AMP was first investigated as an asthma medication in the 1920s, but its psychological effects were soon noticed. These included increased feelings of energy, positive mood, and prolonged physical endurance and mental concentration. These effects have been exploited in a variety of medical and nonmedical applications in the years since they were discovered, including to treat depression, to enhance alertness in military personnel, and to provide a competitive edge in athletic competition (Rasmussen, 2008). Today, AMP remains a widely used and effective treatment for ADHD (Wilens, 2006).

With subtle effects, we need a lot of data, so we want at least half a year (6 blocks) or better yet, a year (12 blocks); this requires 180 actives and 180 placebos. This is easily covered by $11 for Doctor’s Best Best Lithium Orotate (5mg), 200-Count (more precisely, Lithium 5mg (from 125mg of lithium orotate)) and $14 for 1000x1g empty capsules (purchased February 2012). For convenience I settled on 168 lithium & 168 placebos (7 pill-machine batches, 14 batches total); I can use them in 24 paired blocks of 7-days/1-week each (48 total blocks/48 weeks). The lithium expiration date is October 2014, so that is not a problem
Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless. Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others.
Imagine a pill you can take to speed up your thought processes, boost your memory, and make you more productive. If it sounds like the ultimate life hack, you’re not alone. There are pills that promise that out there, but whether they work is complicated. Here are the most popular cognitive enhancers available, and what science actually says about them.
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).
A record of nootropics I have tried, with thoughts about which ones worked and did not work for me. These anecdotes should be considered only as anecdotes, and one’s efforts with nootropics a hobby to put only limited amounts of time into due to the inherent limits of drugs as a force-multiplier compared to other things like programming1; for an ironic counterpoint, I suggest the reader listen to a video of Jonathan Coulton’s I Feel Fantastic while reading.
The magnesium was neither randomized nor blinded and included mostly as a covariate to avoid confounding (the Noopept coefficient & t-value increase somewhat without the Magtein variable), so an OR of 1.9 is likely too high; in any case, this experiment was too small to reliably detect any effect (~26% power, see bootstrap power simulation in the magnesium section) so we can’t say too much.

