He used to get his edge from Adderall, but after moving from New Jersey to San Francisco, he says, he couldn’t find a doctor who would write him a prescription. Driven to the Internet, he discovered a world of cognition-enhancing drugs known as nootropics — some prescription, some over-the-counter, others available on a worldwide gray market of private sellers — said to improve memory, attention, creativity and motivation.
The amphetamine mix branded Adderall is terribly expensive to obtain even compared to modafinil, due to its tight regulation (a lower schedule than modafinil), popularity in college as a study drug, and reportedly moves by its manufacture to exploit its privileged position as a licensed amphetamine maker to extract more consumer surplus. I paid roughly $4 a pill but could have paid up to $10. Good stimulant hygiene involves recovery periods to avoid one’s body adapting to eliminate the stimulating effects, so even if Adderall was the answer to all my woes, I would not be using it more than 2 or 3 times a week. Assuming 50 uses a year (for specific projects, let’s say, and not ordinary aimless usage), that’s a cool $200 a year. My general belief was that Adderall would be too much of a stimulant for me, as I am amphetamine-naive and Adderall has a bad reputation for letting one waste time on unimportant things. We could say my prediction was 50% that Adderall would be useful and worth investigating further. The experiment was pretty simple: blind randomized pills, 10 placebo & 10 active. I took notes on how productive I was and the next day guessed whether it was placebo or Adderall before breaking the seal and finding out. I didn’t do any formal statistics for it, much less a power calculation, so let’s try to be conservative by penalizing the information quality heavily and assume it had 25%. So \frac{200 - 0}{\ln 1.05} \times 0.50 \times 0.25 = 512! The experiment probably used up no more than an hour or two total.
Low-dose lithium orotate is extremely cheap, ~$10 a year. There is some research literature on it improving mood and impulse control in regular people, but some of it is epidemiological (which implies considerable unreliability); my current belief is that there is probably some effect size, but at just 5mg, it may be too tiny to matter. I have ~40% belief that there will be a large effect size, but I’m doing a long experiment and I should be able to detect a large effect size with >75% chance. So, the formula is NPV of the difference between taking and not taking, times quality of information, times expectation: \frac{10 - 0}{\ln 1.05} \times 0.75 \times 0.40 = 61.4, which justifies a time investment of less than 9 hours. As it happens, it took less than an hour to make the pills & placebos, and taking them is a matter of seconds per week, so the analysis will be the time-consuming part. This one may actually turn a profit.
“Smart Drugs” are chemical substances that enhance cognition and memory or facilitate learning. However, within this general umbrella of “things you can eat that make you smarter,” there are many variations as far as methods of action within the body, perceptible (and measurable) effects, potential for use and abuse, and the spillover impact on the body’s non-cognitive processes.
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.’”

