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.
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.)
The majority of studies seem to be done on types of people who are NOT buying nootropics. Like the elderly, people with blatant cognitive deficits, etc. This is analogous to some of the muscle-building research but more extreme. Like there are studies on some compound increasing muscle growth in elderly patients or patients with wasting, and supplement companies use some of those studies to back their supplements.
Interesting. On days ranked 2 (below-average mood/productivity), nicotine seems to have boosted scores; on days ranked 3, nicotine hurts scores; there aren’t enough 4’s to tell, but even ’5 days seem to see a boost from nicotine, which is not predicted by the theory. But I don’t think much of a conclusion can be drawn: not enough data to make out any simple relationship. Some modeling suggests no relationship in this data either (although also no difference in standard deviations, leading me to wonder if I screwed up the data recording - not all of the DNB scores seem to match the input data in the previous analysis). So although the 2 days in the graph are striking, the theory may not be right.
Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, doesn’t dismiss the possibility of nootropics to enhance cognitive function in healthy people. She would like to see society think about what might be considered acceptable use and where it draws the line – for example, young people whose brains are still developing. But she also points out a big problem: long-term safety studies in healthy people have never been done. Most efficacy studies have only been short-term. “Proving safety and efficacy is needed,” she says.
The therapeutic effect of AMP and MPH in ADHD is consistent with the finding of abnormalities in the catecholamine system in individuals with ADHD (e.g., Volkow et al., 2007). Both AMP and MPH exert their effects on cognition primarily by increasing levels of catecholamines in prefrontal cortex and the cortical and subcortical regions projecting to it, and this mechanism is responsible for improving cognition and behavior in ADHD (Pliszka, 2005; Wilens, 2006).
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Several studies have assessed the effect of MPH and d-AMP on tasks tapping various other aspects of spatial working memory. Three used the spatial working memory task from the CANTAB battery of neuropsychological tests (Sahakian & Owen, 1992). In this task, subjects search for a target at different locations on a screen. Subjects are told that locations containing a target in previous trials will not contain a target in future trials. Efficient performance therefore requires remembering and avoiding these locations in addition to remembering and avoiding locations already searched within a trial. Mehta et al. (2000) found evidence of greater accuracy with MPH, and Elliott et al. (1997) found a trend for the same. In Mehta et al.’s study, this effect depended on subjects’ working memory ability: the lower a subject’s score on placebo, the greater the improvement on MPH. In Elliott et al.’s study, MPH enhanced performance for the group of subjects who received the placebo first and made little difference for the other group. The reason for this difference is unclear, but as mentioned above, this may reflect ability differences between the groups. More recently, Clatworthy et al. (2009) undertook a positron emission tomography (PET) study of MPH effects on two tasks, one of which was the CANTAB spatial working memory task. They failed to find consistent effects of MPH on working memory performance but did find a systematic relation between the performance effect of the drug in each individual and its effect on individuals’ dopamine activity in the ventral striatum.
Long-term use is different, and research-backed efficacy is another question altogether. The nootropic market is not regulated, so a company can make claims without getting in trouble for making those claims because they’re not technically selling a drug. This is why it’s important to look for well-known brands and standardized nootropic herbs where it’s easier to calculate the suggested dose and be fairly confident about what you’re taking.
MPH was developed more recently and marketed primarily for ADHD, although it is sometimes prescribed off label or used nonmedically to increase alertness, energy, or concentration in conditions other than ADHD. Both MPH and AMP are on the list of substances banned from sports competitions by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Docherty, 2008). Both also have the potential for abuse and dependence, which detracts from their usefulness and is the reason for their classification as Schedule II controlled substances. Although the risk of developing dependence on these drugs is believed to be low for individuals taking them for ADHD, the Schedule II classification indicates that these drugs have a high potential for abuse and that abuse may lead to severe dependence.
Another prescription stimulant medication, modafinil (known by the brand name Provigil), is usually prescribed to patients suffering from narcolepsy and shift-work sleep disorder, but it might turn out to have broader applications. “We have conducted at the University of Cambridge double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in healthy people using modafinil and have found improvements in cognition, including in working memory,” Sahakian says. However, she doesn’t think everyone should start using the drug off-label. “There are no long-term safety and efficacy studies of modafinil in healthy people, and so it is unclear what the risks might be.”
Eugeroics (armodafinil and modafinil) – are classified as "wakefulness promoting" agents; modafinil increased alertness, particularly in sleep deprived individuals, and was noted to facilitate reasoning and problem solving in non-ADHD youth. In a systematic review of small, preliminary studies where the effects of modafinil were examined, when simple psychometric assessments were considered, modafinil intake appeared to enhance executive function. Modafinil does not produce improvements in mood or motivation in sleep deprived or non-sleep deprived individuals.