Fortunately for me, the FDA decided Smart Powder’s advertising was too explicit and ordered its piracetam sales stopped; I was equivocal at the previous price point, but then I saw that between the bulk discount and the fire-sale coupon, 3kg was only $99.99 (shipping was amortized over that, the choline, caffeine, and tryptophan). So I ordered in September 2010. As well, I had decided to cap my own pills, eliminating the inconvenience and bad taste. 3kg goes a very long way so I am nowhere close to running out of my pills; there is nothing to report since, as the pills are simply part of my daily routine.
Fortunately for me, the FDA decided Smart Powder’s advertising was too explicit and ordered its piracetam sales stopped; I was equivocal at the previous price point, but then I saw that between the bulk discount and the fire-sale coupon, 3kg was only $99.99 (shipping was amortized over that, the choline, caffeine, and tryptophan). So I ordered in September 2010. As well, I had decided to cap my own pills, eliminating the inconvenience and bad taste. 3kg goes a very long way so I am nowhere close to running out of my pills; there is nothing to report since, as the pills are simply part of my daily routine.
As far as anxiety goes, psychiatrist Emily Deans has an overview of why the Kiecolt-Glaser et al 2011 study is nice; she also discusses why fish oil seems like a good idea from an evolutionary perspective. There was also a weaker earlier 2005 study also using healthy young people, which showed reduced anger/anxiety/depression plus slightly faster reactions. The anti-stress/anxiolytic may be related to the possible cardiovascular benefits (Carter et al 2013).
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Not all drug users are searching for a chemical escape hatch. A newer and increasingly normalized drug culture is all about heightening one’s current relationship to reality—whether at work or school—by boosting the brain’s ability to think under stress, stay alert and productive for long hours, and keep track of large amounts of information. In the name of becoming sharper traders, medical interns, or coders, people are taking pills typically prescribed for conditions including ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s. Others down “stacks” of special “nootropic” supplements.
2ml is supposed to translate to 24mg, which is a big dose. I do not believe any of the commercial patches go much past that. I asked Wedrifid, whose notes inspired my initial interest, and he was taking perhaps 2-4mg, and expressed astonishment that I might be taking 24mg. (2mg is in line with what I am told by another person - that 2mg was so much that they actually felt a little sick. On the other hand, in one study, the subjects could not reliably distinguish between 1mg and placebo24.) 24mg is particularly troubling in that I weigh ~68kg, and nicotine poisoning and the nicotine LD50 start, for me, at around 68mg of nicotine. (I reflected that the entire jar could be a useful murder weapon, although nicotine presumably would be caught in an autopsy’s toxicology screen; I later learned nicotine was an infamous weapon in the 1800s before any test was developed. It doesn’t seem used anymore, but there are still fatal accidents due to dissolved nicotine.) The upper end of the range, 10mg/kg or 680mg for me, is calculated based on experienced smokers. Something is wrong here - I can’t see why I would have nicotine tolerance comparable to a hardened smoker, inasmuch as my maximum prior exposure was second-hand smoke once in a blue moon. More likely is that either the syringe is misleading me or the seller NicVape sold me something more dilute than 12mg/ml. (I am sure that it’s not simply plain water; when I mix the drops with regular water, I can feel the propylene glycol burning as it goes down.) I would rather not accuse an established and apparently well-liked supplier of fraud, nor would I like to simply shrug and say I have a mysterious tolerance and must experiment with doses closer to the LD50, so the most likely problem is a problem with the syringe. The next day I altered the procedure to sucking up 8ml, squirting out enough fluid to move the meniscus down to 7ml, and then ejecting the rest back into the container. The result was another mild clean stimulation comparable to the previous 1ml days. The next step is to try a completely different measuring device, which doesn’t change either.
To judge from recent reports in the popular media, healthy people have also begun to use MPH and AMPs for cognitive enhancement. Major daily newspapers such as The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal; magazines including Time, The Economist, The New Yorker, and Vogue; and broadcast news organizations including the BBC, CNN, and NPR have reported a trend toward growing use of prescription stimulants by healthy people for the purpose of enhancing school or work performance.

A record of nootropics I have tried, with thoughts about which ones worked and did not work for me. These anecdotes should be considered only as anecdotes, and one’s efforts with nootropics a hobby to put only limited amounts of time into due to the inherent limits of drugs as a force-multiplier compared to other things like programming1; for an ironic counterpoint, I suggest the reader listen to a video of Jonathan Coulton’s I Feel Fantastic while reading.
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.

Integrity & Reputation: Go with a company that sells more than just a brain formula. If a company is just selling this one item,buyer-beware!!! It is an indication that it is just trying to capitalize on a trend and make a quick buck. Also, if a website selling a brain health formula does not have a highly visible 800# for customer service, you should walk away.
These are the most highly studied ingredients and must be combined together to achieve effective results. If any one ingredient is missing in the formula, you may not get the full cognitive benefits of the pill. It is important to go with a company that has these critical ingredients as well as a complete array of supporting ingredients to improve their absorption and effectiveness. Anything less than the correct mix will not work effectively.
Cognitive control is a broad concept that refers to guidance of cognitive processes in situations where the most natural, automatic, or available action is not necessarily the correct one. Such situations typically evoke a strong inclination to respond but require people to resist responding, or they evoke a strong inclination to carry out one type of action but require a different type of action. The sources of these inclinations that must be overridden are various and include overlearning (e.g., the overlearned tendency to read printed words in the Stroop task), priming by recent practice (e.g., the tendency to respond in the go/no-go task when the majority of the trials are go trials, or the tendency to continue sorting cards according to the previously correct dimension in the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test [WCST]; Grant & Berg, 1948) and perceptual salience (e.g., the tendency to respond to the numerous flanker stimuli as opposed to the single target stimulus in the flanker task). For the sake of inclusiveness, we also consider the results of studies of reward processing in this section, in which the response tendency to be overridden comes from the desire to have the reward immediately.
First half at 6 AM; second half at noon. Wrote a short essay I’d been putting off and napped for 1:40 from 9 AM to 10:40. This approach seems to work a little better as far as the aboulia goes. (I also bother to smell my urine this time around - there’s a definite off smell to it.) Nights: 10:02; 8:50; 10:40; 7:38 (2 bad nights of nasal infections); 8:28; 8:20; 8:43 (▆▃█▁▂▂▃).
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.
Fitzgerald 2012 and the general absence of successful experiments suggests not, as does the general historic failure of scores of IQ-related interventions in healthy young adults. Of the 10 studies listed in the original section dealing with iodine in children or adults, only 2 show any benefit; in lieu of a meta-analysis, a rule of thumb would be 20%, but both those studies used a package of dozens of nutrients - and not just iodine - so if the responsible substance were randomly picked, that suggests we ought to give it a chance of 20% \times \frac{1}{\text{dozens}} of being iodine! I may be unduly optimistic if I give this as much as 10%.
Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)

