Since dietary supplements do not require double-blind, placebo-controlled, pharmaceutical-style human studies before going to market, there is little incentive for companies to really prove that something does what they say it does. This means that, in practice, nootropics may not live up to all the grandiose, exuberant promises advertised on the bottle in which they come. The flip side, though? There’s no need to procure a prescription in order to try them out. Good news for aspiring biohackers—and for people who have no aspirations to become biohackers, but still want to be Bradley Cooper in Limitless (me).
It's been widely reported that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and college students turn to Adderall (without a prescription) to work late through the night. In fact, a 2012 study published in the Journal of American College Health, showed that roughly two-thirds of undergraduate students were offered prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes by senior year.

“Who doesn’t want to maximize their cognitive ability? Who doesn’t want to maximize their muscle mass?” asks Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System and has been an adviser to pharmaceutical and supplement manufacturers as well as the Food and Drug Administration. He attributes the demand to an increasingly knowledge-based society that values mental quickness and agility above all else.
Two studies investigated the effects of MPH on reversal learning in simple two-choice tasks (Clatworthy et al., 2009; Dodds et al., 2008). In these tasks, participants begin by choosing one of two stimuli and, after repeated trials with these stimuli, learn that one is usually rewarded and the other is usually not. The rewarded and nonrewarded stimuli are then reversed, and participants must then learn to choose the new rewarded stimulus. Although each of these studies found functional neuroimaging correlates of the effects of MPH on task-related brain activity (increased blood oxygenation level-dependent signal in frontal and striatal regions associated with task performance found by Dodds et al., 2008, using fMRI and increased dopamine release in the striatum as measured by increased raclopride displacement by Clatworthy et al., 2009, using PET), neither found reliable effects on behavioral performance in these tasks. The one significant result concerning purely behavioral measures was Clatworthy et al.’s (2009) finding that participants who scored higher on a self-report personality measure of impulsivity showed more performance enhancement with MPH. MPH’s effect on performance in individuals was also related to its effects on individuals’ dopamine activity in specific regions of the caudate nucleus.
The smart pill industry has popularized many herbal nootropics. Most of them first appeared in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. Ayurveda is a branch of natural medicine originating from India. It focuses on using herbs as remedies for improving quality of life and healing ailments. Evidence suggests our ancestors were on to something with this natural approach.
Because smart drugs like modafinil, nicotine, and Adderall come with drawbacks, I developed my own line of nootropics, including Forbose and SmartMode, that’s safe, widely available, and doesn’t require a prescription. Forskolin, found in Forbose, has been a part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation. [8]
A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.
Cognition is a suite of mental phenomena that includes memory, attention and executive functions, and any drug would have to enhance executive functions to be considered truly ‘smart’. Executive functions occupy the higher levels of thought: reasoning, planning, directing attention to information that is relevant (and away from stimuli that aren’t), and thinking about what to do rather than acting on impulse or instinct. You activate executive functions when you tell yourself to count to 10 instead of saying something you may regret. They are what we use to make our actions moral and what we think of when we think about what makes us human.

The research literature, while copious, is messy and varied: methodologies and devices vary substantially, sample sizes are tiny, the study designs vary from paper to paper, metrics are sometimes comically limited (one study measured speed of finishing a RAPM IQ test but not scores), blinding is rare and unclear how successful, etc. Relevant papers include Chung et al 2012, Rojas & Gonzalez-Lima 2013, & Gonzalez-Lima & Barrett 2014. Another Longecity user ran a self-experiment, with some design advice from me, where he performed a few cognitive tests over several periods of LLLT usage (the blocks turned out to be ABBA), using his father and towels to try to blind himself as to condition. I analyzed his data, and his scores did seem to improve, but his scores improved so much in the last part of the self-experiment I found myself dubious as to what was going on - possibly a failure of randomness given too few blocks and an temporal exogenous factor in the last quarter which was responsible for the improvement.
Actually, researchers are studying substances that may improve mental abilities. These substances are called "cognitive enhancers" or "smart drugs" or "nootropics." ("Nootropic" comes from Greek - "noos" = mind and "tropos" = changed, toward, turn). The supposed effects of cognitive enhancement can be several things. For example, it could mean improvement of memory, learning, attention, concentration, problem solving, reasoning, social skills, decision making and planning.
70 pairs is 140 blocks; we can drop to 36 pairs or 72 blocks if we accept a power of 0.5/50% chance of reaching significance. (Or we could economize by hoping that the effect size is not 3.5 but maybe twice the pessimistic guess; a d=0.5 at 50% power requires only 12 pairs of 24 blocks.) 70 pairs of blocks of 2 weeks, with 2 pills a day requires (70 \times 2) \times (2 \times 7) \times 2 = 3920 pills. I don’t even have that many empty pills! I have <500; 500 would supply 250 days, which would yield 18 2-week blocks which could give 9 pairs. 9 pairs would give me a power of:
The principal metric would be mood, however defined. Zeo’s web interface & data export includes a field for Day Feel, which is a rating 1-5 of general mood & quality of day. I can record a similar metric at the end of each day. 1-5 might be a little crude even with a year of data, so a more sophisticated measure might be in order. The first mood study is paywalled so I’m not sure what they used, but Shiotsuki 2008 used State-Trait of Anxiety Inventory (STAI) and Profiles of Mood States Test (POMS). The full POMS sounds too long to use daily, but the Brief POMS might work. In the original 1987 paper A brief POMS measure of distress for cancer patients, patients answering this questionnaire had a mean total mean of 10.43 (standard deviation 8.87). Is this the best way to measure mood? I’ve asked Seth Roberts; he suggested using a 0-100 scale, but personally, there’s no way I can assess my mood on 0-100. My mood is sufficiently stable (to me) that 0-5 is asking a bit much, even.
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.
Over the last few months, as part of a new research project, I have talked with five people who regularly use drugs at work. They are all successful in their jobs, financially secure, in stable relationships, and generally content with their lives. None of them have plans to stop using the drugs, and so far they have kept the secret from their employers. But as their colleagues become more likely to start using the same drugs (people talk, after all), will they continue to do so?

