The goal of this article has been to synthesize what is known about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement and what is known about the cognitive effects of these drugs. We have eschewed discussion of ethical issues in favor of simply trying to get the facts straight. Although ethical issues cannot be decided on the basis of facts alone, neither can they be decided without relevant facts. Personal and societal values will dictate whether success through sheer effort is as good as success with pharmacologic help, whether the freedom to alter one’s own brain chemistry is more important than the right to compete on a level playing field at school and work, and how much risk of dependence is too much risk. Yet these positions cannot be translated into ethical decisions in the real world without considerable empirical knowledge. Do the drugs actually improve cognition? Under what circumstances and for whom? Who will be using them and for what purposes? What are the mental and physical health risks for frequent cognitive-enhancement users? For occasional users?
Creatine is a substance that’s produced in the human body. It is initially produced in the kidneys, and the process is completed in the liver. It is then stored in the brain tissues and muscles, to support the energy demands of a human body. Athletes and bodybuilders use creatine supplements to relieve fatigue and increase the recovery of the muscle tissues affected by vigorous physical activities. Apart from helping the tissues to recover faster, creatine also helps in enhancing the mental functions in sleep-deprived adults, and it also improves the performance of difficult cognitive tasks.
Some smart drugs can be found in health food stores; others are imported or are drugs that are intended for other disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. There are many Internet web sites, books, magazines and newspaper articles detailing the supposed effects of smart drugs. There are also plenty of advertisements and mail-order businesses that try to sell "smart drugs" to the public. However, rarely do these businesses or the popular press report results that show the failure of smart drugs to improve memory or learning. Rather, they try to show that their products have miraculous effects on the brain and can improve mental functioning. Wouldn't it be easy to learn something by "popping a pill" or drinking a soda laced with a smart drug? This would be much easier than taking the time to study. Feeling dull? Take your brain in for a mental tune up by popping a pill!
Most epidemiological research on nonmedical stimulant use has been focused on issues relevant to traditional problems of drug abuse and addiction, and so, stimulant use for cognitive enhancement is not generally distinguished from use for other purposes, such as staying awake or getting high. As Boyd and McCabe (2008) pointed out, the large national surveys of nonmedical prescription drug use have so far failed to distinguish the ways and reasons that people use the drugs, and this is certainly true where prescription stimulants are concerned. The largest survey to investigate prescription stimulant use in a nationally representative sample of Americans, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), phrases the question about nonmedical use as follows: “Have you ever, even once, used any of these stimulants when they were not prescribed for you or that you took only for the experience or feeling they caused?” (Snodgrass & LeBaron 2007). This phrasing does not strictly exclude use for cognitive enhancement, but it emphasizes the noncognitive effects of the drugs. In 2008, the NSDUH found a prevalence of 8.5% for lifetime nonmedical stimulant use by Americans over the age of 12 years and a prevalence of 12.3% for Americans between 21 and 25 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2009).
No. There are mission essential jobs that require you to live on base sometimes. Or a first term person that is required to live on base. Or if you have proven to not be as responsible with rent off base as you should be so your commander requires you to live on base. Or you’re at an installation that requires you to live on base during your stay. Or the only affordable housing off base puts you an hour away from where you work. It isn’t simple. The fact that you think it is tells me you are one of the “dumb@$$es” you are referring to above.

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.

It is known that American college students have embraced cognitive enhancement, and some information exists about the demographics of the students most likely to practice cognitive enhancement with prescription stimulants. Outside of this narrow segment of the population, very little is known. What happens when students graduate and enter the world of work? Do they continue using prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement in their first jobs and beyond? How might the answer to this question depend on occupation? For those who stay on campus to pursue graduate or professional education, what happens to patterns of use? To what extent do college graduates who did not use stimulants as students begin to use them for cognitive enhancement later in their careers? To what extent do workers without college degrees use stimulants to enhance job performance? How do the answers to these questions differ for countries outside of North America, where the studies of Table 1 were carried out?
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.