DNB-wise, eyeballing my stats file seems to indicate a small increase: when I compare peak scores D4B scores, I see mostly 50s and a few 60s before piracetam, and after starting piracetam, a few 70s mixed into the 50s and 60s. Natural increase from training? Dunno - I’ve been stuck on D4B since June, so 5 or 10% in a week or 3 seems a little suspicious. A graph of the score series26:
By the end of 2009, at least 25 studies reported surveys of college students’ rates of nonmedical stimulant use. Of the studies using relatively smaller samples, prevalence was, in chronological order, 16.6% (lifetime; Babcock & Byrne, 2000), 35.3% (past year; Low & Gendaszek, 2002), 13.7% (lifetime; Hall, Irwin, Bowman, Frankenberger, & Jewett, 2005), 9.2% (lifetime; Carroll, McLaughlin, & Blake, 2006), and 55% (lifetime, fraternity students only; DeSantis, Noar, & Web, 2009). Of the studies using samples of more than a thousand students, somewhat lower rates of nonmedical stimulant use were found, although the range extends into the same high rates as the small studies: 2.5% (past year, Ritalin only; Teter, McCabe, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2003), 5.4% (past year; McCabe & Boyd, 2005), 4.1% (past year; McCabe, Knight, Teter, & Wechsler, 2005), 11.2% (past year; Shillington, Reed, Lange, Clapp, & Henry, 2006), 5.9% (past year; Teter, McCabe, LaGrange, Cranford, & Boyd, 2006), 16.2% (lifetime; White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop, 2006), 1.7% (past month; Kaloyanides, McCabe, Cranford, & Teter, 2007), 10.8% (past year; Arria, O’Grady, Caldeira, Vincent, & Wish, 2008); 5.3% (MPH only, lifetime; Du-Pont, Coleman, Bucher, & Wilford, 2008); 34% (lifetime; DeSantis, Webb, & Noar, 2008), 8.9% (lifetime; Rabiner et al., 2009), and 7.5% (past month; Weyandt et al., 2009).
As I am not any of the latter, I didn’t really expect a mental benefit. As it happens, I observed nothing. What surprised me was something I had forgotten about: its physical benefits. My performance in Taekwondo classes suddenly improved - specifically, my endurance increased substantially. Before, classes had left me nearly prostrate at the end, but after, I was weary yet fairly alert and happy. (I have done Taekwondo since I was 7, and I have a pretty good sense of what is and is not normal performance for my body. This was not anything as simple as failing to notice increasing fitness or something.) This was driven home to me one day when in a flurry before class, I prepared my customary tea with piracetam, choline & creatine; by the middle of the class, I was feeling faint & tired, had to take a break, and suddenly, thunderstruck, realized that I had absentmindedly forgot to actually drink it! This made me a believer.
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.
One might suggest just going to the gym or doing other activities which may increase endogenous testosterone secretion. This would be unsatisfying to me as it introduces confounds: the exercise may be doing all the work in any observed effect, and certainly can’t be blinded. And blinding is especially important because the 2011 review discusses how some studies report that the famed influence of testosterone on aggression (eg. Wedrifid’s anecdote above) is a placebo effect caused by the folk wisdom that testosterone causes aggression & rage!

