We started hearing the buzz when Daytime TV Doctors, started touting these new pills that improve concentration, memory recall, focus, mental clarity and energy. And though we love the good Doctor and his purple gloves, we don’t love the droves of hucksters who prey on his loyal viewers trying to make a quick buck, often selling low-grade versions of his medical discoveries.
Similarly, we could try applying Nick Bostrom’s reversal test and ask ourselves, how would we react to a virus which had no effect but to eliminate sleep from alternating nights and double sleep in the intervening nights? We would probably grouch about it for a while and then adapt to our new hedonistic lifestyle of partying or working hard. On the other hand, imagine the virus had the effect of eliminating normal sleep but instead, every 2 minutes, a person would fall asleep for a minute. This would be disastrous! Besides the most immediate problems like safely driving vehicles, how would anything get done? You would hold a meeting and at any point, a third of the participants would be asleep. If the virus made it instead 2 hours on, one hour off, that would be better but still problematic: there would be constant interruptions. And so on, until we reach our present state of 16 hours on, 8 hours off. Given that we rejected all the earlier buffer sizes, one wonders if 16:8 can be defended as uniquely suited to circumstances. Is that optimal? It may be, given the synchronization with the night-day cycle, but I wonder; rush hour alone stands as an argument against synchronized sleep - wouldn’t our infrastructure would be much cheaper if it only had to handle the average daily load rather than cope with the projected peak loads? Might not a longer cycle be better? The longer the day, the less we are interrupted by sleep; it’s a hoary cliche about programmers that they prefer to work in long sustained marathons during long nights rather than sprint occasionally during a distraction-filled day, to the point where some famously adopt a 28 hour day (which evenly divides a week into 6 days). Are there other occupations which would benefit from a 20 hour waking period? Or 24 hour waking period? We might not know because without chemical assistance, circadian rhythms would overpower anyone attempting such schedules. It certainly would be nice if one had long time chunks in which could read a challenging book in one sitting, without heroic arrangements.↩
A poster or two on Longecity claimed that iodine supplementation had changed their eye color, suggesting a connection to the yellow-reddish element bromine - bromides being displaced by their chemical cousin, iodine. I was skeptical this was a real effect since I don’t know why visible amounts of either iodine or bromine would be in the eye, and the photographs produced were less than convincing. But it’s an easy thing to test, so why not?
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.
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.
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?
You may have come across this age-old adage, “Work smarter, not harder.” So, why not extend the same philosophy in other aspects of your life? Are you in a situation wherein no matter how much you exercise, eat healthy, and sleep well, you still struggle to focus and motivate yourself? If yes, you need a smart solution minus the adverse health effects. Try ‘Smart Drugs,’ that could help you out of your situation by enhancing your thought process, boosting your memory, and making you more creative and productive.
Brain focus pills mostly contain chemical components like L-theanine which is naturally found in green and black tea. It’s associated with enhancing alertness, cognition, relaxation, arousal, and reducing anxiety to a large extent. Theanine is an amino and glutamic acid that has been proven to be a safe psychoactive substance. Some studies suggest that this compound influences, the expression in the genes present in the brain which is responsible for aggression, fear, and memory. This, in turn, helps in balancing the behavioral responses to stress and also helps in improving specific conditions, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The one indisputable finding from the literature so far is that many people are seeking cognitive enhancement. Beyond that, the literature yields only partial and tentative answers to the questions just raised. Given the potential impact of cognitive enhancement on society, more research is needed. For research on the epidemiology of cognitive enhancement, studies focused on the cognitive-enhancement practices and experiences of students and nonstudent workers are needed. For research on the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants, larger samples are needed. Only with substantially larger samples will it be possible to assess small but potentially important benefits, as well as risks, and to distinguish individual differences in drug response. Large samples would also be required to compare these effects to the cognitive effects of improved sleep, exercise, nutrition, and stress management. To include more ecologically valid measures of cognition in academic and work environments would in addition require the equivalent of a large clinical trial.
