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?
The flanker task is designed to tax cognitive control by requiring subjects to respond based on the identity of a target stimulus (H or S) and not the more numerous and visually salient stimuli that flank the target (as in a display such as HHHSHHH). Servan-Schreiber, Carter, Bruno, and Cohen (1998) administered the flanker task to subjects on placebo and d-AMP. They found an overall speeding of responses but, more importantly, an increase in accuracy that was disproportionate for the incongruent conditions, that is, the conditions in which the target and flankers did not match and cognitive control was needed.
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But perhaps the biggest difference between Modafinil and other nootropics like Piracetam, according to Patel, is that Modafinil studies show more efficacy in young, healthy people, not just the elderly or those with cognitive deficits. That’s why it’s great for (and often prescribed to) military members who are on an intense tour, or for those who can’t get enough sleep for physiological reasons. One study, by researchers at Imperial College London, and published in Annals of Surgery, even showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
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When I spoke with Jesse Lawler, who hosts the podcast Smart Drugs Smarts, about breakthroughs in brain health and neuroscience, he was unsurprised to hear of my disappointing experience. Many nootropics are supposed to take time to build up in the body before users begin to feel their impact. But even then, says Barry Gordon, a neurology professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, positive results wouldn’t necessarily constitute evidence of a pharmacological benefit.
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The evidence? In small studies, healthy people taking modafinil showed improved planning and working memory, and better reaction time, spatial planning, and visual pattern recognition. A 2015 meta-analysis claimed that “when more complex assessments are used, modafinil appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning” without affecting a user’s mood. In a study from earlier this year involving 39 male chess players, subjects taking modafinil were found to perform better in chess games played against a computer.
When Giurgea coined the word nootropic (combining the Greek words for mind and bending) in the 1970s, he was focused on a drug he had synthesized called piracetam. Although it is approved in many countries, it isn’t categorized as a prescription drug in the United States. That means it can be purchased online, along with a number of newer formulations in the same drug family (including aniracetam, phenylpiracetam, and oxiracetam). Some studies have shown beneficial effects, including one in the 1990s that indicated possible improvement in the hippocampal membranes in Alzheimer’s patients. But long-term studies haven’t yet borne out the hype.
There are certain risks associated with smart pills that might restrain their use. A smart pill usually leaves the body within two weeks. Sometimes, the pill might get lodged in the digestive tract rather than exiting the body via normal bowel movements. The risk might be higher in people with a tumor, Crohns disease, or some surgery within that area that lead to narrowing of the digestive tract. CT scan is usually performed in people with high-risk to assess the narrowing of the tract. However, the pill might still be lodged even if the results are negative for the CT scan, which might lead to bowel obstruction and can be removed either by surgery or traditional endoscopy. Smart pills might lead to skin irritation, which results in mild redness and need to be treated topically. It may also lead to capsule aspiration, which involves the capsule going down the wrong pipe and entering the airway instead of the esophagus. This might result in choking and death if immediate bronchoscopic extraction is not performed. Patients with comorbidities related to brain injury or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may be at a higher risk. So, the health risks associated with the use of smart pills are hindering the smart pills technology market. The other factors, such as increasing cost with technological advancement and ethical constraints are also hindering the market.
Today piracetam is a favourite with students and young professionals looking for a way to boost their performance, though decades after Giurgea’s discovery, there still isn’t much evidence that it can improve the mental abilities of healthy people. It’s a prescription drug in the UK, though it’s not approved for medical use by the US Food and Drug Administration and can’t be sold as a dietary supplement either.
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.
Federal law classifies most nootropics as dietary supplements, which means that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate manufacturers’ statements about their benefits (as the giant “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” disclaimer on the label indicates). And the types of claims that the feds do allow supplement companies to make are often vague and/or supported by less-than-compelling scientific evidence. “If you find a study that says that an ingredient caused neurons to fire on rat brain cells in a petri dish,” says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “you can probably get away with saying that it ‘enhances memory’ or ‘promotes brain health.’”