Nicotine’s stimulant effects are general and do not come with the same tweakiness and aggression associated with the amphetamines, and subjectively are much cleaner with less of a crash. I would say that its stimulant effects are fairly strong, around that of modafinil. Another advantage is that nicotine operates through nicotinic receptors and so doesn’t cross-tolerate with dopaminergic stimulants (hence one could hypothetically cycle through nicotine, modafinil, amphetamines, and caffeine, hitting different receptors each time).


Several studies have assessed the effect of MPH and d-AMP on tasks tapping various other aspects of spatial working memory. Three used the spatial working memory task from the CANTAB battery of neuropsychological tests (Sahakian & Owen, 1992). In this task, subjects search for a target at different locations on a screen. Subjects are told that locations containing a target in previous trials will not contain a target in future trials. Efficient performance therefore requires remembering and avoiding these locations in addition to remembering and avoiding locations already searched within a trial. Mehta et al. (2000) found evidence of greater accuracy with MPH, and Elliott et al. (1997) found a trend for the same. In Mehta et al.’s study, this effect depended on subjects’ working memory ability: the lower a subject’s score on placebo, the greater the improvement on MPH. In Elliott et al.’s study, MPH enhanced performance for the group of subjects who received the placebo first and made little difference for the other group. The reason for this difference is unclear, but as mentioned above, this may reflect ability differences between the groups. More recently, Clatworthy et al. (2009) undertook a positron emission tomography (PET) study of MPH effects on two tasks, one of which was the CANTAB spatial working memory task. They failed to find consistent effects of MPH on working memory performance but did find a systematic relation between the performance effect of the drug in each individual and its effect on individuals’ dopamine activity in the ventral striatum.
As far as anxiety goes, psychiatrist Emily Deans has an overview of why the Kiecolt-Glaser et al 2011 study is nice; she also discusses why fish oil seems like a good idea from an evolutionary perspective. There was also a weaker earlier 2005 study also using healthy young people, which showed reduced anger/anxiety/depression plus slightly faster reactions. The anti-stress/anxiolytic may be related to the possible cardiovascular benefits (Carter et al 2013).

Gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA, naturally produced in the brain from glutamate, is a neurotransmitter that helps in the communication between the nervous system and brain. The primary function of this GABA Nootropic is to reduce the additional activity of the nerve cells and helps calm the mind. Thus, it helps to improve various conditions, like stress, anxiety, and depression by decreasing the beta brain waves and increasing the alpha brain waves. It is one of the best nootropic for anxiety that you can find in the market today.  As a result, cognitive abilities like memory power, attention, and alertness also improve. GABA helps drug addicts recover from addiction by normalizing the brain’s GABA receptors which reduce anxiety and craving levels in the absence of addictive substances.

A LessWronger found that it worked well for him as far as motivation and getting things done went, as did another LessWronger who sells it online (terming it a reasonable productivity enhancer) as did one of his customers, a pickup artist oddly enough. The former was curious whether it would work for me too and sent me Speciosa Pro’s Starter Pack: Test Drive (a sampler of 14 packets of powder and a cute little wooden spoon). In SE Asia, kratom’s apparently chewed, but the powders are brewed as a tea.


When taken as prescribed, Modafinil is safer than Adderall with fewer side effects. Smart pill enthusiasts find a heightened sense of alertness and motivation with Modafinil. In healthy individuals, Modafinil will reliably boost energy levels. If you find that it gives you headaches, add a choline supplement to your stack. With that said, you should only use Modafinil in moderation on an as-needed basis.
The soft gels are very small; one needs to be a bit careful - Vitamin D is fat-soluble and overdose starts in the range of 70,000 IU35, so it would take at least 14 pills, and it’s unclear where problems start with chronic use. Vitamin D, like many supplements, follows a U-shaped response curve (see also Melamed et al 2008 and Durup et al 2012) - too much can be quite as bad as too little. Too little, though, is likely very bad. The previously cited studies with high acute doses worked out to <1,000 IU a day, so they may reassure us about the risks of a large acute dose but not tell us much about smaller chronic doses; the mortality increases due to too-high blood levels begin at ~140nmol/l and reading anecdotes online suggest that 5k IU daily doses tend to put people well below that (around 70-100nmol/l). I probably should get a blood test to be sure, but I have something of a needle phobia.
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.