So what about the flip side: a drug to erase bad memories? It may have failed Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but neuroscientists have now discovered an amnesia drug that can dull the pain of traumatic events. The drug, propranolol, was originally used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors noticed that patients given the drug suffered fewer signs of stress when recalling a trauma.
Sarter is downbeat, however, about the likelihood of the pharmaceutical industry actually turning candidate smart drugs into products. Its interest in cognitive enhancers is shrinking, he says, “because these drugs are not working for the big indications, which is the market that drives these developments. Even adult ADHD has not been considered a sufficiently attractive large market.”
Many laboratory tasks have been developed to study working memory, each of which taxes to varying degrees aspects such as the overall capacity of working memory, its persistence over time, and its resistance to interference either from task-irrelevant stimuli or among the items to be retained in working memory (i.e., cross-talk). Tasks also vary in the types of information to be retained in working memory, for example, verbal or spatial information. The question of which of these task differences correspond to differences between distinct working memory systems and which correspond to different ways of using a single underlying system is a matter of debate (e.g., D’Esposito, Postle, & Rypma, 2000; Owen, 2000). For the present purpose, we ignore this question and simply ask, Do MPH and d-AMP affect performance in the wide array of tasks that have been taken to operationalize working memory? If the literature does not yield a unanimous answer to this question, then what factors might be critical in determining whether stimulant effects are manifest?

Took pill 1:27 PM. At 2 my hunger gets the best of me (despite my usual tea drinking and caffeine+piracetam pills) and I eat a large lunch. This makes me suspicious it was placebo - on the previous days I had noted a considerable appetite-suppressant effect. 5:25 PM: I don’t feel unusually tired, but nothing special about my productivity. 8 PM; no longer so sure. Read and excerpted a fair bit of research I had been putting off since the morning. After putting away all the laundry at 10, still feeling active, I check. It was Adderall. I can’t claim this one either way. By 9 or 10 I had begun to wonder whether it was really Adderall, but I didn’t feel confident saying it was; my feeling could be fairly described as 50%.
"Where can you draw the line between Red Bull, six cups of coffee and a prescription drug that keeps you more alert," says Michael Schrage of the MIT Center for Digital Business, who has studied the phenomenon. "You can't draw the line meaningfully - some organizations have cultures where it is expected that employees go the extra mile to finish an all-nighter. "
One of the most common strategies to beat this is cycling. Users who cycle their nootropics take them for a predetermined period, (usually around five days) before taking a two-day break from using them. Once the two days are up, they resume the cycle. By taking a break, nootropic users reduce the tolerance for nootropics and lessen the risk of regression and tolerance symptoms.
Legal issues aside, this wouldn’t be very difficult to achieve. Many companies already have in-house doctors who give regular health check-ups — including drug tests — which could be employed to control and regulate usage. Organizations could integrate these drugs into already existing wellness programs, alongside healthy eating, exercise, and good sleep.

“Who doesn’t want to maximize their cognitive ability? Who doesn’t want to maximize their muscle mass?” asks Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System and has been an adviser to pharmaceutical and supplement manufacturers as well as the Food and Drug Administration. He attributes the demand to an increasingly knowledge-based society that values mental quickness and agility above all else.