We included studies of the effects of these drugs on cognitive processes including learning, memory, and a variety of executive functions, including working memory and cognitive control. These studies are listed in Table 2, along with each study’s sample size, gender, age and tasks administered. Given our focus on cognition enhancement, we excluded studies whose measures were confined to perceptual or motor abilities. Studies of attention are included when the term attention refers to an executive function but not when it refers to the kind of perceptual process taxed by, for example, visual search or dichotic listening or when it refers to a simple vigilance task. Vigilance may affect cognitive performance, especially under conditions of fatigue or boredom, but a more vigilant person is not generally thought of as a smarter person, and therefore, vigilance is outside of the focus of the present review. The search and selection process is summarized in Figure 2.
Discussions of PEA mention that it’s almost useless without a MAOI to pave the way; hence, when I decided to get deprenyl and noticed that deprenyl is a MAOI, I decided to also give PEA a second chance in conjunction with deprenyl. Unfortunately, in part due to my own shenanigans, Nubrain canceled the deprenyl order and so I have 20g of PEA sitting around. Well, it’ll keep until such time as I do get a MAOI.
An entirely different set of questions concerns cognitive enhancement in younger students, including elementary school and even preschool children. Some children can function adequately in school without stimulants but perform better with them; medicating such children could be considered a form of cognitive enhancement. How often does this occur? What are the roles and motives of parents, teachers, and pediatricians in these cases? These questions have been discussed elsewhere and deserve continued attention (Diller, 1996; Singh & Keller, 2010).
Running low on gum (even using it weekly or less, it still runs out), I decided to try patches. Reading through various discussions, I couldn’t find any clear verdict on what patch brands might be safer (in terms of nicotine evaporation through a cut or edge) than others, so I went with the cheapest Habitrol I could find as a first try of patches (Nicotine Transdermal System Patch, Stop Smoking Aid, 21 mg, Step 1, 14 patches) in May 2013. I am curious to what extent nicotine might improve a long time period like several hours or a whole day, compared to the shorter-acting nicotine gum which feels like it helps for an hour at most and then tapers off (which is very useful in its own right for kicking me into starting something I have been procrastinating on). I have not decided whether to try another self-experiment.
Sleep itself is an underrated cognition enhancer. It is involved in enhancing long-term memories as well as creativity. For instance, it is well established that during sleep memories are consolidated-a process that "fixes" newly formed memories and determines how they are shaped. Indeed, not only does lack of sleep make most of us moody and low on energy, cutting back on those precious hours also greatly impairs cognitive performance. Exercise and eating well also enhance aspects of cognition. It turns out that both drugs and "natural" enhancers produce similar physiological changes in the brain, including increased blood flow and neuronal growth in structures such as the hippocampus. Thus, cognition enhancers should be welcomed but not at the expense of our health and well being.
Instead of buying expensive supplements, Lebowitz recommends eating heart-healthy foods, like those found in the MIND diet. Created by researchers at Rush University, MIND combines the Mediterranean and DASH eating plans, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart problems. Fish, nuts, berries, green leafy vegetables and whole grains are MIND diet staples. Lebowitz says these foods likely improve your cognitive health by keeping your heart healthy.
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.
Table 4 lists the results of 27 tasks from 23 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on working memory. The oldest and most commonly used type of working memory task in this literature is the Sternberg short-term memory scanning paradigm (Sternberg, 1966), in which subjects hold a set of items (typically letters or numbers) in working memory and are then presented with probe items, to which they must respond “yes” (in the set) or “no” (not in the set). The size of the set, and hence the working memory demand, is sometimes varied, and the set itself may be varied from trial to trial to maximize working memory demands or may remain fixed over a block of trials. Taken together, the studies that have used a version of this task to test the effects of MPH and d-AMP on working memory have found mixed and somewhat ambiguous results. No pattern is apparent concerning the specific version of the task or the specific drug. Four studies found no effect (Callaway, 1983; Kennedy, Odenheimer, Baltzley, Dunlap, & Wood, 1990; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007; Tipper et al., 2005), three found faster responses with the drugs (Fitzpatrick, Klorman, Brumaghim, & Keefover, 1988; Ward et al., 1997; D. E. Wilson et al., 1971), and one found higher accuracy in some testing sessions at some dosages, but no main effect of drug (Makris et al., 2007). The meaningfulness of the increased speed of responding is uncertain, given that it could reflect speeding of general response processes rather than working memory–related processes. Aspects of the results of two studies suggest that the effects are likely due to processes other than working memory: D. E. Wilson et al. (1971) reported comparable speeding in a simple task without working memory demands, and Tipper et al. (2005) reported comparable speeding across set sizes.
