If you could take a pill that would help you study and get better grades, would you? Off-label use of “smart drugs” – pharmaceuticals meant to treat disorders like ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s – are becoming increasingly popular among college students hoping to get ahead, by helping them to stay focused and alert for longer periods of time. But is this cheating? Should their use as cognitive enhancers be approved by the FDA, the medical community, and society at large? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
A number of so-called ‘smart drugs’ or cognitive enhancers have captured attention recently, from stimulants such as modafinil, to amphetamines (often prescribed under the name Adderall) and methylphenidate (also known by its brand name Ritalin). According to widespread news reports, students have begun using these drugs to enhance their performance in school and college, and are continuing to do so in their professional lives.
If you’re considering taking pharmaceutical nootropics, then it’s important that you learn as much as you can about how they work and that you seek professional advice before taking them. Be sure to read the side effects and contraindications of the nootropic that you are considering taking, and do not use it if you have any pre-existing medical conditions or allergies. If you’re taking other medications, then discuss your plans with a doctor or pharmacist to make sure that your nootropic is safe for you to use.

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The beneficial effects as well as the potentially serious side effects of these drugs can be understood in terms of their effects on the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine (Wilens, 2006). These neurotransmitters play an important role in cognition, affecting the cortical and subcortical systems that enable people to focus and flexibly deploy attention (Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). In addition, the brain’s reward centers are innervated by dopamine neurons, accounting for the pleasurable feelings engendered by these stimulants (Robbins & Everett, 1996).
The use of cognitive enhancers by healthy individuals sparked debate about ethics and safety. Cognitive enhancement by pharmaceutical means was considered a form of illicit drug use in some places, even while other cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine and nicotine, were freely available. The conflict therein raised the possibility for further acceptance of smart drugs in the future. However, the long-term effects of smart drugs on otherwise healthy brains were unknown, delaying safety assessments.

Noopept is a nootropic that belongs to the ampakine family. It is known for promoting learning, boosting mood, and improving logical thinking. It has been popular as a study drug for a long time but has recently become a popular supplement for improving vision. Users report seeing colors more brightly and feeling as if their vision is more vivid after taking noopept.


As for newer nootropic drugs, there are unknown risks. “Piracetam has been studied for decades,” says cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Hill, the founder of a neurofeedback company in Los Angeles called Peak Brain Institute. But “some of [the newer] compounds are things that some random editor found in a scientific article, copied the formula down and sent it to China and had a bulk powder developed three months later that they’re selling. Please don’t take it, people!”
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.
Either way, if more and more people use these types of stimulants, there may be a risk that we will find ourselves in an ever-expanding neurological arm’s race, argues philosophy professor Nicole Vincent. But is this necessarily a bad thing? No, says Farahany, who sees the improvement in cognitive functioning as a social good that we should pursue. Better brain functioning would result in societal benefits, she argues, “like economic gains or even reducing dangerous errors.”
Clarke and Sokoloff (1998) remarked that although [a] common view equates concentrated mental effort with mental work…there appears to be no increased energy utilization by the brain during such processes (p. 664), and …the areas that participate in the processes of such reasoning represent too small a fraction of the brain for changes in their functional and metabolic activities to be reflected in the energy metabolism of the brain… (p. 675).
Piracetam is a reliable supplement for improving creativity. It is an entry level racetam due to its lack of severe side effects and relative subtlety. Piracetam’s effects take hold over time through continual use. There is less instant gratification compared to other brain enhancers. Additionally, this nootropic can enhance holistic thinking, verbal memory, and mental energy levels.
…Phenethylamine is intrinsically a stimulant, although it doesn’t last long enough to express this property. In other words, it is rapidly and completely destroyed in the human body. It is only when a number of substituent groups are placed here or there on the molecule that this metabolic fate is avoided and pharmacological activity becomes apparent.
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These days, nootropics are beginning to take their rightful place as a particularly powerful tool in the Neurohacker’s toolbox. After all, biochemistry is deeply foundational to neural function. Whether you are trying to fix the damage that is done to your nervous system by a stressful and toxic environment or support and enhance your neural functioning, getting the chemistry right is table-stakes. And we are starting to get good at getting it right. What’s changed?
This research is in contrast to the other substances I like, such as piracetam or fish oil. I knew about withdrawal of course, but it was not so bad when I was drinking only tea. And the side-effects like jitteriness are worse on caffeine without tea; I chalk this up to the lack of theanine. (My later experiences with theanine seems to confirm this.) These negative effects mean that caffeine doesn’t satisfy the strictest definition of nootropic (having no negative effects), but is merely a cognitive enhancer (with both benefits & costs). One might wonder why I use caffeine anyway if I am so concerned with mental ability.

