The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.

While the mechanism is largely unknown, one commonly mechanism possibility is that light of the relevant wavelengths is preferentially absorbed by the protein cytochrome c oxidase, which is a key protein in mitochondrial metabolism and production of ATP, substantially increasing output, and this extra output presumably can be useful for cellular activities like healing or higher performance.
Most diehard nootropic users have considered using racetams for enhancing brain function. Racetams are synthetic nootropic substances first developed in Russia. These smart drugs vary in potency, but they are not stimulants. They are unlike traditional ADHD medications (Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, etc.). Instead, racetams boost cognition by enhancing the cholinergic system.
I largely ignored this since the discussions were of sub-RDA doses, and my experience has usually been that RDAs are a poor benchmark and frequently far too low (consider the RDA for vitamin D). This time, I checked the actual RDA - and was immediately shocked and sure I was looking at a bad reference: there was no way the RDA for potassium was seriously 3700-4700mg or 4-5 grams daily, was there? Just as an American, that implied that I was getting less than half my RDA. (How would I get 4g of potassium in the first place? Eat a dozen bananas a day⸮) I am not a vegetarian, nor is my diet that fantastic: I figured I was getting some potassium from the ~2 fresh tomatoes I was eating daily, but otherwise my diet was not rich in potassium sources. I have no blood tests demonstrating deficiency, but given the figures, I cannot see how I could not be deficient.
Dosage is apparently 5-10mg a day. (Prices can be better elsewhere; selegiline is popular for treating dogs with senile dementia, where those 60x5mg will cost $2 rather than $3531. One needs a veterinarian’s prescription to purchase from pet-oriented online pharmacies, though.) I ordered it & modafinil from Nubrain.com at $35 for 60x5mg; Nubrain delayed and eventually canceled my order - and my enthusiasm. Between that and realizing how much of a premium I was paying for Nubrain’s deprenyl, I’m tabling deprenyl along with nicotine & modafinil for now. Which is too bad, because I had even ordered 20g of PEA from Smart Powders to try out with the deprenyl. (My later attempt to order some off the Silk Road also failed when the seller canceled the order.)
The miniaturization of electronic components has been crucial to smart pill design. As cloud computing and wireless communication platforms are integrated into the health care system, the use of smart pills for monitoring vital signs and medication compliance is likely to increase. In the long term, smart pills are expected to be an integral component of remote patient monitoring and telemedicine. As the call for noninvasive point-of-care testing increases, smart pills will become mainstream devices.

Ethical issues also arise with the use of drugs to boost brain power. Their use as cognitive enhancers isn’t currently regulated. But should it be, just as the use of certain performance-enhancing drugs is regulated for professional athletes? Should universities consider dope testing to check that students aren’t gaining an unfair advantage through drug use? 
Cognition is a suite of mental phenomena that includes memory, attention and executive functions, and any drug would have to enhance executive functions to be considered truly ‘smart’. Executive functions occupy the higher levels of thought: reasoning, planning, directing attention to information that is relevant (and away from stimuli that aren’t), and thinking about what to do rather than acting on impulse or instinct. You activate executive functions when you tell yourself to count to 10 instead of saying something you may regret. They are what we use to make our actions moral and what we think of when we think about what makes us human.

