Of course, there are drugs out there with more transformative powers. “I think it’s very clear that some do work,” says Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist based at Stanford University. In fact, there’s one category of smart drugs which has received more attention from scientists and biohackers – those looking to alter their own biology and abilities – than any other. These are the stimulants.
“Smart Drugs” are chemical substances that enhance cognition and memory or facilitate learning. However, within this general umbrella of “things you can eat that make you smarter,” there are many variations as far as methods of action within the body, perceptible (and measurable) effects, potential for use and abuse, and the spillover impact on the body’s non-cognitive processes.
1 PM; overall this was a pretty productive day, but I can’t say it was very productive. I would almost say even odds, but for some reason I feel a little more inclined towards modafinil. Say 55%. That night’s sleep was vile: the Zeo says it took me 40 minutes to fall asleep, I only slept 7:37 total, and I woke up 7 times. I’m comfortable taking this as evidence of modafinil (half-life 10 hours, 1 PM to midnight is only 1 full halving), bumping my prediction to 75%. I check, and sure enough - modafinil.
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.
The question of whether stimulants are smart pills in a pragmatic sense cannot be answered solely by consideration of the statistical significance of the difference between stimulant and placebo. A drug with tiny effects, even if statistically significant, would not be a useful cognitive enhancer for most purposes. We therefore report Cohen’s d effect size measure for published studies that provide either means and standard deviations or relevant F or t statistics (Thalheimer & Cook, 2002). More generally, with most sample sizes in the range of a dozen to a few dozen, small effects would not reliably be found.
Finally, a workforce high on stimulants wouldn’t necessarily be more productive overall. “One thinks ‘are these things dangerous?’ – and that’s important to consider in the short term,” says Huberman. “But there’s also a different question, which is: ‘How do you feel the day afterwards?’ Maybe you’re hyper-focused for four hours, 12 hours, but then you’re below baseline for 24 or 48.”

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.
“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.
With so many different ones to choose from, choosing the best nootropics for you can be overwhelming at times. As usual, a decision this important will require research. Study up on the top nootropics which catch your eye the most. The nootropics you take will depend on what you want the enhancement for. The ingredients within each nootropic determine its specific function. For example, some nootropics contain ginkgo biloba, which can help memory, thinking speed, and increase attention span. Check the nootropic ingredients as you determine what end results you want to see. Some nootropics supplements can increase brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. An increase in dopamine levels can be very useful for memory, alertness, reward and more. Many healthy adults, as well as college students take nootropics. This really supports the central nervous system and the brain.
Depending on where you live, some nootropics may not be sold over the counter, but they are usually available online. The law regarding nootropics can vary massively around the world, so be sure to do your homework before you purchase something for the first time. Be particularly cautious when importing smart drugs, because quality control and regulations abroad are not always as stringent as they are in the US. Do not put your health at risk if all you are trying to do is gain an edge in a competitive sport.
And yet aside from anecdotal evidence, we know very little about the use of these drugs in professional settings. The Financial Times has claimed that they are “becoming popular among city lawyers, bankers, and other professionals keen to gain a competitive advantage over colleagues.” Back in 2008 the narcolepsy medication Modafinil was labeled the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice” by TechCrunch. That same year, the magazine Nature asked its readers whether they use cognitive-enhancing drugs; of the 1,400 respondents, one in five responded in the affirmative.
The hormone testosterone (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) needs no introduction. This is one of the scariest substances I have considered using: it affects so many bodily systems in so many ways that it seems almost impossible to come up with a net summary, either positive or negative. With testosterone, the problem is not the usual nootropics problem that that there is a lack of human research, the problem is that the summary constitutes a textbook - or two. That said, the 2011 review The role of testosterone in social interaction (excerpts) gives me the impression that testosterone does indeed play into risk-taking, motivation, and social status-seeking; some useful links and a representative anecdote:
Exercise is also important, says Lebowitz. Studies have shown it sharpens focus, elevates your mood and improves concentration. Likewise, maintaining a healthy social life and getting enough sleep are vital, too. Studies have consistently shown that regularly skipping out on the recommended eight hours can drastically impair critical thinking skills and attention.
Two additional studies assessed the effects of d-AMP on visual–motor sequence learning, a form of nondeclarative, procedural learning, and found no effect (Kumari et al., 1997; Makris, Rush, Frederich, Taylor, & Kelly, 2007). In a related experimental paradigm, Ward, Kelly, Foltin, and Fischman (1997) assessed the effect of d-AMP on the learning of motor sequences from immediate feedback and also failed to find an effect.
Given the size of the literature just reviewed, it is surprising that so many basic questions remain open. Although d-AMP and MPH appear to enhance retention of recently learned information and, in at least some individuals, also enhance working memory and cognitive control, there remains great uncertainty regarding the size and robustness of these effects and their dependence on dosage, individual differences, and specifics of the task.
The research literature, while copious, is messy and varied: methodologies and devices vary substantially, sample sizes are tiny, the study designs vary from paper to paper, metrics are sometimes comically limited (one study measured speed of finishing a RAPM IQ test but not scores), blinding is rare and unclear how successful, etc. Relevant papers include Chung et al 2012, Rojas & Gonzalez-Lima 2013, & Gonzalez-Lima & Barrett 2014. Another Longecity user ran a self-experiment, with some design advice from me, where he performed a few cognitive tests over several periods of LLLT usage (the blocks turned out to be ABBA), using his father and towels to try to blind himself as to condition. I analyzed his data, and his scores did seem to improve, but his scores improved so much in the last part of the self-experiment I found myself dubious as to what was going on - possibly a failure of randomness given too few blocks and an temporal exogenous factor in the last quarter which was responsible for the improvement.
Thursday: 3g piracetam/4g choline bitartrate at 1; 1 200mg modafinil at 2:20; noticed a leveling of fatigue by 3:30; dry eyes? no bad after taste or anything. a little light-headed by 4:30, but mentally clear and focused. wonder if light-headedness is due simply to missing lunch and not modafinil. 5:43: noticed my foot jiggling - doesn’t usually jiggle while in piracetam/choline. 7:30: starting feeling a bit jittery & manic - not much or to a problematic level but definitely noticeable; but then, that often happens when I miss lunch & dinner. 12:30: bedtime. Can’t sleep even with 3mg of melatonin! Subjectively, I toss & turn (in part thanks to my cat) until 4:30, when I really wake up. I hang around bed for another hour & then give up & get up. After a shower, I feel fairly normal, strangely, though not as good as if I had truly slept 8 hours. The lesson here is to pay attention to wikipedia when it says the half-life is 12-15 hours! About 6AM I take 200mg; all the way up to 2pm I feel increasingly less energetic and unfocused, though when I do apply myself I think as well as ever. Not fixed by food or tea or piracetam/choline. I want to be up until midnight, so I take half a pill of 100mg and chew it (since I’m not planning on staying up all night and I want it to work relatively soon). From 4-12PM, I notice that today as well my heart rate is elevated; I measure it a few times and it seems to average to ~70BPM, which is higher than normal, but not high enough to concern me. I stay up to midnight fine, take 3mg of melatonin at 12:30, and have no trouble sleeping; I think I fall asleep around 1. Alarm goes off at 6, I get up at 7:15 and take the other 100mg. Only 100mg/half-a-pill because I don’t want to leave the half laying around in the open, and I’m curious whether 100mg + ~5 hours of sleep will be enough after the last 2 days. Maybe next weekend I’ll just go without sleep entirely to see what my limits are.

