A fundamental aspect of human evolution has been the drive to augment our capabilities. The neocortex is the neural seat of abstract and higher order cognitive processes. As it grew, so did our ability to create. The invention of tools and weapons, writing, the steam engine, and the computer have exponentially increased our capacity to influence and understand the world around us. These advances are being driven by improved higher-order cognitive processing.1Fascinatingly, the practice of modulating our biology through naturally occurring flora predated all of the above discoveries. Indeed, Sumerian clay slabs as old as 5000 BC detail medicinal recipes which include over 250 plants2. The enhancement of human cognition through natural compounds followed, as people discovered plants containing caffeine, theanine, and other cognition-enhancing, or nootropic, agents.
The placebos can be the usual pills filled with olive oil. The Nature’s Answer fish oil is lemon-flavored; it may be worth mixing in some lemon juice. In Kiecolt-Glaser et al 2011, anxiety was measured via the Beck Anxiety scale; the placebo mean was 1.2 on a standard deviation of 0.075, and the experimental mean was 0.93 on a standard deviation of 0.076. (These are all log-transformed covariates or something; I don’t know what that means, but if I naively plug those numbers into Cohen’s d, I get a very large effect: \frac{1.2 - 0.93}{0.076}=3.55.)
In fact, some of these so-called “smart drugs” are already remarkably popular. One recent survey involving tens of thousands of people found that 30% of Americans who responded had taken them in the last year. It seems as though we may soon all be partaking – and it’s easy to get carried away with the consequences. Will this new batch of intellectual giants lead to dazzling, space-age inventions? Or perhaps an explosion in economic growth? Might the working week become shorter, as people become more efficient?
Using prescription ADHD medications, racetams, and other synthetic nootropics can boost brain power. Yes, they can work. Even so, we advise against using them long-term since the research on their safety is still new. Use them at your own risk. For the majority of users, stick with all natural brain supplements for best results. What is your favorite smart pill for increasing focus and mental energy? Tell us about your favorite cognitive enhancer in the comments below.
For illustration, consider amphetamines, Ritalin, and modafinil, all of which have been proposed as cognitive enhancers of attention. These drugs exhibit some positive effects on cognition, especially among individuals with lower baseline abilities. However, individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance following drug treatment (for details, see de Jongh, Bolt, Schermer, & Olivier, 2008). For instance, Randall, Shneerson, and File (2005) found that modafinil improved performance only among individuals with lower IQ, not among those with higher IQ. [See also Finke et al 2010 on visual attention.] Farah, Haimm, Sankoorikal, & Chatterjee 2009 found a similar nonlinear relationship of dose to response for amphetamines in a remote-associates task, with low-performing individuals showing enhanced performance but high-performing individuals showing reduced performance. Such ∩-shaped dose-response curves are quite common (see Cools & Robbins, 2004)

One of the most obscure -racetams around, coluracetam (Smarter Nootropics, Ceretropic, Isochroma) acts in a different way from piracetam - piracetam apparently attacks the breakdown of acetylcholine while coluracetam instead increases how much choline can be turned into useful acetylcholine. This apparently is a unique mechanism. A crazy Longecity user, ScienceGuy ponied up $16,000 (!) for a custom synthesis of 500g; he was experimenting with 10-80mg sublingual doses (the ranges in the original anti-depressive trials) and reported a laundry list of effects (as does Isochroma): primarily that it was anxiolytic and increased work stamina. Unfortunately for my stack, he claims it combines poorly with piracetam. He offered free 2g samples for regulars to test his claims. I asked & received some.