Ngo has experimented with piracetam himself (“The first time I tried it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty strong for a supplement.’ I had a little bit of reflux, heartburn, but in general it was a cognitive enhancer. . . . I found it helpful”) and the neurotransmitter DMEA (“You have an idea, it helps you finish the thought. It’s for when people have difficulty finishing that last connection in the brain”).
This world is a competitive place. If you’re not seeking an advantage, you’ll get passed by those who do. Whether you’re studying for a final exam or trying to secure a big business deal, you need a definitive mental edge. Are smart drugs and brain-boosting pills the answer for cognitive enhancement in 2019? If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying, right? Bad advice for some scenarios, but there is a grain of truth to every saying—even this one.
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In 3, you’re considering adding a new supplement, not stopping a supplement you already use. The I don’t try Adderall case has value $0, the Adderall fails case is worth -$40 (assuming you only bought 10 pills, and this number should be increased by your analysis time and a weighted cost for potential permanent side effects), and the Adderall succeeds case is worth $X-40-4099, where $X is the discounted lifetime value of the increased productivity due to Adderall, minus any discounted long-term side effect costs. If you estimate Adderall will work with p=.5, then you should try out Adderall if you estimate that 0.5 \times (X-4179) > 0 ~> $X>4179$. (Adderall working or not isn’t binary, and so you might be more comfortable breaking down the various how effective Adderall is cases when eliciting X, by coming up with different levels it could work at, their values, and then using a weighted sum to get X. This can also give you a better target with your experiment- this needs to show a benefit of at least Y from Adderall for it to be worth the cost, and I’ve designed it so it has a reasonable chance of showing that.)

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.
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.
Took pill #6 at 12:35 PM. Hard to be sure. I ultimately decided that it was Adderall because I didn’t have as much trouble as I normally would in focusing on reading and then finishing my novel (Surface Detail) despite my family watching a movie, though I didn’t notice any lack of appetite. Call this one 60-70% Adderall. I check the next evening and it was Adderall.

For instance, they point to the U.S. Army's use of stimulants for soldiers to stave off sleep and to stay sharp. But the Army cares little about the long-term health effects of soldiers, who come home scarred physically or mentally, if they come home at all. It's a risk-benefit decision for the Army, and in a life-or-death situation, stimulants help.
Sure, those with a mental illness may very well need a little more monitoring to make sure they take their medications, but will those suffering from a condition with hallmark symptoms of paranoia and anxiety be helped by consuming a technology that quite literally puts a tracking device inside their body? For patients hearing voices telling them that they're being watched, a monitoring device may be a hard pill to swallow.
As professionals and aging baby boomers alike become more interested in enhancing their own brain power (either to achieve more in a workday or to stave off cognitive decline), a huge market has sprung up for nonprescription nootropic supplements. These products don’t convince Sahakian: “As a clinician scientist, I am interested in evidence-based cognitive enhancement,” she says. “Many companies produce supplements, but few, if any, have double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to show that these supplements are cognitive enhancers.” Plus, supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so consumers don’t have that assurance as to exactly what they are getting. Check out these 15 memory exercises proven to keep your brain sharp.

Took pill #6 at 12:35 PM. Hard to be sure. I ultimately decided that it was Adderall because I didn’t have as much trouble as I normally would in focusing on reading and then finishing my novel (Surface Detail) despite my family watching a movie, though I didn’t notice any lack of appetite. Call this one 60-70% Adderall. I check the next evening and it was Adderall.
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.

Among the questions to be addressed in the present article are, How widespread is the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement? Who uses them, for what specific purposes? Given that nonmedical use of these substances is illegal, how are they obtained? Furthermore, do these substances actually enhance cognition? If so, what aspects of cognition do they enhance? Is everyone able to be enhanced, or are some groups of healthy individuals helped by these drugs and others not? The goal of this article is to address these questions by reviewing and synthesizing findings from the existing scientific literature. We begin with a brief overview of the psychopharmacology of the two most commonly used prescription stimulants.


Nootropics (/noʊ.əˈtrɒpɪks/ noh-ə-TROP-iks) (colloquial: smart drugs and cognitive enhancers) are drugs, supplements, and other substances that may improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.[1] While many substances are purported to improve cognition, research is at a preliminary stage as of 2018, and the effects of the majority of these agents are not fully determined.
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