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?
Another well-known smart drug classed as a cholinergic is Sulbutiamine, a synthetic derivative of thiamine which crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to improve memory while reducing psycho-behavioral inhibition. While Sulbutiamine has been shown to exhibit cholinergic regulation within the hippocampus, the reasons for the drug’s discernable effects on the brain remain unclear. This smart drug, available over the counter as a nutritional supplement, has a long history of use, and appears to have no serious side effects at therapeutic levels.
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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).
Clearly, the hype surrounding drugs like modafinil and methylphenidate is unfounded. These drugs are beneficial in treating cognitive dysfunction in patients with Alzheimer's, ADHD or schizophrenia, but it's unlikely that today's enhancers offer significant cognitive benefits to healthy users. In fact, taking a smart pill is probably no more effective than exercising or getting a good night's sleep.
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.
Sleep itself is an underrated cognition enhancer. It is involved in enhancing long-term memories as well as creativity. For instance, it is well established that during sleep memories are consolidated-a process that "fixes" newly formed memories and determines how they are shaped. Indeed, not only does lack of sleep make most of us moody and low on energy, cutting back on those precious hours also greatly impairs cognitive performance. Exercise and eating well also enhance aspects of cognition. It turns out that both drugs and "natural" enhancers produce similar physiological changes in the brain, including increased blood flow and neuronal growth in structures such as the hippocampus. Thus, cognition enhancers should be welcomed but not at the expense of our health and well being.
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.
Adrafinil is a prodrug for Modafinil, which means it can be metabolized into Modafinil to give you a similar effect. And you can buy it legally just about anywhere. But there are a few downsides. Patel explains that you have to take a lot more to achieve a similar effect as Modafinil, wait longer for it to kick in (45-60 minutes), there are more potential side effects, and there aren’t any other benefits to taking it.
After I ran out of creatine, I noticed the increased difficulty, and resolved to buy it again at some point; many months later, there was a Smart Powders sale so bought it in my batch order, $12 for 1000g. As before, it made Taekwondo classes a bit easier. I paid closer attention this second time around and noticed that as one would expect, it only helped with muscular fatigue and did nothing for my aerobic issues. (I hate aerobic exercise, so it’s always been a weak point.) I eventually capped it as part of a sulbutiamine-DMAE-creatine-theanine mix. This ran out 1 May 2013. In March 2014, I spent $19 for 1kg of micronized creatine monohydrate to resume creatine use and also to use it as a placebo in a honey-sleep experiment testing Seth Roberts’s claim that a few grams of honey before bedtime would improve sleep quality: my usual flour placebo being unusable because the mechanism might be through simple sugars, which flour would digest into. (I did not do the experiment: it was going to be a fair amount of messy work capping the honey and creatine, and I didn’t believe Roberts’s claims for a second - my only reason to do it would be to prove the claim wrong but he’d just ignore me and no one else cares.) I didn’t try measuring out exact doses but just put a spoonful in my tea each morning (creatine is tasteless). The 1kg lasted from 25 March to 18 September or 178 days, so ~5.6g & $0.11 per day.
The easiest way to use 2mg was to use half a gum; I tried not chewing it but just holding it in my cheek. The first night I tried, this seemed to work well for motivation; I knocked off a few long-standing to-do items. Subsequently, I began using it for writing, where it has been similarly useful. One difficult night, I wound up using the other half (for a total of 4mg over ~5 hours), and it worked but gave me a fairly mild headache and a faint sensation of nausea; these may have been due to forgetting to eat dinner, but this still indicates 3mg should probably be my personal ceiling until and unless tolerance to lower doses sets in.
Exercise is also important, says Lebowitz. Studies have shown it sharpens focus, elevates your mood and improves concentration. Likewise, maintaining a healthy social life and getting enough sleep are vital, too. Studies have consistently shown that regularly skipping out on the recommended eight hours can drastically impair critical thinking skills and attention.
In avoiding experimenting with more Russian Noopept pills and using instead the easily-purchased powder form of Noopept, there are two opposing considerations: Russian Noopept is reportedly the best, so we might expect anything I buy online to be weaker or impure or inferior somehow and the effect size smaller than in the pilot experiment; but by buying my own supply & using powder I can double or triple the dose to 20mg or 30mg (to compensate for the original under-dosing of 10mg) and so the effect size larger than in the pilot experiment.
Either prescription or illegal, daily use of testosterone would not be cheap. On the other hand, if I am one of the people for whom testosterone works very well, it would be even more valuable than modafinil, in which case it is well worth even arduous experimenting. Since I am on the fence on whether it would help, this suggests the value of information is high.
Talk to your doctor, too, before diving in "to ensure that they do not conflict with current meds or cause a detrimental effect," Hohler says. You also want to consider what you already know about your health and body – if you have anxiety or are already sensitive to caffeine, for example, you may find that some of the supplements work a little too well and just enhance anxiety or make it difficult to sleep, Barbour says. Finances matter, too, of course: The retail price for Qualia Mind is $139 for 22 seven-capsule "servings"; the suggestion is to take one serving a day, five days a week. The retail price for Alpha Brain is $79.95 for 90 capsules; adults are advised to take two a day.
However, normally when you hear the term nootropic kicked around, people really mean a “cognitive enhancer” — something that does benefit thinking in some way (improved memory, faster speed-of-processing, increased concentration, or a combination of these, etc.), but might not meet the more rigorous definition above. “Smart drugs” is another largely-interchangeable term.
Most people I talk to about modafinil seem to use it for daytime usage; for me that has not ever worked out well, but I had nothing in particular to show against it. So, as I was capping the last of my piracetam-caffeine mix and clearing off my desk, I put the 4 remaining Modalerts pills into capsules with the last of my creatine powder and then mixed them with 4 of the theanine-creatine pills. Like the previous Adderall trial, I will pick one pill blindly each day and guess at the end which it was. If it was active (modafinil-creatine), take a break the next day; if placebo (theanine-creatine), replace the placebo and try again the next day. We’ll see if I notice anything on DNB or possibly gwern.net edits.
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