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.
Bought 5,000 IU soft-gels of Vitamin D-333 (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) because I was feeling very apathetic in January 2011 and not getting much done, even slacking on regular habits like Mnemosyne spaced repetition review or dual n-back or my Wikipedia watchlist. Introspecting, I was reminded of depression & dysthymia & seasonal affective disorder.
Racetams, specifically Piracetam, an ingredient popular in over-the-counter nootropics, are synthetic stimulants designed to improve brain function. Patel notes Piracetam is the granddaddy of all racetams, and the term “nootropic” was originally coined to describe its effects. However, despite its popularity and how long it’s been around and in use, researchers don’t know what its mechanism of action is. Patel explained that the the most prominent hypothesis suggests Piracetam enhances neuronal function by increasing membrane fluidity in the brain, but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. And Patel elaborated that most studies on Piracetam aren’t done with the target market for nootropics in mind, the young professional:
A week later: Golden Sumatran, 3 spoonfuls, a more yellowish powder. (I combined it with some tea dregs to hopefully cut the flavor a bit.) Had a paper to review that night. No (subjectively noticeable) effect on energy or productivity. I tried 4 spoonfuls at noon the next day; nothing except a little mental tension, for lack of a better word. I think that was just the harbinger of what my runny nose that day and the day before was, a head cold that laid me low during the evening.
The question of how much nonmedical use of stimulants occurs on college campuses is only partly answered by the proportion of students using the drugs in this way. The other part of the answer is how frequently they are used by those students. Three studies addressed this issue. Low and Gendaszek (2002) found a high past-year rate of 35.3%, but only 10% and 8% of this population used monthly and weekly, respectively. White et al. (2006) found a larger percentage used frequently: 15.5% using two to three times per week and 33.9% using two to three times per month. Teter et al. (2006) found that most nonmedical users take prescription stimulants sporadically, with well over half using five or fewer times and nearly 40% using only once or twice in their lives. DeSantis et al. (2008) offered qualitative evidence on the issue, reporting that students often turned to stimulants at exam time only, particularly when under pressure to study for multiple exams at the same time. Thus, there appears to be wide variation in the regularity of stimulant use, with the most common pattern appearing to be infrequent use.

The chemical Huperzine-A (Examine.com) is extracted from a moss. It is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor (instead of forcing out more acetylcholine like the -racetams, it prevents acetylcholine from breaking down). My experience report: One for the null hypothesis files - Huperzine-A did nothing for me. Unlike piracetam or fish oil, after a full bottle (Source Naturals, 120 pills at 200μg each), I noticed no side-effects, no mental improvements of any kind, and no changes in DNB scores from straight Huperzine-A.
…The Fate of Nicotine in the Body also describes Battelle’s animal work on nicotine absorption. Using C14-labeled nicotine in rabbits, the Battelle scientists compared gastric absorption with pulmonary absorption. Gastric absorption was slow, and first pass removal of nicotine by the liver (which transforms nicotine into inactive metabolites) was demonstrated following gastric administration, with consequently low systemic nicotine levels. In contrast, absorption from the lungs was rapid and led to widespread distribution. These results show that nicotine absorbed from the stomach is largely metabolized by the liver before it has a chance to get to the brain. That is why tobacco products have to be puffed, smoked or sucked on, or absorbed directly into the bloodstream (i.e., via a nicotine patch). A nicotine pill would not work because the nicotine would be inactivated before it reached the brain.

After my rudimentary stacking efforts flamed out in unspectacular fashion, I tried a few ready-made stacks—brand-name nootropic cocktails that offer to eliminate the guesswork for newbies. They were just as useful. And a lot more expensive. Goop’s Braindust turned water into tea-flavored chalk. But it did make my face feel hot for 45 minutes. Then there were the two pills of Brain Force Plus, a supplement hawked relentlessly by Alex Jones of InfoWars infamy. The only result of those was the lingering guilt of knowing that I had willingly put $19.95 in the jorts pocket of a dipshit conspiracy theorist.
Yes, according to a new policy at Duke University, which says that the “unauthorized use of prescription medicine to enhance academic performance” should be treated as cheating.” And no, according to law professor Nita Farahany, herself based at Duke University, who has called the policy “ill-conceived,” arguing that “banning smart drugs disempowers students from making educated choices for themselves.”
Dallas Michael Cyr, a 41-year-old life coach and business mentor in San Diego, California, also says he experienced a mental improvement when he regularly took another product called Qualia Mind, which its makers say enhances focus, energy, mental clarity, memory and even creativity and mood. "One of the biggest things I noticed was it was much more difficult to be distracted," says Cyr, who took the supplements for about six months but felt their effects last longer. While he's naturally great at starting projects and tasks, the product allowed him to be a "great finisher" too, he says.
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?
Low-tech methods of cognitive enhancement include many components of what has traditionally been viewed as a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and stress management. These low-tech methods nevertheless belong in a discussion of brain enhancement because, in addition to benefiting cognitive performance, their effects on brain function have been demonstrated (Almeida et al., 2002; Boonstra, Stins, Daffertshofer, & Beek, 2007; Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008; Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008; Van Dongen, Maislin, Mullington, & Dinges, 2003).
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people.[21][22][23] It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks.[25] At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.[26]
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