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).
Amphetamine – systematic reviews and meta-analyses report that low-dose amphetamine improved cognitive functions (e.g., inhibitory control, episodic memory, working memory, and aspects of attention) in healthy people and in individuals with ADHD. A 2014 systematic review noted that low doses of amphetamine also improved memory consolidation, in turn leading to improved recall of information in non-ADHD youth. It also improves task saliency (motivation to perform a task) and performance on tedious tasks that required a high degree of effort.
In my last post, I talked about the idea that there is a resource that is necessary for self-control…I want to talk a little bit about the candidate for this resource, glucose. Could willpower fail because the brain is low on sugar? Let’s look at the numbers. A well-known statistic is that the brain, while only 2% of body weight, consumes 20% of the body’s energy. That sounds like the brain consumes a lot of calories, but if we assume a 2,400 calorie/day diet - only to make the division really easy - that’s 100 calories per hour on average, 20 of which, then, are being used by the brain. Every three minutes, then, the brain - which includes memory systems, the visual system, working memory, then emotion systems, and so on - consumes one (1) calorie. One. Yes, the brain is a greedy organ, but it’s important to keep its greediness in perspective… Suppose, for instance, that a brain in a person exerting their willpower - resisting eating brownies or what have you - used twice as many calories as a person not exerting willpower. That person would need an extra one third of a calorie per minute to make up the difference compared to someone not exerting willpower. Does exerting self control burn more calories?
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.’”
Many of these supplements include exotic-sounding ingredients. Ginseng root and an herb called bacopa are two that have shown some promising memory and attention benefits, says Dr. Guillaume Fond, a psychiatrist with France’s Aix-Marseille University Medical School who has studied smart drugs and cognitive enhancement. “However, data are still lacking to definitely confirm their efficacy,” he adds.
And the drugs are not terribly difficult to get, depending on where you’re located. Modafinil has an annual global share of $700 million, with high estimated off-label use. Although these drugs can be purchased over the internet, their legal status varies between countries. For example, it is legal to possess and use Modafinil in the United Kingdom without a prescription, but not in United States.
On the other end of the spectrum is the nootropic stack, a practice where individuals create a cocktail or mixture of different smart drugs for daily intake. The mixture and its variety actually depend on the goals of the user. Many users have said that nootropic stacking is more effective for delivering improved cognitive function in comparison to single nootropics.
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.
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.
Because these drugs modulate important neurotransmitter systems such as dopamine and noradrenaline, users take significant risks with unregulated use. There has not yet been any definitive research into modafinil's addictive potential, how its effects might change with prolonged sleep deprivation, or what side effects are likely at doses outside the prescribed range.
Do note that this isn’t an extensive list by any means, there are plenty more ‘smart drugs’ out there purported to help focus and concentration. Most (if not all) are restricted under the Psychoactive Substances Act, meaning they’re largely illegal to sell. We strongly recommend against using these products off-label, as they can be dangerous both due to side effects and their lack of regulation on the grey/black market.
This is a small water plant native to India. Bacopa is an adaptogen – it helps your body adapt to stress. It also improves memory in healthy adults and enhances attention and mood in people over 65.  Scientists still don’t fully understand how Bacopa works, but they do know it takes time to work; study participants didn’t feel its memory-enhancing effects until they’d been supplementing with it daily for 4 weeks, so if you try Bacopa, stick with it for a month before you give up on it.
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.
My first dose on 1 March 2017, at the recommended 0.5ml/1.5mg was miserable, as I felt like I had the flu and had to nap for several hours before I felt well again, requiring 6h to return to normal; after waiting a month, I tried again, but after a week of daily dosing in May, I noticed no benefits; I tried increasing to 3x1.5mg but this immediately caused another afternoon crash/nap on 18 May. So I scrapped my cytisine. Oh well.
Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants and modafinil. Part of the problem is that getting rats, or indeed students, to do puzzles in laboratories may not be a reliable guide to the drugs’ effects in the wider world. Drugs have complicated effects on individuals living complicated lives. Determining that methylphenidate enhances cognition in rats by acting on their prefrontal cortex doesn’t tell you the potential impact that its effects on mood or motivation may have on human cognition.
I can’t try either of the products myself – I am pregnant and my doctor doesn’t recommend it – but my husband agrees to. He describes the effect of the Nootrobox product as like having a cup of coffee but not feeling as jittery. “I had a very productive day, but I don’t know if that was why,” he says. His Nootroo experience ends after one capsule. He gets a headache, which he is convinced is related, and refuses to take more. “It is just not a beginner friendly cocktail,” offers Noehr.
Panax ginseng – A review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "there is a lack of convincing evidence to show a cognitive enhancing effect of Panax ginseng in healthy participants and no high quality evidence about its efficacy in patients with dementia." According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "[a]lthough Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb."