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.
So what’s the catch? Well, it’s potentially addictive for one. Anything that messes with your dopamine levels can be. And Patel says there are few long-term studies on it yet, so we don’t know how it will affect your brain chemistry down the road, or after prolonged, regular use. Also, you can’t get it very easily, or legally for that matter, if you live in the U.S. It’s classified as a schedule IV controlled substance. That’s where Adrafinil comes in.
Ginsenoside Rg1, a molecule found in the plant genus panax (ginseng), is being increasingly researched as an effect nootropic. Its cognitive benefits including increasing learning ability and memory acquisition, and accelerating neural development. It targets mainly the NMDA receptors and nitric oxide synthase, which both play important roles in personal and emotional intelligence. The authors of the study cited above, say that their research findings thus far have boosted their confidence in a "bright future of cognitive drug development."
…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.
With this experiment, I broke from the previous methodology, taking the remaining and final half Nuvigil at midnight. I am behind on work and could use a full night to catch up. By 8 AM, I am as usual impressed by the Nuvigil - with Modalert or something, I generally start to feel down by mid-morning, but with Nuvigil, I feel pretty much as I did at 1 AM. Sleep: 9:51/9:15/8:27
Taurine (Examine.com) was another gamble on my part, based mostly on its inclusion in energy drinks. I didn’t do as much research as I should have: it came as a shock to me when I read in Wikipedia that taurine has been shown to prevent oxidative stress induced by exercise and was an antioxidant - oxidative stress is a key part of how exercise creates health benefits and antioxidants inhibit those benefits.
The search to find more effective drugs to increase mental ability and intelligence capacity with neither toxicity nor serious side effects continues. But there are limitations. Although the ingredients may be separately known to have cognition-enhancing effects, randomized controlled trials of the combined effects of cognitive enhancement compounds are sparse.
One item always of interest to me is sleep; a stimulant is no good if it damages my sleep (unless that’s what it is supposed to do, like modafinil) - anecdotes and research suggest that it does. Over the past few days, my Zeo sleep scores continued to look normal. But that was while not taking nicotine much later than 5 PM. In lieu of a different ml measurer to test my theory that my syringe is misleading me, I decide to more directly test nicotine’s effect on sleep by taking 2ml at 10:30 PM, and go to bed at 12:20; I get a decent ZQ of 94 and I fall asleep in 16 minutes, a bit below my weekly average of 19 minutes. The next day, I take 1ml directly before going to sleep at 12:20; the ZQ is 95 and time to sleep is 14 minutes.
Another interpretation of the mixed results in the literature is that, in some cases at least, individual differences in response to stimulants have led to null results when some participants in the sample are in fact enhanced and others are not. This possibility is not inconsistent with the previously mentioned ones; both could be at work. Evidence has already been reviewed that ability level, personality, and COMT genotype modulate the effect of stimulants, although most studies in the literature have not broken their samples down along these dimensions. There may well be other as-yet-unexamined individual characteristics that determine drug response. The equivocal nature of the current literature may reflect a mixture of substantial cognitive-enhancement effects for some individuals, diluted by null effects or even counteracted by impairment in others.
Known widely as ‘Brahmi,’ the Bacopa Monnieri or Water Hyssop, is a small herb native to India that finds mention in various Ayurvedic texts for being the best natural cognitive enhancer. It has been used traditionally for memory enhancement, asthma, epilepsy and improving mood and attention of people over 65. It is known to be one of the best brain supplement in the world.
Ongoing studies are looking into the possible pathways by which nootropic substances function. Researchers have postulated that the mental health advantages derived from these substances can be attributed to their effects on the cholinergic and dopaminergic systems of the brain. These systems regulate two important neurotransmitters, acetylcholine and dopamine.
Table 4 lists the results of 27 tasks from 23 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on working memory. The oldest and most commonly used type of working memory task in this literature is the Sternberg short-term memory scanning paradigm (Sternberg, 1966), in which subjects hold a set of items (typically letters or numbers) in working memory and are then presented with probe items, to which they must respond “yes” (in the set) or “no” (not in the set). The size of the set, and hence the working memory demand, is sometimes varied, and the set itself may be varied from trial to trial to maximize working memory demands or may remain fixed over a block of trials. Taken together, the studies that have used a version of this task to test the effects of MPH and d-AMP on working memory have found mixed and somewhat ambiguous results. No pattern is apparent concerning the specific version of the task or the specific drug. Four studies found no effect (Callaway, 1983; Kennedy, Odenheimer, Baltzley, Dunlap, & Wood, 1990; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007; Tipper et al., 2005), three found faster responses with the drugs (Fitzpatrick, Klorman, Brumaghim, & Keefover, 1988; Ward et al., 1997; D. E. Wilson et al., 1971), and one found higher accuracy in some testing sessions at some dosages, but no main effect of drug (Makris et al., 2007). The meaningfulness of the increased speed of responding is uncertain, given that it could reflect speeding of general response processes rather than working memory–related processes. Aspects of the results of two studies suggest that the effects are likely due to processes other than working memory: D. E. Wilson et al. (1971) reported comparable speeding in a simple task without working memory demands, and Tipper et al. (2005) reported comparable speeding across set sizes.
