Nondrug cognitive-enhancement methods include the high tech and the low. An example of the former is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), whereby weak currents are induced in specific brain areas by magnetic fields generated outside the head. TMS is currently being explored as a therapeutic modality for neuropsychiatric conditions as diverse as depression and ADHD and is capable of enhancing the cognition of normal healthy people (e.g., Kirschen, Davis-Ratner, Jerde, Schraedley-Desmond, & Desmond, 2006). An older technique, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), has become the subject of renewed research interest and has proven capable of enhancing the cognitive performance of normal healthy individuals in a variety of tasks. For example, Flöel, Rösser, Michka, Knecht, and Breitenstein (2008) reported enhancement of learning and Dockery, Hueckel-Weng, Birbaumer, and Plewnia (2009) reported enhancement of planning with tDCS.
Some supplement blends, meanwhile, claim to work by combining ingredients – bacopa, cat's claw, huperzia serrata and oat straw in the case of Alpha Brain, for example – that have some support for boosting cognition and other areas of nervous system health. One 2014 study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggested that huperzia serrata, which is used in China to fight Alzheimer's disease, may help slow cell death and protect against (or slow the progression of) neurodegenerative diseases. The Alpha Brain product itself has also been studied in a company-funded small randomized controlled trial, which found Alpha Brain significantly improved verbal memory when compared to adults who took a placebo.
As expected since most of the data overlaps with the previous LLLT analysis, the LLLT variable correlates strongly; the individual magnesium variables may look a little more questionable but were justified in the magnesium citrate analysis. The Noopept result looks a little surprising - almost zero effect? Let’s split by dose (which was the point of the whole rigmarole of changing dose levels):
…researchers have added a new layer to the smart pill conversation. Adderall, they’ve found, makes you think you’re doing better than you actually are….Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job….But the results of the new University of Pennsylvania study, funded by the U.S. Navy and not yet published but presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference last month, are consistent with much of the existing research. As a group, no overall statistically-significant improvement or impairment was seen as a result of taking Adderall. The research team tested 47 subjects, all in their 20s, all without a diagnosis of ADHD, on a variety of cognitive functions, from working memory-how much information they could keep in mind and manipulate-to raw intelligence, to memories for specific events and faces….The last question they asked their subjects was: How and how much did the pill influence your performance on today’s tests? Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job on the tasks they’d been given, even though their performance did not show an improvement over that of those who had taken the placebo. According to Irena Ilieva…it’s the first time since the 1960s that a study on the effects of amphetamine, a close cousin of Adderall, has asked how subjects perceive the effect of the drug on their performance.
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.
A rough translation for the word “nootropic” comes from the Greek for “to bend or shape the mind.” And already, there are dozens of over-the-counter (OTC) products—many of which are sold widely online or in stores—that claim to boost creativity, memory, decision-making or other high-level brain functions. Some of the most popular supplements are a mixture of food-derived vitamins, lipids, phytochemicals and antioxidants that studies have linked to healthy brain function. One popular pick on Amazon, for example, is an encapsulated cocktail of omega-3s, B vitamins and plant-derived compounds that its maker claims can improve memory, concentration and focus.
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The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.
One last note on tolerance; after the first few days of using smart drugs, just like with other drugs, you may not get the same effects as before. You’ve just experienced the honeymoon period. This is where you feel a large effect the first few times, but after that, you can’t replicate it. Be careful not to exceed recommended doses, and try cycling to get the desired effects again.
How much of the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants documented by these studies was for cognitive enhancement? Prescription stimulants could be used for purposes other than cognitive enhancement, including for feelings of euphoria or energy, to stay awake, or to curb appetite. Were they being used by students as smart pills or as “fun pills,” “awake pills,” or “diet pills”? Of course, some of these categories are not entirely distinct. For example, by increasing the wakefulness of a sleep-deprived person or by lifting the mood or boosting the motivation of an apathetic person, stimulants are likely to have the secondary effect of improving cognitive performance. Whether and when such effects should be classified as cognitive enhancement is a question to which different answers are possible, and none of the studies reviewed here presupposed an answer. Instead, they show how the respondents themselves classified their reasons for nonmedical stimulant use.
Nature magazine conducted a poll asking its readers about their cognitive-enhancement practices and their attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. Hundreds of college faculty and other professionals responded, and approximately one fifth reported using drugs for cognitive enhancement, with Ritalin being the most frequently named (Maher, 2008). However, the nature of the sample—readers choosing to answer a poll on cognitive enhancement—is not representative of the academic or general population, making the results of the poll difficult to interpret. By analogy, a poll on Vermont vacations, asking whether people vacation in Vermont, what they think about Vermont, and what they do if and when they visit, would undoubtedly not yield an accurate estimate of the fraction of the population that takes its vacations in Vermont.
The Nature commentary is ivory tower intellectualism at its best. The authors state that society must prepare for the growing demand of such drugs; that healthy adults should be allowed drugs to enhance cognitive ability; that this is "morally equivalent" and no more unnatural than diet, sleep, or the use of computers; that we need an evidence-based approach to evaluate the risks; and that we need legal and ethical policies to ensure fair and equitable use.
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).