Prescription smart pills are common psychostimulants that can be purchased and used after receiving a prescription. They are most commonly given to patients diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, as well as narcolepsy. However many healthy people use them as cognitive enhancers due to their proven ability to improve focus, attention, and support the overall process of learning.


Interesting. On days ranked 2 (below-average mood/productivity), nicotine seems to have boosted scores; on days ranked 3, nicotine hurts scores; there aren’t enough 4’s to tell, but even ’5 days seem to see a boost from nicotine, which is not predicted by the theory. But I don’t think much of a conclusion can be drawn: not enough data to make out any simple relationship. Some modeling suggests no relationship in this data either (although also no difference in standard deviations, leading me to wonder if I screwed up the data recording - not all of the DNB scores seem to match the input data in the previous analysis). So although the 2 days in the graph are striking, the theory may not be right.
Taken together, the available results are mixed, with slightly more null results than overall positive findings of enhancement and evidence of impairment in one reversal learning task. As the effect sizes listed in Table 5 show, the effects when found are generally substantial. When drug effects were assessed as a function of placebo performance, genotype, or self-reported impulsivity, enhancement was found to be greatest for participants who performed most poorly on placebo, had a COMT genotype associated with poorer executive function, or reported being impulsive in their everyday lives. In sum, the effects of stimulants on cognitive control are not robust, but MPH and d-AMP appear to enhance cognitive control in some tasks for some people, especially those less likely to perform well on cognitive control tasks.
For 2 weeks, upon awakening I took close-up photographs of my right eye. Then I ordered two jars of Life-Extension Sea-Iodine (60x1mg) (1mg being an apparently safe dose), and when it arrived on 10 September 2012, I stopped the photography and began taking 1 iodine pill every other day. I noticed no ill effects (or benefits) after a few weeks and upped the dose to 1 pill daily. After the first jar of 60 pills was used up, I switched to the second jar, and began photography as before for 2 weeks. The photographs were uploaded, cropped by hand in Gimp, and shrunk to more reasonable dimensions; both sets are available in a Zip file.
As it happened, Health Supplement Wholesalers (since renamed Powder City) offered me a sample of their products, including their 5g Noopept powder ($13). I’d never used HSW before & they had some issues in the past; but I haven’t seen any recent complaints, so I was willing to try them. My 5g from batch #130830 arrived quickly (photos: packaging, powder contents). I tried some (tastes just slightly unpleasant, like an ultra-weak piracetam), and I set about capping the fluffy white flour-like powder with the hilariously tiny scoop they provide.
Organizations, and even entire countries, are struggling with “always working” cultures. Germany and France have adopted rules to stop employees from reading and responding to email after work hours. Several companies have explored banning after-hours email; when one Italian company banned all email for one week, stress levels dropped among employees. This is not a great surprise: A Gallup study found that among those who frequently check email after working hours, about half report having a lot of stress.
Evidence in support of the neuroprotective effects of flavonoids has increased significantly in recent years, although to date much of this evidence has emerged from animal rather than human studies. Nonetheless, with a view to making recommendations for future good practice, we review 15 existing human dietary intervention studies that have examined the effects of particular types of flavonoid on cognitive performance. The studies employed a total of 55 different cognitive tests covering a broad range of cognitive domains. Most studies incorporated at least one measure of executive function/working memory, with nine reporting significant improvements in performance as a function of flavonoid supplementation compared to a control group. However, some domains were overlooked completely (e.g. implicit memory, prospective memory), and for the most part there was little consistency in terms of the particular cognitive tests used making across study comparisons difficult. Furthermore, there was some confusion concerning what aspects of cognitive function particular tests were actually measuring. Overall, while initial results are encouraging, future studies need to pay careful attention when selecting cognitive measures, especially in terms of ensuring that tasks are actually sensitive enough to detect treatment effects.
The magnesium was neither randomized nor blinded and included mostly as a covariate to avoid confounding (the Noopept coefficient & t-value increase somewhat without the Magtein variable), so an OR of 1.9 is likely too high; in any case, this experiment was too small to reliably detect any effect (~26% power, see bootstrap power simulation in the magnesium section) so we can’t say too much.