But while some studies have found short-term benefits, Doraiswamy says there is no evidence that what are commonly known as smart drugs — of any type — improve thinking or productivity over the long run. “There’s a sizable demand, but the hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence,” notes Doraiswamy, adding that, for healthy young people such as Silicon Valley go-getters, “it’s a zero-sum game. That’s because when you up one circuit in the brain, you’re probably impairing another system.”
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.
“Certain people might benefit from certain combinations of certain things,” he told me. “But across populations, there is still no conclusive proof that substances of this class improve cognitive functions.” And with no way to reliably measure the impact of a given substance on one’s mental acuity, one’s sincere beliefs about “what works” probably have a lot to do with, say, how demanding their day was, or whether they ate breakfast, or how susceptible they are to the placebo effect.
The FDA has approved the first smart pill for use in the United States. Called Abilify MyCite, the pill contains a drug and an ingestible sensor that is activated when it comes into contact with stomach fluid to detect when the pill has been taken. The pill then transmits this data to a wearable patch that subsequently transfers the information to an app on a paired smartphone. From that point, with a patient's consent, the data can be accessed by the patient's doctors or caregivers via a web portal.
Historically used to help people with epilepsy, piracetam is used in some cases of myoclonus, or muscle twitching. Its actual mechanism of action is unclear: It doesn’t act exactly as a sedative or stimulant, but still influences cognitive function, and is believed to act on receptors for acetylcholine in the brain. Piracetam is used off-label as a 'smart drug' to help focus and concentration or sometimes as a way to allegedly boost your mood. Again, piracetam is a prescription-only drug - any supply to people without a prescription is illegal, and supplying it may result in a fine or prison sentence.
This tendency is exacerbated by general inefficiencies in the nootropics market - they are manufactured for vastly less than they sell for, although the margins aren’t as high as they are in other supplement markets, and not nearly as comical as illegal recreational drugs. (Global Price Fixing: Our Customers are the Enemy (Connor 2001) briefly covers the vitamin cartel that operated for most of the 20th century, forcing food-grade vitamins prices up to well over 100x the manufacturing cost.) For example, the notorious Timothy Ferriss (of The Four-hour Work Week) advises imitators to find a niche market with very high margins which they can insert themselves into as middlemen and reap the profits; one of his first businesses specialized in… nootropics & bodybuilding. Or, when Smart Powders - usually one of the cheapest suppliers - was dumping its piracetam in a fire sale of half-off after the FDA warning, its owner mentioned on forums that the piracetam was still profitable (and that he didn’t really care because selling to bodybuilders was so lucrative); this was because while SP was selling 2kg of piracetam for ~$90, Chinese suppliers were offering piracetam on AliBaba for $30 a kilogram or a third of that in bulk. (Of course, you need to order in quantities like 30kg - this is more or less the only problem the middlemen retailers solve.) It goes without saying that premixed pills or products are even more expensive than the powders.
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.
Your mileage will vary. There are so many parameters and interactions in the brain that any of them could be the bottleneck or responsible pathway, and one could fall prey to the common U-shaped dose-response curve (eg. Yerkes-Dodson law; see also Chemistry of the adaptive mind & de Jongh et al 2007) which may imply that the smartest are those who benefit least23 but ultimately they all cash out in a very few subjective assessments like energetic or motivated, with even apparently precise descriptions like working memory or verbal fluency not telling you much about what the nootropic actually did. It’s tempting to list the nootropics that worked for you and tell everyone to go use them, but that is merely generalizing from one example (and the more nootropics - or meditation styles, or self-help books, or getting things done systems - you try, the stronger the temptation is to evangelize). The best you can do is read all the testimonials and studies and use that to prioritize your list of nootropics to try. You don’t know in advance which ones will pay off and which will be wasted. You can’t know in advance. And wasted some must be; to coin a Umeshism: if all your experiments work, you’re just fooling yourself. (And the corollary - if someone else’s experiments always work, they’re not telling you everything.)