Critics will often highlight ethical issues and the lack of scientific evidence for these drugs. Ethical arguments typically take the form of “tampering with nature.” Alena Buyx discusses this argument in a neuroethics project called Smart Drugs: Ethical Issues. She says that critics typically ask if it is ethically superior to accept what is “given” instead of striving for what is “made”. My response to this is simple. Just because it is natural does not mean it is superior.
As mentioned earlier, cognitive control is needed not only for inhibiting actions, but also for shifting from one kind of action or mental set to another. The WCST taxes cognitive control by requiring the subject to shift from sorting cards by one dimension (e.g., shape) to another (e.g., color); failures of cognitive control in this task are manifest as perseverative errors in which subjects continue sorting by the previously successful dimension. Three studies included the WCST in their investigations of the effects of d-AMP on cognition (Fleming et al., 1995; Mattay et al., 1996, 2003), and none revealed overall effects of facilitation. However, Mattay et al. (2003) subdivided their subjects according to COMT genotype and found differences in both placebo performance and effects of the drug. Subjects who were homozygous for the val allele (associated with lower prefrontal dopamine activity) made more perseverative errors on placebo than other subjects and improved significantly with d-AMP. Subjects who were homozygous for the met allele performed best on placebo and made more errors on d-AMP.
I noticed what may have been an effect on my dual n-back scores; the difference is not large (▃▆▃▃▂▂▂▂▄▅▂▄▂▃▅▃▄ vs ▃▄▂▂▃▅▂▂▄▁▄▃▅▂▃▂▄▂▁▇▃▂▂▄▄▃▃▂▃▂▂▂▃▄▄▃▆▄▄▂▃▄▃▁▂▂▂▃▂▄▂▁▁▂▄▁▃▂▄) and appears mostly in the averages - Toomim’s quick two-sample t-test gave p=0.23, although a another analysis gives p=0.138112. One issue with this before-after quasi-experiment is that one would expect my scores to slowly rise over time and hence a fish oil after would yield a score increase - the 3.2 point difference could be attributable to that, placebo effect, or random variation etc. But an accidentally noticed effect (d=0.28) is a promising start. An experiment may be worth doing given that fish oil does cost a fair bit each year: randomized blocks permitting an fish-oil-then-placebo comparison would take care of the first issue, and then blinding (olive oil capsules versus fish oil capsules?) would take care of the placebo worry.
More recently, the drug modafinil (brand name: Provigil) has become the brain-booster of choice for a growing number of Americans. According to the FDA, modafinil is intended to bolster “wakefulness” in people with narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea or shift work disorder. But when people without those conditions take it, it has been linked with improvements in alertness, energy, focus and decision-making. A 2017 study found evidence that modafinil may enhance some aspects of brain connectivity, which could explain these benefits.
Factor analysis. The strategy: read in the data, drop unnecessary data, impute missing variables (data is too heterogeneous and collected starting at varying intervals to be clean), estimate how many factors would fit best, factor analyze, pick the ones which look like they match best my ideas of what productive is, extract per-day estimates, and finally regress LLLT usage on the selected factors to look for increases.
The methodology would be essentially the same as the vitamin D in the morning experiment: put a multiple of 7 placebos in one container, the same number of actives in another identical container, hide & randomly pick one of them, use container for 7 days then the other for 7 days, look inside them for the label to determine which period was active and which was placebo, refill them, and start again.
Nootropics are a specific group of smart drugs. But nootropics aren’t the only drugs out there that promise you some extra productivity. More students and office workers are using drugs to increase their productivity than ever before [79]. But unlike with nootropics, many have side-effects. And that is precisely what is different between nootropics and other enhancing drugs, nootropics have little to no negative side-effects.
The therapeutic effect of AMP and MPH in ADHD is consistent with the finding of abnormalities in the catecholamine system in individuals with ADHD (e.g., Volkow et al., 2007). Both AMP and MPH exert their effects on cognition primarily by increasing levels of catecholamines in prefrontal cortex and the cortical and subcortical regions projecting to it, and this mechanism is responsible for improving cognition and behavior in ADHD (Pliszka, 2005; Wilens, 2006).
Two variants of the Towers of London task were used by Elliott et al. (1997) to study the effects of MPH on planning. The object of this task is for subjects to move game pieces from one position to another while adhering to rules that constrain the ways in which they can move the pieces, thus requiring subjects to plan their moves several steps ahead. Neither version of the task revealed overall effects of the drug, but one version showed impairment for the group that received the drug first, and the other version showed enhancement for the group that received the placebo first.
Second, users are concerned with the possibility of withdrawal if they stop taking the nootropics. They worry that if they stop taking nootropics they won’t be as smart as when they were taking nootropics, and will need to continue taking them to function. Some users report feeling a slight brain fog when discontinuing nootropics, but that isn’t a sign of regression.

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.
Productivity is the most cited reason for using nootropics. With all else being equal, smart drugs are expected to give you that mental edge over other and advance your career. Nootropics can also be used for a host of other reasons. From studying to socialising. And from exercise and health to general well-being. Different nootropics cater to different audiences.
How exactly – and if – nootropics work varies widely. Some may work, for example, by strengthening certain brain pathways for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is involved in motivation, Barbour says. Others aim to boost blood flow – and therefore funnel nutrients – to the brain to support cell growth and regeneration. Others protect brain cells and connections from inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in conditions like Alzheimer's, Barbour explains. Still others boost metabolism or pack in vitamins that may help protect the brain and the rest of the nervous system, explains Dr. Anna Hohler, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.

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[12] and enhances attention and mood in people over 65. [13] 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.

×