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).
A record of nootropics I have tried, with thoughts about which ones worked and did not work for me. These anecdotes should be considered only as anecdotes, and one’s efforts with nootropics a hobby to put only limited amounts of time into due to the inherent limits of drugs as a force-multiplier compared to other things like programming1; for an ironic counterpoint, I suggest the reader listen to a video of Jonathan Coulton’s I Feel Fantastic while reading.
Methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, is a stimulant first synthesised in the 1940s. More accurately, it’s a psychostimulant - often prescribed for ADHD - that is intended as a drug to help focus and concentration. It also reduces fatigue and (potentially) enhances cognition. Similar to Modafinil, Ritalin is believed to reduce dissipation of dopamine to help focus. Ritalin is a Class B drug in the UK, and possession without a prescription can result in a 5 year prison sentence. Please note: Side Effects Possible. See this article for more on Ritalin.

When it comes to coping with exam stress or meeting that looming deadline, the prospect of a "smart drug" that could help you focus, learn and think faster is very seductive. At least this is what current trends on university campuses suggest. Just as you might drink a cup of coffee to help you stay alert, an increasing number of students and academics are turning to prescription drugs to boost academic performance.
These pills don’t work. The reality is that MOST of these products don’t work effectively. Maybe we’re cynical, but if you simply review the published studies on memory pills, you can quickly eliminate many of the products that don’t have “the right stuff.” The active ingredients in brain and memory health pills are expensive and most companies sell a watered down version that is not effective for memory and focus. The more brands we reviewed, the more we realized that many of these marketers are slapping slick labels on low-grade ingredients.
Take at 11 AM; distractions ensue and the Christmas tree-cutting also takes up much of the day. By 7 PM, I am exhausted and in a bad mood. While I don’t expect day-time modafinil to buoy me up, I do expect it to at least buffer me against being tired, and so I conclude placebo this time, and with more confidence than yesterday (65%). I check before bed, and it was placebo.

Medication can be ineffective if the drug payload is not delivered at its intended place and time. Since an oral medication travels through a broad pH spectrum, the pill encapsulation could dissolve at the wrong time. However, a smart pill with environmental sensors, a feedback algorithm and a drug release mechanism can give rise to smart drug delivery systems. This can ensure optimal drug delivery and prevent accidental overdose.
Sulbutiamine, mentioned earlier as a cholinergic smart drug, can also be classed a dopaminergic, although its mechanism is counterintuitive: by reducing the release of dopamine in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the density of dopamine receptors actually increase after continued Sulbutiamine exposure, through a compensatory mechanism. (This provides an interesting example of how dividing smart drugs into sensible “classes” is a matter of taste as well as science, especially since many of them create their discernable neural effects through still undefined mechanisms.)

But perhaps the biggest difference between Modafinil and other nootropics like Piracetam, according to Patel, is that Modafinil studies show more efficacy in young, healthy people, not just the elderly or those with cognitive deficits. That’s why it’s great for (and often prescribed to) military members who are on an intense tour, or for those who can’t get enough sleep for physiological reasons. One study, by researchers at Imperial College London, and published in Annals of Surgery, even showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
Or in other words, since the standard deviation of my previous self-ratings is 0.75 (see the Weather and my productivity data), a mean rating increase of >0.39 on the self-rating. This is, unfortunately, implying an extreme shift in my self-assessments (for example, 3s are ~50% of the self-ratings and 4s ~25%; to cause an increase of 0.25 while leaving 2s alone in a sample of 23 days, one would have to push 3s down to ~25% and 4s up to ~47%). So in advance, we can see that the weak plausible effects for Noopept are not going to be detected here at our usual statistical levels with just the sample I have (a more plausible experiment might use 178 pairs over a year, detecting down to d>=0.18). But if the sign is right, it might make Noopept worthwhile to investigate further. And the hardest part of this was just making the pills, so it’s not a waste of effort.
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.[42][43] Two other systematic reviews noted no cognition-enhancing effects in the general population or middle-aged and older adults.[44][45]
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