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.
But there are some potential side effects, including headaches, anxiety and insomnia. Part of the way modafinil works is by shifting the brain’s levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters; it’s not clear what effects these shifts may have on a person’s health in the long run, and some research on young people who use modafinil has found changes in brain plasticity that are associated with poorer cognitive function.
On 8 April 2011, I purchased from Smart Powders (20g for $8); as before, some light searching seemed to turn up SP as the best seller given shipping overhead; it was on sale and I planned to cap it so I got 80g. This may seem like a lot, but I was highly confident that theanine and I would get along since I already drink so much tea and was a tad annoyed at the edge I got with straight caffeine. So far I’m pretty happy with it. My goal was to eliminate the physical & mental twitchiness of caffeine, which subjectively it seems to do.
It may also be necessary to ask not just whether a drug enhances cognition, but in whom. Researchers at the University of Sussex have found that nicotine improved performance on memory tests in young adults who carried one variant of a particular gene but not in those with a different version. In addition, there are already hints that the smarter you are, the less smart drugs will do for you. One study found that modafinil improved performance in a group of students whose mean IQ was 106, but not in a group with an average of 115.
So with these 8 results in hand, what do I think? Roughly, I was right 5 of the days and wrong 3 of them. If not for the sleep effect on #4, which is - in a way - cheating (one hopes to detect modafinil due to good effects), the ratio would be 5:4 which is awfully close to a coin-flip. Indeed, a scoring rule ranks my performance at almost identical to a coin flip: -5.49 vs -5.5419. (The bright side is that I didn’t do worse than a coin flip: I was at least calibrated.)
Took random pill at 2:02 PM. Went to lunch half an hour afterwards, talked until 4 - more outgoing than my usual self. I continued to be pretty energetic despite not taking my caffeine+piracetam pills, and though it’s now 12:30 AM and I listened to TAM YouTube videos all day while reading, I feel pretty energetic and am reviewing Mnemosyne cards. I am pretty confident the pill today was Adderall. Hard to believe placebo effect could do this much for this long or that normal variation would account for this. I’d say 90% confidence it was Adderall. I do some more Mnemosyne, typing practice, and reading in a Montaigne book, and finally get tired and go to bed around 1:30 AM or so. I check the baggie when I wake up the next morning, and sure enough, it had been an Adderall pill. That makes me 1 for 2.
At this point, I began thinking about what I was doing. Black-market Adderall is fairly expensive; $4-10 a pill vs prescription prices which run more like $60 for 120 20mg pills. It would be a bad idea to become a fan without being quite sure that it is delivering bang for the buck. Now, why the piracetam mix as the placebo as opposed to my other available powder, creatine powder, which has much smaller mental effects? Because the question for me is not whether the Adderall works (I am quite sure that the amphetamines have effects!) but whether it works better for me than my cheap legal standbys (piracetam & caffeine)? (Does Adderall have marginal advantage for me?) Hence, I want to know whether Adderall is better than my piracetam mix. People frequently underestimate the power of placebo effects, so it’s worth testing. (Unfortunately, it seems that there is experimental evidence that people on Adderall know they are on Adderall and also believe they have improved performance, when they do not5. So the blind testing does not buy me as much as it could.)
Burke says he definitely got the glow. “The first time I took it, I was working on a business plan. I had to juggle multiple contingencies in my head, and for some reason a tree with branches jumped into my head. I was able to place each contingency on a branch, retract and go back to the trunk, and in this visual way I was able to juggle more information.”
I ultimately mixed it in with the 3kg of piracetam and included it in that batch of pills. I mixed it very thoroughly, one ingredient at a time, so I’m not very worried about hot spots. But if you are, one clever way to get accurate caffeine measurements is to measure out a large quantity & dissolve it since it’s easier to measure water than powder, and dissolving guarantees even distribution. This can be important because caffeine is, like nicotine, an alkaloid poison which - the dose makes the poison - can kill in high doses, and concentrated powder makes it easy to take too much, as one inept Englishman discovered the hard way. (This dissolving trick is applicable to anything else that dissolves nicely.)
I have elsewhere remarked on the apparent lack of benefit to taking multivitamins and the possible harm; so one might well wonder about a specific vitamin like vitamin D. However, a multivitamin is not vitamin D, so it’s no surprise that they might do different things. If a multivitamin had no vitamin D in it, or if it had vitamin D in different doses, or if it had substances which interacted with vitamin D (such as calcium), or if it had substances which had negative effects which outweigh the positive (such as vitamin A?), we could well expect differing results. In this case, all of those are true to varying extents. Some multivitamins I’ve had contained no vitamin D. The last multivitamin I was taking both contains vitamins used in the negative trials and also some calcium; the listed vitamin D dosage was a trivial ~400IU, while I take >10x as much now (5000IU).