Adderall is a mix of 4 amphetamine salts (FDA adverse events), and not much better than the others (but perhaps less addictive); as such, like caffeine or methamphetamine, it is not strictly a nootropic but a cognitive enhancer and can be tricky to use right (for how one should use stimulants, see How To Take Ritalin Correctly). I ordered 10x10mg Adderall IR off Silk Road (Wikipedia). On the 4th day after confirmation from seller, the package arrived. It was a harmless looking little padded mailer. Adderall as promised: 10 blue pills with markings, in a double ziplock baggy (reasonable, it’s not cocaine or anything). They matched pretty much exactly the descriptions of the generic I had found online. (Surprisingly, apparently both the brand name and the generic are manufactured by the same pharmacorp.)
“Certain people might benefit from certain combinations of certain things,” he told me. “But across populations, there is still no conclusive proof that substances of this class improve cognitive functions.” And with no way to reliably measure the impact of a given substance on one’s mental acuity, one’s sincere beliefs about “what works” probably have a lot to do with, say, how demanding their day was, or whether they ate breakfast, or how susceptible they are to the placebo effect.
Neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change and reorganize itself in response to intrinsic and extrinsic factors, indicates great potential for us to enhance brain function by medical or other interventions. Psychotherapy has been shown to induce structural changes in the brain. Other interventions that positively influence neuroplasticity include meditation, mindfulness , and compassion.
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.
And yet aside from anecdotal evidence, we know very little about the use of these drugs in professional settings. The Financial Times has claimed that they are “becoming popular among city lawyers, bankers, and other professionals keen to gain a competitive advantage over colleagues.” Back in 2008 the narcolepsy medication Modafinil was labeled the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice” by TechCrunch. That same year, the magazine Nature asked its readers whether they use cognitive-enhancing drugs; of the 1,400 respondents, one in five responded in the affirmative.
Segmental analysis of the key components of the global smart pills market has been performed based on application, target area, disease indication, end-user, and region. Applications of smart pills are found in capsule endoscopy, drug delivery, patient monitoring, and others. Sub-division of the capsule endoscopy segment includes small bowel capsule endoscopy, controllable capsule endoscopy, colon capsule endoscopy, and others. Meanwhile, the patient monitoring segment is further divided into capsule pH monitoring and others.
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).
Price discrimination is aided by barriers such as ignorance and oligopolies. An example of the former would be when I went to a Food Lion grocery store in search of spices, and noticed that there was a second selection of spices in the Hispanic/Latino ethnic food aisle, with unit prices perhaps a fourth of the regular McCormick-brand spices; I rather doubt that regular cinnamon varies that much in quality. An example of the latter would be using veterinary drugs on humans - any doctor to do so would probably be guilty of medical malpractice even if the drugs were manufactured in the same factories (as well they might be, considering economies of scale). Similarly, we can predict that whenever there is a veterinary drug which is chemically identical to a human drug, the veterinary drug will be much cheaper, regardless of actual manufacturing cost, than the human drug because pet owners do not value their pets more than themselves. Human drugs are ostensibly held to a higher standard than veterinary drugs; so if veterinary prices are higher, then there will be an arbitrage incentive to simply buy the cheaper human version and downgrade them to veterinary drugs.
An expert in legal and ethical issues surrounding health care technology, Associate Professor Eric Swirsky suggested that both groups have valid arguments, but that neither group is asking the right questions. Prof Swirsky is the clinical associate professor of biomedical and health information sciences in the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences.
