But, thanks to the efforts of a number of remarkable scientists, researchers and plain-old neurohackers, we are beginning to put together a “whole systems” model of how all the different parts of the human brain work together and how they mesh with the complex regulatory structures of the body. It’s going to take a lot more data and collaboration to dial this model in, but already we are empowered to design stacks that can meaningfully deliver on the promise of nootropics “to enhance the quality of subjective experience and promote cognitive health, while having extremely low toxicity and possessing very few side effects.” It’s a type of brain hacking that is intended to produce noticeable cognitive benefits.
But, if we find in 10 or 20 years that the drugs don't do damage, what are the benefits? These are stimulants that help with concentration. College students take such drugs to pass tests; graduates take them to gain professional licenses. They are akin to using a calculator to solve an equation. Do you really want a doctor who passed his boards as a result of taking speed — and continues to depend on that for his practice?
An additional complexity, related to individual differences, concerns dosage. This factor, which varies across studies and may be fixed or determined by participant body weight within a study, undoubtedly influences the cognitive effects of stimulant drugs. Furthermore, single-unit recordings with animals and, more recently, imaging of humans indicate that the effects of stimulant dose are nonmonotonic; increases enhance prefrontal function only up to a point, with further increases impairing function (e.g., Arnsten, 1998; Mattay et al., 2003; Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). Yet additional complexity comes from the fact that the optimal dosage depends on the same kinds of individual characteristics just discussed and on the task (Mattay et al., 2003).
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.
Overall, the studies listed in Table 1 vary in ways that make it difficult to draw precise quantitative conclusions from them, including their definitions of nonmedical use, methods of sampling, and demographic characteristics of the samples. For example, some studies defined nonmedical use in a way that excluded anyone for whom a drug was prescribed, regardless of how and why they used it (Carroll et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Kaloyanides et al., 2007; Low & Gendaszek, 2002; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; McCabe et al., 2004; Rabiner et al., 2009; Shillington et al., 2006; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; Weyandt et al., 2009), whereas others focused on the intent of the user and counted any use for nonmedical purposes as nonmedical use, even if the user had a prescription (Arria et al., 2008; Babcock & Byrne, 2000; Boyd et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Herman-Stahl et al., 2007; Poulin, 2001, 2007; White et al., 2006), and one did not specify its definition (Barrett, Darredeau, Bordy, & Pihl, 2005). Some studies sampled multiple institutions (DuPont et al., 2008; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; Poulin, 2001, 2007), some sampled only one (Babcock & Byrne, 2000; Barrett et al., 2005; Boyd et al., 2006; Carroll et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Kaloyanides et al., 2007; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; McCabe et al., 2004; Shillington et al., 2006; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; White et al., 2006), and some drew their subjects primarily from classes in a single department at a single institution (DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Low & Gendaszek, 2002). With few exceptions, the samples were all drawn from restricted geographical areas. Some had relatively high rates of response (e.g., 93.8%; Low & Gendaszek 2002) and some had low rates (e.g., 10%; Judson & Langdon, 2009), the latter raising questions about sample representativeness for even the specific population of students from a given region or institution.
The original “smart drug” is piracetam, which was discovered by the Romanian scientist Corneliu Giurgea in the early 1960s. At the time, he was looking for a chemical that could sneak into the brain and make people feel sleepy. After months of testing, he came up with “Compound 6215”. It was safe, it had very few side effects – and it didn’t work. The drug didn’t send anyone into a restful slumber and seemed to work in the opposite way to that intended.
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.↩
The term “smart pills” refers to miniature electronic devices that are shaped and designed in the mold of pharmaceutical capsules but perform highly advanced functions such as sensing, imaging and drug delivery. They may include biosensors or image, pH or chemical sensors. Once they are swallowed, they travel along the gastrointestinal tract to capture information that is otherwise difficult to obtain, and then are easily eliminated from the system. Their classification as ingestible sensors makes them distinct from implantable or wearable sensors.
These are the most popular nootropics available at the moment. Most of them are the tried-and-tested and the benefits you derive from them are notable (e.g. Guarana). Others are still being researched and there haven’t been many human studies on these components (e.g. Piracetam). As always, it’s about what works for you and everyone has a unique way of responding to different nootropics.
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics.[13] Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.[19]