popularly known as ‘Smart Drugs’ that can help boost your brain’s power. Do you recall the scene from the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s character uses a smart drug that makes him brilliant? Yes! The effect of Nootropics on your brain is such that the results come as a no-brainer.
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.
My predictions were substantially better than random chance7, so my default belief - that Adderall does affect me and (mostly) for the better - is borne out. I usually sleep very well and 3 separate incidents of horrible sleep in a few weeks seems rather unlikely (though I didn’t keep track of dates carefully enough to link the Zeo data with the Adderall data). Between the price and the sleep disturbances, I don’t think Adderall is personally worthwhile.
SOURCES: Marvin Hausman, MD, CEO, Axonyx Inc. Axel Unterbeck, PhD, president, chief scientific officer, Memory Pharmaceuticals. Martha Farah, PhD, professor, department of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania. Howard Gardner, PhD, Hobbs Professor of Education and Cognition, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, May 2004. Neurology, July 2002. Alzheimer's Association.
The abuse liability of caffeine has been evaluated.147,148 Tolerance development to the subjective effects of caffeine was shown in a study in which caffeine was administered at 300 mg twice each day for 18 days.148 Tolerance to the daytime alerting effects of caffeine, as measured by the MSLT, was shown over 2 days on which 250 g of caffeine was given twice each day48 and to the sleep-disruptive effects (but not REM percentage) over 7 days of 400 mg of caffeine given 3 times each day.7 In humans, placebo-controlled caffeine-discontinuation studies have shown physical dependence on caffeine, as evidenced by a withdrawal syndrome.147 The most frequently observed withdrawal symptom is headache, but daytime sleepiness and fatigue are also often reported. The withdrawal-syndrome severity is a function of the dose and duration of prior caffeine use…At higher doses, negative effects such as dysphoria, anxiety, and nervousness are experienced. The subjective-effect profile of caffeine is similar to that of amphetamine,147 with the exception that dysphoria/anxiety is more likely to occur with higher caffeine doses than with higher amphetamine doses. Caffeine can be discriminated from placebo by the majority of participants, and correct caffeine identification increases with dose.147 Caffeine is self-administered by about 50% of normal subjects who report moderate to heavy caffeine use. In post-hoc analyses of the subjective effects reported by caffeine choosers versus nonchoosers, the choosers report positive effects and the nonchoosers report negative effects. Interestingly, choosers also report negative effects such as headache and fatigue with placebo, and this suggests that caffeine-withdrawal syndrome, secondary to placebo choice, contributes to the likelihood of caffeine self-administration. This implies that physical dependence potentiates behavioral dependence to caffeine.

Since the discovery of the effect of nootropics on memory and focus, the number of products on the market has increased exponentially. The ingredients used in a supplement can tell you about the effectiveness of the product. Brain enhancement pills that produce the greatest benefit are formulated with natural vitamins and substances, rather than caffeine and synthetic ingredients. In addition to better results, natural supplements are less likely to produce side effects, compared with drugs formulated with chemical ingredients.
Still, the scientific backing and ingredient sourcing of nootropics on the market varies widely, and even those based in some research won't necessarily immediately, always or ever translate to better grades or an ability to finally crank out that novel. Nor are supplements of any kind risk-free, says Jocelyn Kerl, a pharmacist in Madison, Wisconsin.

“How to Feed a Brain is an important book. It’s the book I’ve been looking for since sustaining multiple concussions in the fall of 2013. I’ve dabbled in and out of gluten, dairy, and (processed) sugar free diets the past few years, but I have never eaten enough nutritious foods. This book has a simple-to-follow guide on daily consumption of produce, meat, and water.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if you are already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.