The general cost of fish oil made me interested in possible substitutes. Seth Roberts uses exclusively flaxseed oil or flaxseed meal, and this seems to work well for him with subjective effects (eg. noticing his Chinese brands seemed to not work, possibly because they were unrefrigerated and slightly rancid). It’s been studied much less than fish oil, but omega acids are confusing enough in general (is there a right ratio? McCluskey’s roundup gives the impression claims about ratios may have been overstated) that I’m not convinced ALA is a much inferior replacement for fish oil’s mixes of EPA & DHA.


It’s not clear that there is much of an effect at all. This makes it hard to design a self-experiment - how big an effect on, say, dual n-back should I be expecting? Do I need an arduous long trial or an easy short one? This would principally determine the value of information too; chocolate seems like a net benefit even if it does not affect the mind, but it’s also fairly costly, especially if one likes (as I do) dark chocolate. Given the mixed research, I don’t think cocoa powder is worth investigating further as a nootropic.
Capsule Connection sells 1000 00 pills (the largest pills) for $9. I already have a pill machine, so that doesn’t count (a sunk cost). If we sum the grams per day column from the first table, we get 9.75 grams a day. Each 00 pill can take around 0.75 grams, so we need 13 pills. (Creatine is very bulky, alas.) 13 pills per day for 1000 days is 13,000 pills, and 1,000 pills is $9 so we need 13 units and 13 times 9 is $117.
2 commenters point out that my possible lack of result is due to my mistaken assumption that if nicotine is absorbable through skin, mouth, and lungs it ought to be perfectly fine to absorb it through my stomach by drinking it (rather than vaporizing it and breathing it with an e-cigarette machine) - it’s apparently known that absorption differs in the stomach.
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I posted a link to the survey on my Google+ account, and inserted the link at the top of all gwern.net pages; 51 people completed all 11 binary choices (most of them coming from North America & Europe), which seems adequate since the 11 questions are all asking the same question, and 561 responses to one question is quite a few. A few different statistical tests seem applicable: a chi-squared test whether there’s a difference between all the answers, a two-sample test on the averages, and most meaningfully, summing up the responses as a single pair of numbers and doing a binomial test:
All clear? Try one (not dozens) of nootropics for a few weeks and keep track of how you feel, Kerl suggests. It’s also important to begin with as low a dose as possible; when Cyr didn’t ease into his nootropic regimen, his digestion took the blow, he admits. If you don’t notice improvements, consider nixing the product altogether and focusing on what is known to boost cognitive function – eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep regularly and exercising. "Some of those lifestyle modifications," Kerl says, "may improve memory over a supplement."

Amphetamines have a long track record as smart drugs, from the workaholic mathematician Paul Erdös, who relied on them to get through 19-hour maths binges, to the writer Graham Greene, who used them to write two books at once. More recently, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts in magazines about their widespread use in certain industries, such as journalism, the arts and finance.
But how, exactly, does he do it? Sure, Cruz typically eats well, exercises regularly and tries to get sufficient sleep, and he's no stranger to coffee. But he has another tool in his toolkit that he finds makes a noticeable difference in his ability to efficiently and effectively conquer all manner of tasks: Alpha Brain, a supplement marketed to improve memory, focus and mental quickness.

In addition, the cognitive enhancing effects of stimulant drugs often depend on baseline performance. So whilst stimulants enhance performance in people with low baseline cognitive abilities, they often impair performance in those who are already at optimum. Indeed, in a study by Randall et al., modafinil only enhanced cognitive performance in subjects with a lower (although still above-average) IQ.


