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.
The evidence? Ritalin is FDA-approved to treat ADHD. It has also been shown to help patients with traumatic brain injury concentrate for longer periods, but does not improve memory in those patients, according to a 2016 meta-analysis of several trials. A study published in 2012 found that low doses of methylphenidate improved cognitive performance, including working memory, in healthy adult volunteers, but high doses impaired cognitive performance and a person’s ability to focus. (Since the brains of teens have been found to be more sensitive to the drug’s effect, it’s possible that methylphenidate in lower doses could have adverse effects on working memory and cognitive functions.)
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.
These days, young, ambitious professionals prefer prescription stimulants—including methylphenidate (usually sold as Ritalin) and Adderall—that are designed to treat people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and are more common and more acceptable than cocaine or nicotine (although there is a black market for these pills). ADHD makes people more likely to lose their focus on tasks and to feel restless and impulsive. Diagnoses of the disorder have been rising dramatically over the past few decades—and not just in kids: In 2012, about 16 million Adderall prescriptions were written for adults between the ages of 20 and 39, according to a report in the New York Times. Both methylphenidate and Adderall can improve sustained attention and concentration, says Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge and author of the 2013 book Bad Moves: How Decision Making Goes Wrong, and the Ethics of Smart Drugs. But the drugs do have side effects, including insomnia, lack of appetite, mood swings, and—in extreme cases—hallucinations, especially when taken in amounts the exceed standard doses. Take a look at these 10 foods that help you focus.
Use of prescription stimulants by normal healthy individuals to enhance cognition is said to be on the rise. Who is using these medications for cognitive enhancement, and how prevalent is this practice? Do prescription stimulants in fact enhance cognition for normal healthy people? We review the epidemiological and cognitive neuroscience literatures in search of answers to these questions. Epidemiological issues addressed include the prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use, user demographics, methods by which users obtain prescription stimulants, and motivations for use. Cognitive neuroscience issues addressed include the effects of prescription stimulants on learning and executive function, as well as the task and individual variables associated with these effects. Little is known about the prevalence of prescription stimulant use for cognitive enhancement outside of student populations. Among college students, estimates of use vary widely but, taken together, suggest that the practice is commonplace. The cognitive effects of stimulants on normal healthy people cannot yet be characterized definitively, despite the volume of research that has been carried out on these issues. Published evidence suggests that declarative memory can be improved by stimulants, with some evidence consistent with enhanced consolidation of memories. Effects on the executive functions of working memory and cognitive control are less reliable but have been found for at least some individuals on some tasks. In closing, we enumerate the many outstanding questions that remain to be addressed by future research and also identify obstacles facing this research.
Starting from the studies in my meta-analysis, we can try to estimate an upper bound on how big any effect would be, if it actually existed. One of the most promising null results, Southon et al 1994, turns out to be not very informative: if we punch in the number of kids, we find that they needed a large effect size (d=0.81) before they could see anything:
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):
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Another well-known smart drug classed as a cholinergic is Sulbutiamine, a synthetic derivative of thiamine which crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to improve memory while reducing psycho-behavioral inhibition. While Sulbutiamine has been shown to exhibit cholinergic regulation within the hippocampus, the reasons for the drug’s discernable effects on the brain remain unclear. This smart drug, available over the counter as a nutritional supplement, has a long history of use, and appears to have no serious side effects at therapeutic levels.
Dopaminergics are smart drug substances that affect levels of dopamine within the brain. Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter, responsible for the good feelings and biochemical positive feedback from behaviors for which our biology naturally rewards us: tasty food, sex, positive social relationships, etc. Use of dopaminergic smart drugs promotes attention and alertness by either increasing the efficacy of dopamine within the brain, or inhibiting the enzymes that break dopamine down. Examples of popular dopaminergic smart drug drugs include Yohimbe, selegiline and L-Tyrosine.
Most research on these nootropics suggest they have some benefits, sure, but as Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir explain in the journal Nature, nobody knows their long-term effects. And we don’t know how extended use might change your brain chemistry in the long run. Researchers are getting closer to what makes these substances do what they do, but very little is certain right now. If you’re looking to live out your own Limitless fantasy, do your research first, and proceed with caution.
With the right lifestyle and the right stack of supplements and nootropics, you can enjoy enhanced mental clarity, easier flow, and better vision. The best nootropics for your needs will depend on how much you want to spend, how often you want to take them, and what you want to take them for. Nutritional supplements should be taken daily, for the cumulative effect, but Smart drugs such as noopept and modafinil are usually taken on an as-needed basis, for those times when you are aiming for hyperfocus, better clarity, and better recall, or the ability to process a huge amount of incoming visual information quickly and accurately and to pick up on details that you might otherwise miss.
On the other metric, suppose we removed the creatine? Dropping 4 grams of material means we only need to consume 5.75 grams a day, covered by 8 pills (compared to 13 pills). We save 5,000 pills, which would have cost $45 and also don’t spend the $68 for the creatine; assuming a modafinil formulation, that drops our $1761 down to $1648 or $1.65 a day. Or we could remove both the creatine and modafinil, for a grand total of $848 or $0.85 a day, which is pretty reasonable.
The truth is, taking a smart pill will not allow you to access information that you have not already learned. If you speak English, a smart drug cannot embed the Spanish dictionary into your brain. In other words, they won't make you smarter or more intelligent. We need to throttle back our expectations and explore reality. What advantage can smart drugs provide? Brain enhancing substances have excellent health and cognitive benefits that are worth exploring.
Low level laser therapy (LLLT) is a curious treatment based on the application of a few minutes of weak light in specific near-infrared wavelengths (the name is a bit of a misnomer as LEDs seem to be employed more these days, due to the laser aspect being unnecessary and LEDs much cheaper). Unlike most kinds of light therapy, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with circadian rhythms or zeitgebers. Proponents claim efficacy in treating physical injuries, back pain, and numerous other ailments, recently extending it to case studies of mental issues like brain fog. (It’s applied to injured parts; for the brain, it’s typically applied to points on the skull like F3 or F4.) And LLLT is, naturally, completely safe without any side effects or risk of injury.
I bought 500g of piracetam (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) from Smart Powders (piracetam is one of the cheapest nootropics and SP was one of the cheapest suppliers; the others were much more expensive as of October 2010), and I’ve tried it out for several days (started on 7 September 2009, and used it steadily up to mid-December). I’ve varied my dose from 3 grams to 12 grams (at least, I think the little scoop measures in grams), taking them in my tea or bitter fruit juice. Cranberry worked the best, although orange juice masks the taste pretty well; I also accidentally learned that piracetam stings horribly when I got some on a cat scratch. 3 grams (alone) didn’t seem to do much of anything while 12 grams gave me a nasty headache. I also ate 2 or 3 eggs a day.
Scientists found that the drug can disrupt the way memories are stored. This ability could be invaluable in treating trauma victims to prevent associated stress disorders. The research has also triggered suggestions that licensing these memory-blocking drugs may lead to healthy people using them to erase memories of awkward conversations, embarrassing blunders and any feelings for that devious ex-girlfriend.
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. 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.