Tuesday: I went to bed at 1am, and first woke up at 6am, and I wrote down a dream; the lucid dreaming book I was reading advised that waking up in the morning and then going back for a short nap often causes lucid dreams, so I tried that - and wound up waking up at 10am with no dreams at all. Oops. I take a pill, but the whole day I don’t feel so hot, although my conversation and arguments seem as cogent as ever. I’m also having a terrible time focusing on any actual work. At 8 I take another; I’m behind on too many things, and it looks like I need an all-nighter to catch up. The dose is no good; at 11, I still feel like at 8, possibly worse, and I take another along with the choline+piracetam (which makes a total of 600mg for the day). Come 12:30, and I disconsolately note that I don’t seem any better, although I still seem to understand the IQ essays I am reading. I wonder if this is tolerance to modafinil, or perhaps sleep catching up to me? Possibly it’s just that I don’t remember what the quasi-light-headedness of modafinil felt like. I feel this sort of zombie-like state without change to 4am, so it must be doing something, when I give up and go to bed, getting up at 7:30 without too much trouble. Some N-backing at 9am gives me some low scores but also some pretty high scores (38/43/66/40/24/67/60/71/54 or ▂▂▆▂▁▆▅▇▄), which suggests I can perform normally if I concentrate. I take another pill and am fine the rest of the day, going to bed at 1am as usual.
Similarly, Mehta et al 2000 noted that the positive effects of methylphenidate (40 mg) on spatial working memory performance were greatest in those volunteers with lower baseline working memory capacity. In a study of the effects of ginkgo biloba in healthy young adults, Stough et al 2001 found improved performance in the Trail-Making Test A only in the half with the lower verbal IQ.
Some work has been done on estimating the value of IQ, both as net benefits to the possessor (including all zero-sum or negative-sum aspects) and as net positive externalities to the rest of society. The estimates are substantial: in the thousands of dollars per IQ point. But since increasing IQ post-childhood is almost impossible barring disease or similar deficits, and even increasing childhood IQs is very challenging, much of these estimates are merely correlations or regressions, and the experimental childhood estimates must be weakened considerably for any adult - since so much time and so many opportunities have been lost. A wild guess: $1000 net present value per IQ point. The range for severely deficient children was 10-15 points, so any normal (somewhat deficient) adult gain must be much smaller and consistent with Fitzgerald 2012’s ceiling on possible effect sizes (small).
Table 1 shows all of the studies of middle school, secondary school, and college students that we identified. As indicated in the table, the studies are heterogeneous, with varying populations sampled, sample sizes, and year of data collection, and they focused on different subsets of the epidemiological questions addressed here, including prevalence and frequency of use, motivations for use, and method of obtaining the medication.
Took pill around 6 PM; I had a very long drive to and from an airport ahead of me, ideal for Adderall. In case it was Adderall, I chewed up the pill - by making it absorb faster, more of the effect would be there when I needed it, during driving, and not lingering in my system past midnight. Was it? I didn’t notice any change in my pulse, I yawned several times on the way back, my conversation was not more voluminous than usual. I did stay up later than usual, but that’s fully explained by walking to get ice cream. All in all, my best guess was that the pill was placebo, and I feel fairly confident but not hugely confident that it was placebo. I’d give it ~70%. And checking the next morning… I was right! Finally.
Using the 21mg patches, I cut them into quarters. What I would do is I would cut out 1 quarter, and then seal the two edges with scotch tape, and put the Pac-Man back into its sleeve. Then the next time I would cut another quarter, seal the new edge, and so on. I thought that 5.25mg might be too much since I initially found 4mg gum to be too much, but it’s delivered over a long time and it wound up feeling much more like 1mg gum used regularly. I don’t know if the tape worked, but I did not notice any loss of potency. I didn’t like them as much as the gum because I would sometimes forget to take off a patch at the end of the day and it would interfere with sleep, and because the onset is much slower and I find I need stimulants more for getting started than for ongoing stimulation so it is better to have gum which can be taken precisely when needed and start acting quickly. (One case where the patches were definitely better than the gum was long car trips where slow onset is fine, since you’re most alert at the start.) When I finally ran out of patches in June 2016 (using them sparingly), I ordered gum instead.
Phenserine, as well as the drugs Aricept and Exelon, which are already on the market, work by increasing the level of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is deficient in people with the disease. A neurotransmitter is a chemical that allows communication between nerve cells in the brain. In people with Alzheimer's disease, many brain cells have died, so the hope is to get the most out of those that remain by flooding the brain with acetylcholine.
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.
A big part is that we are finally starting to apply complex systems science to psycho-neuro-pharmacology and a nootropic approach. The neural system is awesomely complex and old-fashioned reductionist science has a really hard time with complexity. Big companies spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to separate the effects of just a single molecule from placebo – and nootropics invariably show up as “stacks” of many different ingredients (ours, Qualia , currently has 42 separate synergistic nootropics ingredients from alpha GPC to bacopa monnieri and L-theanine). That kind of complex, multi pathway input requires a different methodology to understand well that goes beyond simply what’s put in capsules.
However, history has shown that genies don’t stay in bottles. All ethics aside, there is ample proof that use of smart drugs can profoundly improve human cognition, and where there is an advantage to be gained – even where risks are involved – some people will leap at the chance to capitalize. At Smart Drug Smarts, we anticipate the social tide will continue to turn in favor of elective neural enhancers, and that the beneficial effects to users who choose to make the most of their brains will inevitably outweigh the costs.
Speaking of addictive substances, some people might have considered cocaine a nootropic (think: the finance industry in Wall Street in the 1980s). The incredible damage this drug can do is clear, but the plant from which it comes has been used to make people feel more energetic and less hungry, and to counteract altitude sickness in Andean South American cultures for 5,000 years, according to an opinion piece that Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales Ayma, wrote for the New York Times.
Many studies suggest that Creatine helps in treating cognitive decline in individuals when combined with other therapies. It also helps people suffering from Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. Though there are minimal side effects associated with creatine, pretty much like any nootropic, it is not entirely free of side-effects. An overdose of creatine can lead to gastrointestinal issues, weight gain, stress, and anxiety.
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.