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.
Another common working memory task is the n-back task, which requires the subject to view a series of items (usually letters) and decide whether the current item is identical to the one presented n items back. This task taxes working memory because the previous items must be held in working memory to be compared with the current item. The easiest version of this is a 1-back task, which is also called a double continuous performance task (CPT) because the subject is continuously monitoring for a repeat or double. Three studies examined the effects of MPH on working memory ability as measured by the 1-back task, and all found enhancement of performance in the form of reduced errors of omission (Cooper et al., 2005; Klorman et al., 1984; Strauss et al., 1984). Fleming et al. (1995) tested the effects of d-AMP on a 5-min CPT and found a decrease in reaction time, but did not specify which version of the CPT was used.
Capsule Connection sells 1000 00 pills (the largest pills) for $9. I already have a pill machine, so that doesn’t count (a sunk cost). If we sum the grams per day column from the first table, we get 9.75 grams a day. Each 00 pill can take around 0.75 grams, so we need 13 pills. (Creatine is very bulky, alas.) 13 pills per day for 1000 days is 13,000 pills, and 1,000 pills is $9 so we need 13 units and 13 times 9 is $117.
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(We already saw that too much iodine could poison both adults and children, and of course too little does not help much - iodine would seem to follow a U-curve like most supplements.) The listed doses at iherb.com often are ridiculously large: 10-50mg! These are doses that seems to actually be dangerous for long-term consumption, and I believe these are doses that are designed to completely suffocate the thyroid gland and prevent it from absorbing any more iodine - which is useful as a short-term radioactive fallout prophylactic, but quite useless from a supplementation standpoint. Fortunately, there are available doses at Fitzgerald 2012’s exact dose, which is roughly the daily RDA: 0.15mg. Even the contrarian materials seem to focus on a modest doubling or tripling of the existing RDA, so the range seems relatively narrow. I’m fairly confident I won’t overshoot if I go with 0.15-1mg, so let’s call this 90%.
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.
Going back to the 1960s, although it was a Romanian chemist who is credited with discovering nootropics, a substantial amount of research on racetams was conducted in the Soviet Union. This resulted in the birth of another category of substances entirely: adaptogens, which, in addition to benefiting cognitive function were thought to allow the body to better adapt to stress.
In contrast to the types of memory discussed in the previous section, which are long-lasting and formed as a result of learning, working memory is a temporary store of information. Working memory has been studied extensively by cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists because of its role in executive function. It has been likened to an internal scratch pad; by holding information in working memory, one keeps it available to consult and manipulate in the service of performing tasks as diverse as parsing a sentence and planning a route through the environment. Presumably for this reason, working memory ability correlates with measures of general intelligence (Friedman et al., 2006). The possibility of enhancing working memory ability is therefore of potential real-world interest.
The general cost of fish oil made me interested in possible substitutes. Seth Roberts uses exclusively flaxseed oil or flaxseed meal, and this seems to work well for him with subjective effects (eg. noticing his Chinese brands seemed to not work, possibly because they were unrefrigerated and slightly rancid). It’s been studied much less than fish oil, but omega acids are confusing enough in general (is there a right ratio? McCluskey’s roundup gives the impression claims about ratios may have been overstated) that I’m not convinced ALA is a much inferior replacement for fish oil’s mixes of EPA & DHA.
Christopher Wanjek is the Bad Medicine columnist for Live Science and a health and science writer based near Washington, D.C.  He is the author of two health books, "Food at Work" (2005) and "Bad Medicine" (2003), and a comical science novel, "Hey Einstein" (2012). For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he occasionally opines with a great deal of healthy skepticism. His "Food at Work" book and project, commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, concerns workers health, safety and productivity. Christopher has presented this book in more than 20 countries and has inspired the passage of laws to support worker meal programs in numerous countries. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University. He has two Twitter handles, @wanjek (for science) and @lostlenowriter (for jokes).
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.
Nor am I sure how important the results are - partway through, I haven’t noticed anything bad, at least, from taking Noopept. And any effect is going to be subtle: people seem to think that 10mg is too small for an ingested rather than sublingual dose and I should be taking twice as much, and Noopept’s claimed to be a chronic gradual sort of thing, with less of an acute effect. If the effect size is positive, regardless of statistical-significance, I’ll probably think about doing a bigger real self-experiment (more days blocked into weeks or months & 20mg dose)
Smart drugs offer significant memory enhancing benefits. Clinical studies of the best memory pills have shown gains to focus and memory. Individuals seek the best quality supplements to perform better for higher grades in college courses or become more efficient, productive, and focused at work for career advancement. It is important to choose a high quality supplement to get the results you want.

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).


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.
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None of that has kept entrepreneurs and their customers from experimenting and buying into the business of magic pills, however. In 2015 alone, the nootropics business raked in over $1 billion dollars, and web sites like the nootropics subreddit, the Bluelight forums, and Bulletproof Exec are popular and packed with people looking for easy ways to boost their mental performance. Still, this bizarre, Philip K. Dick-esque world of smart drugs is a tough pill to swallow. To dive into the topic and explain, I spoke to Kamal Patel, Director of evidence-based medical database Examine.com, and even tried a few commercially-available nootropics myself.

Another common working memory task is the n-back task, which requires the subject to view a series of items (usually letters) and decide whether the current item is identical to the one presented n items back. This task taxes working memory because the previous items must be held in working memory to be compared with the current item. The easiest version of this is a 1-back task, which is also called a double continuous performance task (CPT) because the subject is continuously monitoring for a repeat or double. Three studies examined the effects of MPH on working memory ability as measured by the 1-back task, and all found enhancement of performance in the form of reduced errors of omission (Cooper et al., 2005; Klorman et al., 1984; Strauss et al., 1984). Fleming et al. (1995) tested the effects of d-AMP on a 5-min CPT and found a decrease in reaction time, but did not specify which version of the CPT was used.
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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