Smart pills containing Aniracetam may also improve communication between the brain’s hemispheres. This benefit makes Aniracetam supplements ideal for enhancing creativity and stabilizing mood. But, the anxiolytic effects of Aniracetam may be too potent for some. There are reports of some users who find that it causes them to feel unmotivated or sedated. Though, it may not be an issue if you only seek the anti-stress and anxiety-reducing effects.
Modafinil is a prescription smart drug most commonly given to narcolepsy patients, as it promotes wakefulness. In addition, users indicate that this smart pill helps them concentrate and boosts their motivation. Owing to Modafinil, the feeling of fatigue is reduced, and people report that their everyday functions improve because they can manage their time and resources better, as a result reaching their goals easier.
Natural nootropic supplements derive from various nutritional studies. Research shows the health benefits of isolated vitamins, nutrients, and herbs. By increasing your intake of certain herbal substances, you can enhance brain function. Below is a list of the top categories of natural and herbal nootropics. These supplements are mainstays in many of today’s best smart pills.
The fish oil can be considered a free sunk cost: I would take it in the absence of an experiment. The empty pill capsules could be used for something else, so we’ll put the 500 at $5. Filling 500 capsules with fish and olive oil will be messy and take an hour. Taking them regularly can be added to my habitual morning routine for vitamin D and the lithium experiment, so that is close to free but we’ll call it an hour over the 250 days. Recording mood/productivity is also free a sunk cost as it’s necessary for the other experiments; but recording dual n-back scores is more expensive: each round is ~2 minutes and one wants >=5, so each block will cost >10 minutes, so 18 tests will be >180 minutes or >3 hours. So >5 hours. Total: 5 + (>5 \times 7.25) = >41.
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.
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Alpha Lipoic Acid is a vitamin-like chemical filled with antioxidant properties, that naturally occur in broccoli, spinach, yeast, kidney, liver, and potatoes. The compound is generally prescribed to patients suffering from nerve-related symptoms of diabetes because it helps in preventing damage to the nerve cells and improves the functioning of neurons. It can be termed as one of the best memory boosting supplements.
One claim was partially verified in passing by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Supplementing potassium (citrate) hasn’t helped me much, but works dramatically for Anna, Kevin, and Vassar…About the same as drinking a cup of coffee - i.e., it works as a perker-upper, somehow. I’m not sure, since it doesn’t do anything for me except possibly mitigate foot cramps.)
Iluminal is an example of an over-the-counter serotonergic drug used by people looking for performance enhancement, memory improvements, and mood-brightening. Also noteworthy, a wide class of prescription anti-depression drugs are based on serotonin reuptake inhibitors that slow the absorption of serotonin by the presynaptic cell, increasing the effect of the neurotransmitter on the receptor neuron – essentially facilitating the free flow of serotonin throughout the brain.
The hormone testosterone (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) needs no introduction. This is one of the scariest substances I have considered using: it affects so many bodily systems in so many ways that it seems almost impossible to come up with a net summary, either positive or negative. With testosterone, the problem is not the usual nootropics problem that that there is a lack of human research, the problem is that the summary constitutes a textbook - or two. That said, the 2011 review The role of testosterone in social interaction (excerpts) gives me the impression that testosterone does indeed play into risk-taking, motivation, and social status-seeking; some useful links and a representative anecdote:
Stayed up with the purpose of finishing my work for a contest. This time, instead of taking the pill as a single large dose (I feel that after 3 times, I understand what it’s like), I will take 4 doses over the new day. I took the first quarter at 1 AM, when I was starting to feel a little foggy but not majorly impaired. Second dose, 5:30 AM; feeling a little impaired. 8:20 AM, third dose; as usual, I feel physically a bit off and mentally tired - but still mentally sharp when I actually do something. Early on, my heart rate seemed a bit high and my limbs trembling, but it’s pretty clear now that that was the caffeine or piracetam. It may be that the other day, it was the caffeine’s fault as I suspected. The final dose was around noon. The afternoon crash wasn’t so pronounced this time, although motivation remains a problem. I put everything into finishing up the spaced repetition literature review, and didn’t do any n-backing until 11:30 PM: 32/34/31/54/40%.
the larger size of the community enables economies of scale and increases the peak sophistication possible. In a small nootropics community, there is likely to be no one knowledgeable about statistics/experimentation/biochemistry/neuroscience/whatever-you-need-for-a-particular-discussion, and the available funds increase: consider /r/Nootropics’s testing program, which is doable only because it’s a large lucrative community to sell to so the sellers are willing to donate funds for independent lab tests/Certificates of Analysis (COAs) to be done. If there were 1000 readers rather than 23,295, how could this ever happen short of one of those 1000 readers being very altruistic?
White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop (2006) 2002 Large university undergraduates and graduates (N = 1,025) 16.2% (lifetime) 68.9%: improve attention; 65.2:% partying; 54.3%: improve study habits; 20%: improve grades; 9.1%: reduce hyperactivity 15.5%: 2–3 times per week; 33.9%: 2–3 times per month; 50.6%: 2–3 times per year 58%: easy or somewhat easy to obtain; write-in comments indicated many obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions
Regardless, while in the absence of piracetam, I did notice some stimulant effects (somewhat negative - more aggressive than usual while driving) and similar effects to piracetam, I did not notice any mental performance beyond piracetam when using them both. The most I can say is that on some nights, I seemed to be less easily tired when writing or editing or n-backing (and I felt less tired than ICON 2011 than ICON 2010), but those were also often nights I was also trying out all the other things I had gotten in that order from Smart Powders, and I am still dis-entangling what was responsible. (Probably the l-theanine or sulbutiamine.)
(People aged <=18 shouldn’t be using any of this except harmless stuff - where one may have nutritional deficits - like fish oil & vitamin D; melatonin may be especially useful, thanks to the effects of screwed-up school schedules & electronics use on teenagers’ sleep. Changes in effects with age are real - amphetamines’ stimulant effects and modafinil’s histamine-like side-effects come to mind as examples.)