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.)


In 2011, as part of the Silk Road research, I ordered 10x100mg Modalert (5btc) from a seller. I also asked him about his sourcing, since if it was bad, it’d be valuable to me to know whether it was sourced from one of the vendors listed in my table. He replied, more or less, I get them from a large Far Eastern pharmaceuticals wholesaler. I think they’re probably the supplier for a number of the online pharmacies. 100mg seems likely to be too low, so I treated this shipment as 5 doses:
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.
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?
When I spoke with Jesse Lawler, who hosts the podcast Smart Drugs Smarts, about breakthroughs in brain health and neuroscience, he was unsurprised to hear of my disappointing experience. Many nootropics are supposed to take time to build up in the body before users begin to feel their impact. But even then, says Barry Gordon, a neurology professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, positive results wouldn’t necessarily constitute evidence of a pharmacological benefit.
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.
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The chemicals he takes, dubbed nootropics from the Greek “noos” for “mind”, are intended to safely improve cognitive functioning. They must not be harmful, have significant side-effects or be addictive. That means well-known “smart drugs” such as the prescription-only stimulants Adderall and Ritalin, popular with swotting university students, are out. What’s left under the nootropic umbrella is a dizzying array of over-the-counter supplements, prescription drugs and unclassified research chemicals, some of which are being trialled in older people with fading cognition.
One item always of interest to me is sleep; a stimulant is no good if it damages my sleep (unless that’s what it is supposed to do, like modafinil) - anecdotes and research suggest that it does. Over the past few days, my Zeo sleep scores continued to look normal. But that was while not taking nicotine much later than 5 PM. In lieu of a different ml measurer to test my theory that my syringe is misleading me, I decide to more directly test nicotine’s effect on sleep by taking 2ml at 10:30 PM, and go to bed at 12:20; I get a decent ZQ of 94 and I fall asleep in 16 minutes, a bit below my weekly average of 19 minutes. The next day, I take 1ml directly before going to sleep at 12:20; the ZQ is 95 and time to sleep is 14 minutes.

Natural-sourced ingredients can also help to enhance your brain. Superfood, herbal or Amino A ingredient cognitive enhancers are more natural and are largely directly derived from food or plants. Panax ginseng, matcha tea and choline (found in foods like broccoli) are included under this umbrella. There are dozens of different natural ingredients /herbs purported to help cognition, many of which have been used medicinally for hundreds of years.


A LessWronger found that it worked well for him as far as motivation and getting things done went, as did another LessWronger who sells it online (terming it a reasonable productivity enhancer) as did one of his customers, a pickup artist oddly enough. The former was curious whether it would work for me too and sent me Speciosa Pro’s Starter Pack: Test Drive (a sampler of 14 packets of powder and a cute little wooden spoon). In SE Asia, kratom’s apparently chewed, but the powders are brewed as a tea.
Took full pill at 10:21 PM when I started feeling a bit tired. Around 11:30, I noticed my head feeling fuzzy but my reading seemed to still be up to snuff. I would eventually finish the science book around 9 AM the next day, taking some very long breaks to walk the dog, write some poems, write a program, do Mnemosyne review (memory performance: subjectively below average, but not as bad as I would have expected from staying up all night), and some other things. Around 4 AM, I reflected that I felt much as I had during my nightwatch job at the same hour of the day - except I had switched sleep schedules for the job. The tiredness continued to build and my willpower weakened so the morning wasn’t as productive as it could have been - but my actual performance when I could be bothered was still pretty normal. That struck me as kind of interesting that I can feel very tired and not act tired, in line with the anecdotes.