For illustration, consider amphetamines, Ritalin, and modafinil, all of which have been proposed as cognitive enhancers of attention. These drugs exhibit some positive effects on cognition, especially among individuals with lower baseline abilities. However, individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance following drug treatment (for details, see de Jongh, Bolt, Schermer, & Olivier, 2008). For instance, Randall, Shneerson, and File (2005) found that modafinil improved performance only among individuals with lower IQ, not among those with higher IQ. [See also Finke et al 2010 on visual attention.] Farah, Haimm, Sankoorikal, & Chatterjee 2009 found a similar nonlinear relationship of dose to response for amphetamines in a remote-associates task, with low-performing individuals showing enhanced performance but high-performing individuals showing reduced performance. Such ∩-shaped dose-response curves are quite common (see Cools & Robbins, 2004)
The evidence? Although everyone can benefit from dietary sources of essential fatty acids, supplementation is especially recommended for people with heart disease. A small study published in 2013 found that DHA may enhance memory and reaction time in healthy young adults. However, a more recent review suggested that there is not enough evidence of any effect from omega 3 supplementation in the general population.
As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩
That study is also interesting for finding benefits to chronic piracetam+choline supplementation in the mice, which seems connected to a Russian study which reportedly found that piracetam (among other more obscure nootropics) increased secretion of BDNF in mice. See also Drug heuristics on a study involving choline supplementation in pregnant rats.↩
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The original “smart drug” is piracetam, which was discovered by the Romanian scientist Corneliu Giurgea in the early 1960s. At the time, he was looking for a chemical that could sneak into the brain and make people feel sleepy. After months of testing, he came up with “Compound 6215”. It was safe, it had very few side effects – and it didn’t work. The drug didn’t send anyone into a restful slumber and seemed to work in the opposite way to that intended.
I can test fish oil for mood, since the other claimed benefits like anti-schizophrenia are too hard to test. The medical student trial (Kiecolt-Glaser et al 2011) did not see changes until visit 3, after 3 weeks of supplementation. (Visit 1, 3 weeks, visit 2, supplementation started for 3 weeks, visit 3, supplementation continued 3 weeks, visit 4 etc.) There were no tests in between the test starting week 1 and starting week 3, so I can’t pin it down any further. This suggests randomizing in 2 or 3 week blocks. (For an explanation of blocking, see the footnote in the Zeo page.)
Smart pills have huge potential and several important applications, particularly in diagnosis. Smart pills are growing as a highly effective method of endoscopy, particularly for gastrointestinal diseases. Urbanization and rapid lifestyle changes leaning toward unhealthy diets and poor eating habits have led to distinctive increasing lifestyle disorders such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), obesity, and gastric ulcers.
Although piracetam has a history of “relatively few side effects,” it has fallen far short of its initial promise for treating any of the illnesses associated with cognitive decline, according to Lon Schneider, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “We don’t use it at all and never have.”
“In the hospital and ICU struggles, this book and Cavin’s experience are golden, and if we’d have had this book’s special attention to feeding tube nutrition, my son would be alive today sitting right here along with me saying it was the cod liver oil, the fish oil, and other nutrients able to be fed to him instead of the junk in the pharmacy tubes, that got him past the liver-test results, past the internal bleeding, past the brain difficulties controlling so many response-obstacles back then. Back then, the ‘experts’ in rural hospitals were unwilling to listen, ignored my son’s unexpected turnaround when we used codliver oil transdermally on his sore skin, threatened instead to throw me out, but Cavin has his own proof and his accumulated experience in others’ journeys. Cavin’s boxed areas of notes throughout the book on applying the brain nutrient concepts in feeding tubes are powerful stuff, details to grab onto and run with… hammer them!
Sounds too good to be true? Welcome to the world of ‘Nootropics’ popularly known as ‘Smart Drugs’ that can help boost your brain’s power. Do you recall the scene from the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s character uses a smart drug that makes him brilliant? Yes! The effect of Nootropics on your brain is such that the results come as a no-brainer.
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.

Some data suggest that cognitive enhancers do improve some types of learning and memory, but many other data say these substances have no effect. The strongest evidence for these substances is for the improvement of cognitive function in people with brain injury or disease (for example, Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury). Although "popular" books and companies that sell smart drugs will try to convince you that these drugs work, the evidence for any significant effects of these substances in normal people is weak. There are also important side-effects that must be considered. Many of these substances affect neurotransmitter systems in the central nervous system. The effects of these chemicals on neurological function and behavior is unknown. Moreover, the long-term safety of these substances has not been adequately tested. Also, some substances will interact with other substances. A substance such as the herb ma-huang may be dangerous if a person stops taking it suddenly; it can also cause heart attacks, stroke, and sudden death. Finally, it is important to remember that products labeled as "natural" do not make them "safe."
One study of helicopter pilots suggested that 600 mg of modafinil given in three doses can be used to keep pilots alert and maintain their accuracy at pre-deprivation levels for 40 hours without sleep.[60] However, significant levels of nausea and vertigo were observed. Another study of fighter pilots showed that modafinil given in three divided 100 mg doses sustained the flight control accuracy of sleep-deprived F-117 pilots to within about 27% of baseline levels for 37 hours, without any considerable side effects.[61] In an 88-hour sleep loss study of simulated military grounds operations, 400 mg/day doses were mildly helpful at maintaining alertness and performance of subjects compared to placebo, but the researchers concluded that this dose was not high enough to compensate for most of the effects of complete sleep loss.
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.
Similarly, Mehta et al 2000 noted that the positive effects of methylphenidate (40 mg) on spatial working memory performance were greatest in those volunteers with lower baseline working memory capacity. In a study of the effects of ginkgo biloba in healthy young adults, Stough et al 2001 found improved performance in the Trail-Making Test A only in the half with the lower verbal IQ.

