Even the best of today’s nootropics only just barely scratch the surface. You might say that we are in the “Nokia 1100” phase of taking nootropics, and as better tools and more data come along, the leading thinkers in the space see a powerful future. For example, they are already beginning to look past biochemistry to the epigenome. Not only is the epigenome the code that runs much of your native biochemistry, we now know that experiences in life can be recorded in your epigenome and then passed onto future generations. There is every reason to believe that you are currently running epigenetic code that you inherited from your great-grandmother’s life experiences. And there is every reason to believe that the epigenome can be hacked – that the nootropics of the future can not only support and enhance our biochemistry, but can permanently change the epigenetic code that drives that biochemistry and that we pass onto our children. This is why many healthy individuals use nootropics. They have great benefits and can promote brain function and reduce oxidative stress. They can also improve sleep quality.
Each nootropic comes with a recommended amount to take. This is almost always based on a healthy adult male with an average weight and ‘normal’ metabolism. Nootropics (and many other drugs) are almost exclusively tested on healthy men. If you are a woman, older, smaller or in any other way not the ‘average’ man, always take into account that the quantity could be different for you.
Four of the studies focused on middle and high school students, with varied results. Boyd, McCabe, Cranford, and Young (2006) found a 2.3% lifetime prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use in their sample, and McCabe, Teter, and Boyd (2004) found a 4.1% lifetime prevalence in public school students from a single American public school district. Poulin (2001) found an 8.5% past-year prevalence in public school students from four provinces in the Atlantic region of Canada. A more recent study of the same provinces found a 6.6% and 8.7% past-year prevalence for MPH and AMP use, respectively (Poulin, 2007).
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.
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!
Another important epidemiological question about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement concerns the risk of dependence. MPH and d-AMP both have high potential for abuse and addiction related to their effects on brain systems involved in motivation. On the basis of their reanalysis of NSDUH data sets from 2000 to 2002, Kroutil and colleagues (2006) estimated that almost one in 20 nonmedical users of prescription ADHD medications meets criteria for dependence or abuse. This sobering estimate is based on a survey of all nonmedical users. The immediate and long-term risks to individuals seeking cognitive enhancement remain unknown.
Omega-3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA – two Cochrane Collaboration reviews on the use of supplemental omega-3 fatty acids for ADHD and learning disorders conclude that there is limited evidence of treatment benefits for either disorder. Two other systematic reviews noted no cognition-enhancing effects in the general population or middle-aged and older adults.
White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop (2006) 2002 Large university undergraduates and graduates (N = 1,025) 16.2% (lifetime) 68.9%: improve attention; 65.2:% partying; 54.3%: improve study habits; 20%: improve grades; 9.1%: reduce hyperactivity 15.5%: 2–3 times per week; 33.9%: 2–3 times per month; 50.6%: 2–3 times per year 58%: easy or somewhat easy to obtain; write-in comments indicated many obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions
If this is the case, this suggests some thoughtfulness about my use of nicotine: there are times when use of nicotine will not be helpful, but times where it will be helpful. I don’t know what makes the difference, but I can guess it relates to over-stimulation: on some nights during the experiment, I had difficult concentrating on n-backing because it was boring and I was thinking about the other things I was interested in or working on - in retrospect, I wonder if those instances were nicotine nights.
It is known that American college students have embraced cognitive enhancement, and some information exists about the demographics of the students most likely to practice cognitive enhancement with prescription stimulants. Outside of this narrow segment of the population, very little is known. What happens when students graduate and enter the world of work? Do they continue using prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement in their first jobs and beyond? How might the answer to this question depend on occupation? For those who stay on campus to pursue graduate or professional education, what happens to patterns of use? To what extent do college graduates who did not use stimulants as students begin to use them for cognitive enhancement later in their careers? To what extent do workers without college degrees use stimulants to enhance job performance? How do the answers to these questions differ for countries outside of North America, where the studies of Table 1 were carried out?
It’s not clear that there is much of an effect at all. This makes it hard to design a self-experiment - how big an effect on, say, dual n-back should I be expecting? Do I need an arduous long trial or an easy short one? This would principally determine the value of information too; chocolate seems like a net benefit even if it does not affect the mind, but it’s also fairly costly, especially if one likes (as I do) dark chocolate. Given the mixed research, I don’t think cocoa powder is worth investigating further as a nootropic.
There is a similar substance which can be purchased legally almost anywhere in the world called adrafinil. This is a prodrug for modafinil. You can take it, and then the body will metabolize it into modafinil, providing similar beneficial effects. Unfortunately, it takes longer for adrafinil to kick in—about an hour—rather than a matter of minutes. In addition, there are more potential side-effects to taking the prodrug as compared to the actual drug.
With regards to your mental well-being, nootropics are not antidepressants and mental care is important. They are not a replacement for other ways of treating mental difficulties. That being said, they can help boost your happiness. For instance by helping you sleep better. Melatonin is a synthetic version of a naturally occurring neurotransmitter and could help you sleep better.
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics. Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.