We’ve talk about how caffeine affects the body in great detail, but the basic idea is that it can improve your motivation and focus by increasing catecholamine signaling. Its effects can be dampened over time, however, as you start to build a caffeine tolerance. Research on L-theanine, a common amino acid, suggests it promotes neuronal health and can decrease the incidence of cold and flu symptoms by strengthening the immune system. And one study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, found that L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses—which is why it’s often taken with caffeine. In fact, in a 2014 systematic review of 11 different studies, published in the journal Nutrition Review, researchers found that use of caffeine in combination with L-theanine promoted alertness, task switching, and attention. The reviewers note the effects are most pronounced during the first two hours post-dose, and they also point out that caffeine is the major player here, since larger caffeine doses were found to have more of an effect than larger doses of L-theanine.

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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?

Yet some researchers point out these drugs may not be enhancing cognition directly, but simply improving the user’s state of mind – making work more pleasurable and enhancing focus. “I’m just not seeing the evidence that indicates these are clear cognition enhancers,” says Martin Sarter, a professor at the University of Michigan, who thinks they may be achieving their effects by relieving tiredness and boredom. “What most of these are actually doing is enabling the person who’s taking them to focus,” says Steven Rose, emeritus professor of life sciences at the Open University. “It’s peripheral to the learning process itself.”


At dose #9, I’ve decided to give up on kratom. It is possible that it is helping me in some way that careful testing (eg. dual n-back over weeks) would reveal, but I don’t have a strong belief that kratom would help me (I seem to benefit more from stimulants, and I’m not clear on how an opiate-bearer like kratom could stimulate me). So I have no reason to do careful testing. Oh well.
Several studies have assessed the effect of MPH and d-AMP on tasks tapping various other aspects of spatial working memory. Three used the spatial working memory task from the CANTAB battery of neuropsychological tests (Sahakian & Owen, 1992). In this task, subjects search for a target at different locations on a screen. Subjects are told that locations containing a target in previous trials will not contain a target in future trials. Efficient performance therefore requires remembering and avoiding these locations in addition to remembering and avoiding locations already searched within a trial. Mehta et al. (2000) found evidence of greater accuracy with MPH, and Elliott et al. (1997) found a trend for the same. In Mehta et al.’s study, this effect depended on subjects’ working memory ability: the lower a subject’s score on placebo, the greater the improvement on MPH. In Elliott et al.’s study, MPH enhanced performance for the group of subjects who received the placebo first and made little difference for the other group. The reason for this difference is unclear, but as mentioned above, this may reflect ability differences between the groups. More recently, Clatworthy et al. (2009) undertook a positron emission tomography (PET) study of MPH effects on two tasks, one of which was the CANTAB spatial working memory task. They failed to find consistent effects of MPH on working memory performance but did find a systematic relation between the performance effect of the drug in each individual and its effect on individuals’ dopamine activity in the ventral striatum.
Not included in the list below are prescription psychostimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin. Non-medical, illicit use of these drugs for the purpose of cognitive enhancement in healthy individuals comes with a high cost, including addiction and other adverse effects. Although these drugs are prescribed for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to help with focus, attention and other cognitive functions, they have been shown to in fact impair these same functions when used for non-medical purposes. More alarming, when taken in high doses, they have the potential to induce psychosis.
Participants (n=205) [young adults aged 18-30 years] were recruited between July 2010 and January 2011, and were randomized to receive either a daily 150 µg (0.15mg) iodine supplement or daily placebo supplement for 32 weeks…After adjusting for baseline cognitive test score, examiner, age, sex, income, and ethnicity, iodine supplementation did not significantly predict 32 week cognitive test scores for Block Design (p=0.385), Digit Span Backward (p=0.474), Matrix Reasoning (p=0.885), Symbol Search (p=0.844), Visual Puzzles (p=0.675), Coding (p=0.858), and Letter-Number Sequencing (p=0.408).