In 2011, as part of the Silk Road research, I ordered 10x100mg Modalert (5btc) from a seller. I also asked him about his sourcing, since if it was bad, it’d be valuable to me to know whether it was sourced from one of the vendors listed in my table. He replied, more or less, I get them from a large Far Eastern pharmaceuticals wholesaler. I think they’re probably the supplier for a number of the online pharmacies. 100mg seems likely to be too low, so I treated this shipment as 5 doses:
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Zach was on his way to being a doctor when a personal health crisis changed all of that. He decided that he wanted to create wellness instead of fight illness. He lost over a 100 lbs through functional nutrition and other natural healing protocols. He has since been sharing his knowledge of nutrition and functional medicine for the last 12 years as a health coach and health educator.
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Supplements, medications, and coffee certainly might play a role in keeping our brains running smoothly at work or when we’re trying to remember where we left our keys. But the long-term effects of basic lifestyle practices can’t be ignored. “For good brain health across the life span, you should keep your brain active,” Sahakian says. “There is good evidence for ‘use it or lose it.’” She suggests brain-training apps to improve memory, as well as physical exercise. “You should ensure you have a healthy diet and not overeat. It is also important to have good-quality sleep. Finally, having a good work-life balance is important for well-being.” Try these 8 ways to get smarter while you sleep.
You’ll find several supplements that can enhance focus, energy, creativity, and mood. These brain enhancers can work very well, and their benefits often increase over time. Again, nootropics won’t dress you in a suit and carry you to Wall Street. That is a decision you’ll have to make on your own. But, smart drugs can provide the motivation boost you need to make positive life changes.
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.
Nootropics are a specific group of smart drugs. But nootropics aren’t the only drugs out there that promise you some extra productivity. More students and office workers are using drugs to increase their productivity than ever before . But unlike with nootropics, many have side-effects. And that is precisely what is different between nootropics and other enhancing drugs, nootropics have little to no negative side-effects.
More photos from this reportage are featured in Quartz’s new book The Objects that Power the Global Economy. You may not have seen these objects before, but they’ve already changed the way you live. Each chapter examines an object that is driving radical change in the global economy. This is from the chapter on the drug modafinil, which explores modifying the mind for a more productive life.
Swanson J, Arnold LE, Kraemer H, Hechtman L, Molina B, Hinshaw S, Wigal T. Evidence, interpretation and qualification from multiple reports of long-term outcomes in the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children With ADHD (MTA): Part II. Supporting details. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2008;12:15–43. doi: 10.1177/1087054708319525. [PubMed] [CrossRef]
Natural-sourced ingredients can also help to enhance your brain. Superfood, herbal or Amino A ingredient cognitive enhancers are more natural and are largely directly derived from food or plants. Panax ginseng, matcha tea and choline (found in foods like broccoli) are included under this umbrella. There are dozens of different natural ingredients /herbs purported to help cognition, many of which have been used medicinally for hundreds of years.
On the other end of the spectrum is the nootropic stack, a practice where individuals create a cocktail or mixture of different smart drugs for daily intake. The mixture and its variety actually depend on the goals of the user. Many users have said that nootropic stacking is more effective for delivering improved cognitive function in comparison to single nootropics.
Expect to experience an increase in focus and a drastic reduction in reaction time . You’ll have an easier time quickly switching between different mental tasks, and will experience an increase in general cognitive ability . Queal Flow also improves cognition and motivation, by means of reducing anxiety and stress . If you’re using Flow regularly for a longer period of time, it’s also very likely to improve your mental health in the long term (reducing cognitive decline), and might even improve your memory .
Racetams are often used as a smart drug by finance workers, students, and individuals in high-pressure jobs as a way to help them get into a mental flow state and work for long periods of time. Additionally, the habits and skills that an individual acquires while using a racetam can still be accessed when someone is not taking racetams because it becomes a habit.
Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
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.
^ Sattler, Sebastian; Mehlkop, Guido; Graeff, Peter; Sauer, Carsten (February 1, 2014). "Evaluating the drivers of and obstacles to the willingness to use cognitive enhancement drugs: the influence of drug characteristics, social environment, and personal characteristics". Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. 9 (1): 8. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-9-8. ISSN 1747-597X. PMC 3928621. PMID 24484640.