The search to find more effective drugs to increase mental ability and intelligence capacity with neither toxicity nor serious side effects continues. But there are limitations. Although the ingredients may be separately known to have cognition-enhancing effects, randomized controlled trials of the combined effects of cognitive enhancement compounds are sparse.
The advantage of adrafinil is that it is legal & over-the-counter in the USA, so one removes the small legal risk of ordering & possessing modafinil without a prescription, and the retailers may be more reliable because they are not operating in a niche of dubious legality. Based on comments from others, the liver problem may have been overblown, and modafinil vendors post-2012 seem to have become more unstable, so I may give adrafinil (from another source than Antiaging Central) a shot when my modafinil/armodafinil run out.
Fortunately for me, the FDA decided Smart Powder’s advertising was too explicit and ordered its piracetam sales stopped; I was equivocal at the previous price point, but then I saw that between the bulk discount and the fire-sale coupon, 3kg was only $99.99 (shipping was amortized over that, the choline, caffeine, and tryptophan). So I ordered in September 2010. As well, I had decided to cap my own pills, eliminating the inconvenience and bad taste. 3kg goes a very long way so I am nowhere close to running out of my pills; there is nothing to report since, as the pills are simply part of my daily routine.
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.
Modafinil is a prescription smart drug most commonly given to narcolepsy patients, as it promotes wakefulness. In addition, users indicate that this smart pill helps them concentrate and boosts their motivation. Owing to Modafinil, the feeling of fatigue is reduced, and people report that their everyday functions improve because they can manage their time and resources better, as a result reaching their goals easier.
They can cause severe side effects, and their long-term effects aren’t well-researched. They’re also illegal to sell, so they must be made outside of the UK and imported. That means their manufacture isn’t regulated, and they could contain anything. And, as 'smart drugs' in 2018 are still illegal, you might run into legal issues from possessing some ‘smart drugs’ without a prescription.
Chocolate or cocoa powder (Examine.com), contains the stimulants caffeine and the caffeine metabolite theobromine, so it’s not necessarily surprising if cocoa powder was a weak stimulant. It’s also a witch’s brew of chemicals such as polyphenols and flavonoids some of which have been fingered as helpful10, which all adds up to an unclear impact on health (once you control for eating a lot of sugar).
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.)
So, I thought I might as well experiment since I have it. I put the 23 remaining pills into gel capsules with brown rice as filling, made ~30 placebo capsules, and will use the one-bag blinding/randomization method. I don’t want to spend the time it would take to n-back every day, so I will simply look for an effect on my daily mood/productivity self-rating; hopefully Noopept will add a little on average above and beyond my existing practices like caffeine+piracetam (yes, Noopept may be as good as piracetam, but since I still have a ton of piracetam from my 3kg order, I am primarily interested in whether Noopept adds onto piracetam rather than replaces). 10mg doses seem to be on the low side for Noopept users, weakening the effect, but on the other hand, if I were to take 2 capsules at a time, then I’d halve the sample size; it’s not clear what is the optimal tradeoff between dose and n for statistical power.