So is there a future in smart drugs? Some scientists are more optimistic than others. Gary Lynch, a professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine argues that recent advances in neuroscience have opened the way for the smart design of drugs, configured for specific biological targets in the brain. “Memory enhancement is not very far off,” he says, although the prospects for other kinds of mental enhancement are “very difficult to know… To me, there’s an inevitability to the thing, but a timeline is difficult.”
I am not alone in thinking of the potential benefits of smart drugs in the military. In their popular novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, P.W. Singer and August Cole tell the story of a future war using drug-like nootropic implants and pills, such as Modafinil. DARPA is also experimenting with neurological technology and enhancements such as the smart drugs discussed here. As demonstrated in the following brain initiatives: Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT), Augmented Cognition, and High-quality Interface Systems such as their Next-Generational Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3).

Ashwagandha has been shown to improve cognition and motivation, by means of reducing anxiety [46]. It has been shown to significantly reduce stress and anxiety. As measured by cortisol levels, anxiety symptoms were reduced by around 30% compared to a placebo-controlled (double-blind) group [47]. And it may have neuroprotective effects and improve sleep, but these claims are still being researched.
I have elsewhere remarked on the apparent lack of benefit to taking multivitamins and the possible harm; so one might well wonder about a specific vitamin like vitamin D. However, a multivitamin is not vitamin D, so it’s no surprise that they might do different things. If a multivitamin had no vitamin D in it, or if it had vitamin D in different doses, or if it had substances which interacted with vitamin D (such as calcium), or if it had substances which had negative effects which outweigh the positive (such as vitamin A?), we could well expect differing results. In this case, all of those are true to varying extents. Some multivitamins I’ve had contained no vitamin D. The last multivitamin I was taking both contains vitamins used in the negative trials and also some calcium; the listed vitamin D dosage was a trivial ~400IU, while I take >10x as much now (5000IU).
MPH was developed more recently and marketed primarily for ADHD, although it is sometimes prescribed off label or used nonmedically to increase alertness, energy, or concentration in conditions other than ADHD. Both MPH and AMP are on the list of substances banned from sports competitions by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Docherty, 2008). Both also have the potential for abuse and dependence, which detracts from their usefulness and is the reason for their classification as Schedule II controlled substances. Although the risk of developing dependence on these drugs is believed to be low for individuals taking them for ADHD, the Schedule II classification indicates that these drugs have a high potential for abuse and that abuse may lead to severe dependence.
One should note the serious caveats here: it is a small in vitro study of a single category of human cells with an effect size that is not clear on a protein which feeds into who-knows-what pathways. It is not a result in a whole organism on any clinically meaningful endpoint, even if we take it at face-value (many results never replicate). A look at followup work citing Rapuri et al 2007 is not encouraging: Google Scholar lists no human studies of any kind, much less high-quality studies like RCTs; just some rat followups on the calcium effect. This is not to say Rapuri et al 2007 is a bad study, just that it doesn’t bear the weight people are putting on it: if you enjoy caffeine, this is close to zero evidence that you should reduce or drop caffeine consumption; if you’re taking too much caffeine, you already have plenty of reasons to reduce; if you’re drinking lots of coffee, you already have plenty of reasons to switch to tea; etc.
Feeling behind, I resolved to take some armodafinil the next morning, which I did - but in my hurry I failed to recall that 200mg armodafinil was probably too much to take during the day, with its long half life. As a result, I felt irritated and not that great during the day (possibly aggravated by some caffeine - I wish some studies would be done on the possible interaction of modafinil and caffeine so I knew if I was imagining it or not). Certainly not what I had been hoping for. I went to bed after midnight (half an hour later than usual), and suffered severe insomnia. The time wasn’t entirely wasted as I wrote a short story and figured out how to make nicotine gum placebos during the hours in the dark, but I could have done without the experience. All metrics omitted because it was a day usage.

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If you want to make sure that whatever you’re taking is safe, search for nootropics that have been backed by clinical trials and that have been around long enough for any potential warning signs about that specific nootropic to begin surfacing. There are supplements and nootropics that have been tested in a clinical setting, so there are options out there.
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