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)
Googling, you sometimes see correlational studies like Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men and Women Is Associated with Better Cognitive Test Performance; in this one, the correlated performance increase from eating chocolate was generally fairly modest (say, <10%), and the maximum effects were at 10g/day of what was probably milk chocolate, which generally has 10-40% chocolate liquor in it, suggesting any experiment use 1-4g. More interesting is the blind RCT experiment Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort11, which found improvements at ~1g; the most dramatic improvement of the 4 tasks (on the Threes correct) saw a difference of 2 to 6 at the end of the hour of testing, while several of the other tests converged by the end or saw the controls winning (Sevens correct). Crews et al 2008 found no cognitive benefit, and an fMRI experiment found the change in brain oxygen levels it wanted but no improvement to reaction times.
Due to the synthetic nature of racetams, you won’t find them in many of the best smart pills on the market. The intentional exclusion is not because racetams are ineffective. Instead, the vast majority of users trust natural smart drugs more. The idea of using a synthetic substance to alter your brain’s operating system is a big turn off for most people. With synthetic nootropics, you’re a test subject until more definitive studies arise.
Cocoa flavanols (CF) positively influence physiological processes in ways which suggest that their consumption may improve aspects of cognitive function. This study investigated the acute cognitive and subjective effects of CF consumption during sustained mental demand. In this randomized, controlled, double-blinded, balanced, three period crossover trial 30 healthy adults consumed drinks containing 520 mg, 994 mg CF and a matched control, with a 3-day washout between drinks. Assessments included the state anxiety inventory and repeated 10-min cycles of a Cognitive Demand Battery comprising of two serial subtraction tasks (Serial Threes and Serial Sevens), a Rapid Visual Information Processing (RVIP) task and a mental fatigue scale, over the course of 1 h. Consumption of both 520 mg and 994 mg CF significantly improved Serial Threes performance. The 994 mg CF beverage significantly speeded RVIP responses but also resulted in more errors during Serial Sevens. Increases in self-reported mental fatigue were significantly attenuated by the consumption of the 520 mg CF beverage only. This is the first report of acute cognitive improvements following CF consumption in healthy adults. While the mechanisms underlying the effects are unknown they may be related to known effects of CF on endothelial function and blood flow.
Maj. Jamie Schwandt, USAR, is a logistics officer and has served as an operations officer, planner and commander. He is certified as a Department of the Army Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, certified Red Team Member, and holds a doctorate from Kansas State University. This article represents his own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army.
Bacopa is a supplement herb often used for memory or stress adaptation. Its chronic effects reportedly take many weeks to manifest, with no important acute effects. Out of curiosity, I bought 2 bottles of Bacognize Bacopa pills and ran a non-randomized non-blinded ABABA quasi-self-experiment from June 2014 to September 2015, measuring effects on my memory performance, sleep, and daily self-ratings of mood/productivity. Because of the very slow onset, small effective sample size, definite temporal trends probably unrelated to Bacopa, and noise in the variables, the results were as expected, ambiguous, and do not strongly support any correlation between Bacopa and memory/sleep/self-rating (+/-/- respectively).
This would be a very time-consuming experiment. Any attempt to combine this with other experiments by ANOVA would probably push the end-date out by months, and one would start to be seriously concerned that changes caused by aging or environmental factors would contaminate the results. A 5-year experiment with 7-month intervals will probably eat up 5+ hours to prepare <12,000 pills (active & placebo); each switch and test of mental functioning will probably eat up another hour for 32 hours. (And what test maintains validity with no practice effects over 5 years? Dual n-back would be unusable because of improvements to WM over that period.) Add in an hour for analysis & writeup, that suggests >38 hours of work, and 38 \times 7.25 = 275.5. 12,000 pills is roughly $12.80 per thousand or $154; 120 potassium iodide pills is ~$9, so \frac{365.25}{120} \times 9 \times 5 = 137.
Up to 20% of Ivy League college students have already tried “smart drugs,” so we can expect these pills to feature prominently in organizations (if they don’t already). After all, the pressure to perform is unlikely to disappear the moment students graduate. And senior employees with demanding jobs might find these drugs even more useful than a 19-year-old college kid does. Indeed, a 2012 Royal Society report emphasized that these “enhancements,” along with other technologies for self-enhancement, are likely to have far-reaching implications for the business world.

When you drink tea, you’re getting some caffeine (less than the amount in coffee), plus an amino acid called L-theanine that has been shown in studies to increase activity in the brain’s alpha frequency band, which can lead to relaxation without drowsiness. These calming-but-stimulating effects might contribute to tea’s status as the most popular beverage aside from water. People have been drinking it for more than 4,000 years, after all, but modern brain hackers try to distill and enhance the benefits by taking just L-theanine as a nootropic supplement. Unfortunately, that means they’re missing out on the other health effects that tea offers. It’s packed with flavonoids, which are associated with longevity, reduced inflammation, weight loss, cardiovascular health, and cancer prevention.
Too much caffeine may be bad for bone health because it can deplete calcium. Overdoing the caffeine also may affect the vitamin D in your body, which plays a critical role in your body’s bone metabolism. However, the roles of vitamin D as well as caffeine in the development of osteoporosis continue to be a source of debate. Significance: Caffeine may interfere with your body’s metabolism of vitamin D, according to a 2007 Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology study. You have vitamin D receptors, or VDRs, in your osteoblast cells. These large cells are responsible for the mineralization and synthesis of bone in your body. They create a sheet on the surface of your bones. The D receptors are nuclear hormone receptors that control the action of vitamin D-3 by controlling hormone-sensitive gene expression. These receptors are critical to good bone health. For example, a vitamin D metabolism disorder in which these receptors don’t work properly causes rickets.

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.
l-Theanine – A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that concurrent caffeine and l-theanine use had synergistic psychoactive effects that promoted alertness, attention, and task switching;[29] these effects were most pronounced during the first hour post-dose.[29] However, the European Food Safety Authority reported that, when L-theanine is used by itself (i.e. without caffeine), there is insufficient information to determine if these effects exist.[34]