The price is not as good as multivitamins or melatonin. The studies showing effects generally use pretty high dosages, 1-4g daily. I took 4 capsules a day for roughly 4g of omega acids. The jar of 400 is 100 days’ worth, and costs ~$17, or around 17¢ a day. The general health benefits push me over the edge of favoring its indefinite use, but looking to economize. Usually, small amounts of packaged substances are more expensive than bulk unprocessed, so I looked at fish oil fluid products; and unsurprisingly, liquid is more cost-effective than pills (but like with the powders, straight fish oil isn’t very appetizing) in lieu of membership somewhere or some other price-break. I bought 4 bottles (16 fluid ounces each) for $53.31 total (thanks to coupons & sales), and each bottle lasts around a month and a half for perhaps half a year, or ~$100 for a year’s supply. (As it turned out, the 4 bottles lasted from 4 December 2010 to 17 June 2011, or 195 days.) My next batch lasted 19 August 2011-20 February 2012, and cost $58.27. Since I needed to buy empty 00 capsules (for my lithium experiment) and a book (Stanovich 2010, for SIAI work) from Amazon, I bought 4 more bottles of 16fl oz Nature’s Answer (lemon-lime) at $48.44, which I began using 27 February 2012. So call it ~$70 a year.
As shown in Table 6, two of these are fluency tasks, which require the generation of as large a set of unique responses as possible that meet the criteria given in the instructions. Fluency tasks are often considered tests of executive function because they require flexibility and the avoidance of perseveration and because they are often impaired along with other executive functions after prefrontal damage. In verbal fluency, subjects are asked to generate as many words that begin with a specific letter as possible. Neither Fleming et al. (1995), who administered d-AMP, nor Elliott et al. (1997), who administered MPH, found enhancement of verbal fluency. However, Elliott et al. found enhancement on a more complex nonverbal fluency task, the sequence generation task. Subjects were able to touch four squares in more unique orders with MPH than with placebo.
The next cheap proposition to test is that the 2ml dose is so large that the sedation/depressive effect of nicotine has begun to kick in. This is easy to test: take much less, like half a ml. I do so two or three times over the next day, and subjectively the feeling seems to be the same - which seems to support that proposition (although perhaps I’ve been placebo effecting myself this whole time, in which case the exact amount doesn’t matter). If this theory is true, my previous sleep results don’t show anything; one would expect nicotine-as-sedative to not hurt sleep or improve it. I skip the day (no cravings or addiction noticed), and take half a ml right before bed at 11:30; I fall asleep in 12 minutes and have a ZQ of ~105. The next few days I try putting one or two drops into the tea kettle, which seems to work as well (or poorly) as before. At that point, I was warned that there were some results that nicotine withdrawal can kick in with delays as long as a week, so I shouldn’t be confident that a few days off proved an absence of addiction; I immediately quit to see what the week would bring. 4 or 7 days in, I didn’t notice anything. I’m still using it, but I’m definitely a little nonplussed and disgruntled - I need some independent source of nicotine to compare with!
Yet some researchers point out these drugs may not be enhancing cognition directly, but simply improving the user’s state of mind – making work more pleasurable and enhancing focus. “I’m just not seeing the evidence that indicates these are clear cognition enhancers,” says Martin Sarter, a professor at the University of Michigan, who thinks they may be achieving their effects by relieving tiredness and boredom. “What most of these are actually doing is enabling the person who’s taking them to focus,” says Steven Rose, emeritus professor of life sciences at the Open University. “It’s peripheral to the learning process itself.”
That study is also interesting for finding benefits to chronic piracetam+choline supplementation in the mice, which seems connected to a Russian study which reportedly found that piracetam (among other more obscure nootropics) increased secretion of BDNF in mice. See also Drug heuristics on a study involving choline supplementation in pregnant rats.↩
The original “smart drug” is piracetam, which was discovered by the Romanian scientist Corneliu Giurgea in the early 1960s. At the time, he was looking for a chemical that could sneak into the brain and make people feel sleepy. After months of testing, he came up with “Compound 6215”. It was safe, it had very few side effects – and it didn’t work. The drug didn’t send anyone into a restful slumber and seemed to work in the opposite way to that intended.
Taurine (Examine.com) was another gamble on my part, based mostly on its inclusion in energy drinks. I didn’t do as much research as I should have: it came as a shock to me when I read in Wikipedia that taurine has been shown to prevent oxidative stress induced by exercise and was an antioxidant - oxidative stress is a key part of how exercise creates health benefits and antioxidants inhibit those benefits.
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics. Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.