While the primary effect of the drug is massive muscle growth the psychological side effects actually improved his sanity by an absurd degree. He went from barely functional to highly productive. When one observes that the decision to not attempt to fulfill one’s CEV at a given moment is a bad decision it follows that all else being equal improved motivation is improved sanity.
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A “smart pill” is a drug that increases the cognitive ability of anyone taking it, whether the user is cognitively impaired or normal. The Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu Giurgea is often credited with first proposing, in the 1960s, that smart pills should be developed to increase the intelligence of the general population (see Giurgea, 1984). He is quoted as saying, “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain” (Gazzaniga, 2005, p. 71). In their best-selling book, Smart Drugs and Nutrients, Dean and Morgenthaler (1990) reviewed a large number of substances that have been used by healthy individuals with the goal of increasing cognitive ability. These include synthetic and natural products that affect neurotransmitter levels, neurogenesis, and blood flow to the brain. Although many of these substances have their adherents, none have become widely used. Caffeine and nicotine may be exceptions to this generalization, as one motivation among many for their use is cognitive enhancement (Julien, 2001).

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).
The next cheap proposition to test is that the 2ml dose is so large that the sedation/depressive effect of nicotine has begun to kick in. This is easy to test: take much less, like half a ml. I do so two or three times over the next day, and subjectively the feeling seems to be the same - which seems to support that proposition (although perhaps I’ve been placebo effecting myself this whole time, in which case the exact amount doesn’t matter). If this theory is true, my previous sleep results don’t show anything; one would expect nicotine-as-sedative to not hurt sleep or improve it. I skip the day (no cravings or addiction noticed), and take half a ml right before bed at 11:30; I fall asleep in 12 minutes and have a ZQ of ~105. The next few days I try putting one or two drops into the tea kettle, which seems to work as well (or poorly) as before. At that point, I was warned that there were some results that nicotine withdrawal can kick in with delays as long as a week, so I shouldn’t be confident that a few days off proved an absence of addiction; I immediately quit to see what the week would bring. 4 or 7 days in, I didn’t notice anything. I’m still using it, but I’m definitely a little nonplussed and disgruntled - I need some independent source of nicotine to compare with!
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.
When Giurgea coined the word nootropic (combining the Greek words for mind and bending) in the 1970s, he was focused on a drug he had synthesized called piracetam. Although it is approved in many countries, it isn’t categorized as a prescription drug in the United States. That means it can be purchased online, along with a number of newer formulations in the same drug family (including aniracetam, phenylpiracetam, and oxiracetam). Some studies have shown beneficial effects, including one in the 1990s that indicated possible improvement in the hippocampal membranes in Alzheimer’s patients. But long-term studies haven’t yet borne out the hype.
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.
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)

When you hear about nootropics, often called “smart drugs,” you probably picture something like the scene above from Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s character becomes brilliant after downing a strange pill. The drugs and supplements currently available don’t pack that strong of a punch, but the concept is basically the same. Many nootropics have promising benefits, like boosting memory, focus, or motivation, and there’s research to support specific uses. But the most effective nootropics, like Modafinil, aren’t intended for use without a prescription to treat a specific condition. In fact, recreational use of nootropics is hotly-debated among doctors and medical researchers. Many have concerns about the possible adverse effects of long-term use, as well as the ethics of using cognitive enhancers to gain an advantage in school, sports, or even everyday work.
In the United States, people consume more coffee than fizzy drink, tea and juice combined. Alas, no one has ever estimated its impact on economic growth – but plenty of studies have found myriad other benefits. Somewhat embarrassingly, caffeine has been proven to be better than the caffeine-based commercial supplement that Woo’s company came up with, which is currently marketed at $17.95 for 60 pills.

More than once I have seen results indicating that high-IQ types benefit the least from random nootropics; nutritional deficits are the premier example, because high-IQ types almost by definition suffer from no major deficiencies like iodine. But a stimulant modafinil may be another such nootropic (see Cognitive effects of modafinil in student volunteers may depend on IQ, Randall et al 2005), which mentions:
“Cavin has done an amazing job in all aspects of his life. Overcoming the horrific life threatening accident, and then going on to do whatever he can to help others with his contagious wonderful attitude. This book is an easy to understand fact filled manual for anyone, but especially those who are or are caregivers for a loved one with tbi. I also highly recommend his podcast series.”
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.
So the chi-squared believes there is a statistically-significant difference, the two-sample test disagrees, and the binomial also disagrees. Since I regarded it as a dubious theory, can’t see a difference, and the binomial seems like the most appropriate test, I conclude that several months of 1mg iodine did not change my eye color. (As a final test, when I posted the results on the Longecity forum where people were claiming the eye color change, I swapped the labels on the photos to see if anyone would claim something along the lines when I look at the photos, I can see a difference!. I thought someone might do that, which would be a damning demonstration of their biases & wishful thinking, but no one did.)
The truth is that, almost 20 years ago when my brain was failing and I was fat and tired, I did not know to follow this advice. I bought $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe, took them all at once out of desperation, and got enough cognitive function to save my career and tackle my metabolic problems. With the information we have now, you don’t need to do that. Please learn from my mistakes!
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