A similar pill from HQ Inc. (Palmetto, Fla.) called the CorTemp Ingestible Core Body Temperature Sensor transmits real-time body temperature. Firefighters, football players, soldiers and astronauts use it to ensure that they do not overheat in high temperatures. HQ Inc. is working on a consumer version, to be available in 2018, that would wirelessly communicate to a smartphone app.
As with other nootropics, the way it works is still partially a mystery, but most research points to it acting as a weak dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Put simply, it increases your dopamine levels the same way cocaine does, but in a much less extreme fashion. The enhanced reward system it creates in the brain, however, makes it what Patel considers to be the most potent cognitive enhancer available; and he notes that some people go from sloth to superman within an hour or two of taking it.
The Stroop task tests the ability to inhibit the overlearned process of reading by presenting color names in colored ink and instructing subjects to either read the word (low need for cognitive control because this is the habitual response to printed words) or name the ink color (high need for cognitive control). Barch and Carter (2005) administered this task to normal control subjects on placebo and d-AMP and found speeding of responses with the drug. However, the speeding was roughly equivalent for the conditions with low and high cognitive control demands, suggesting that the observed facilitation may not have been specific to cognitive control.
Some supplement blends, meanwhile, claim to work by combining ingredients – bacopa, cat's claw, huperzia serrata and oat straw in the case of Alpha Brain, for example – that have some support for boosting cognition and other areas of nervous system health. One 2014 study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggested that huperzia serrata, which is used in China to fight Alzheimer's disease, may help slow cell death and protect against (or slow the progression of) neurodegenerative diseases. The Alpha Brain product itself has also been studied in a company-funded small randomized controlled trial, which found Alpha Brain significantly improved verbal memory when compared to adults who took a placebo.
The miniaturization of electronic components has been crucial to smart pill design. As cloud computing and wireless communication platforms are integrated into the health care system, the use of smart pills for monitoring vital signs and medication compliance is likely to increase. In the long term, smart pills are expected to be an integral component of remote patient monitoring and telemedicine. As the call for noninvasive point-of-care testing increases, smart pills will become mainstream devices.
These days, nootropics are beginning to take their rightful place as a particularly powerful tool in the Neurohacker’s toolbox. After all, biochemistry is deeply foundational to neural function. Whether you are trying to fix the damage that is done to your nervous system by a stressful and toxic environment or support and enhance your neural functioning, getting the chemistry right is table-stakes. And we are starting to get good at getting it right. What’s changed?
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