The concept of neuroenhancement and the use of substances to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals, is certainly not a new one. In fact, one of the first cognitive enhancement drugs, Piracetam, was developed over fifty years ago by psychologist and chemist C.C. Giurgea. Although he did not know the exact mechanism, Giurgia believed the drug boosted brain power and so began his exploration into "smart pills", or nootropics, a term he coined from the Greek nous, meaning "mind," and trepein, meaning "to bend.
So it's no surprise that as soon as medical science develops a treatment for a disease, we often ask if it couldn't perhaps make a healthy person even healthier. Take Viagra, for example: developed to help men who couldn't get erections, it's now used by many who function perfectly well without a pill but who hope it will make them exceptionally virile.
It's been widely reported that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and college students turn to Adderall (without a prescription) to work late through the night. In fact, a 2012 study published in the Journal of American College Health, showed that roughly two-thirds of undergraduate students were offered prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes by senior year.
A fundamental aspect of human evolution has been the drive to augment our capabilities. The neocortex is the neural seat of abstract and higher order cognitive processes. As it grew, so did our ability to create. The invention of tools and weapons, writing, the steam engine, and the computer have exponentially increased our capacity to influence and understand the world around us. These advances are being driven by improved higher-order cognitive processing.1Fascinatingly, the practice of modulating our biology through naturally occurring flora predated all of the above discoveries. Indeed, Sumerian clay slabs as old as 5000 BC detail medicinal recipes which include over 250 plants2. The enhancement of human cognition through natural compounds followed, as people discovered plants containing caffeine, theanine, and other cognition-enhancing, or nootropic, agents.
Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HTP), is another primary neurotransmitter and controls major features of the mental landscape including mood, sleep and appetite. Serotonin is produced within the body by exposure, which is one reason that the folk-remedy of “getting some sun” to fight depression is scientifically credible. Many foods contain natural serotonergic (serotonin-promoting or releasing) compounds, including the well-known chemical L-Tryptophan found in turkey, which can promote sleep after big Thanksgiving dinners.
"Piracetam is not a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical, or dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake. Further, piracetam is not a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract or combination of any such dietary ingredient. [...] Accordingly, these products are drugs, under section 201(g)(1)(C) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(C), because they are not foods and they are intended to affect the structure or any function of the body. Moreover, these products are new drugs as defined by section 201(p) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(p), because they are not generally recognized as safe and effective for use under the conditions prescribed, recommended, or suggested in their labeling."
White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop (2006) 2002 Large university undergraduates and graduates (N = 1,025) 16.2% (lifetime) 68.9%: improve attention; 65.2:% partying; 54.3%: improve study habits; 20%: improve grades; 9.1%: reduce hyperactivity 15.5%: 2–3 times per week; 33.9%: 2–3 times per month; 50.6%: 2–3 times per year 58%: easy or somewhat easy to obtain; write-in comments indicated many obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions
A total of 330 randomly selected Saudi adolescents were included. Anthropometrics were recorded and fasting blood samples were analyzed for routine analysis of fasting glucose, lipid levels, calcium, albumin and phosphorous. Frequency of coffee and tea intake was noted. 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were measured using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays…Vitamin D levels were significantly highest among those consuming 9-12 cups of tea/week in all subjects (p-value 0.009) independent of age, gender, BMI, physical activity and sun exposure.
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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.”
Stimulants are the smart drugs most familiar to people, starting with widely-used psychostimulants caffeine and nicotine, and the more ill-reputed subclass of amphetamines. Stimulant drugs generally function as smart drugs in the sense that they promote general wakefulness and put the brain and body “on alert” in a ready-to-go state. Basically, any drug whose effects reduce drowsiness will increase the functional IQ, so long as the user isn’t so over-stimulated they’re shaking or driven to distraction.
Supplements, medications, and coffee certainly might play a role in keeping our brains running smoothly at work or when we’re trying to remember where we left our keys. But the long-term effects of basic lifestyle practices can’t be ignored. “For good brain health across the life span, you should keep your brain active,” Sahakian says. “There is good evidence for ‘use it or lose it.’” She suggests brain-training apps to improve memory, as well as physical exercise. “You should ensure you have a healthy diet and not overeat. It is also important to have good-quality sleep. Finally, having a good work-life balance is important for well-being.” Try these 8 ways to get smarter while you sleep.
Today piracetam is a favourite with students and young professionals looking for a way to boost their performance, though decades after Giurgea’s discovery, there still isn’t much evidence that it can improve the mental abilities of healthy people. It’s a prescription drug in the UK, though it’s not approved for medical use by the US Food and Drug Administration and can’t be sold as a dietary supplement either.
Ashwagandha has been shown to improve cognition and motivation, by means of reducing anxiety . It has been shown to significantly reduce stress and anxiety. As measured by cortisol levels, anxiety symptoms were reduced by around 30% compared to a placebo-controlled (double-blind) group . And it may have neuroprotective effects and improve sleep, but these claims are still being researched.
Two increasingly popular options are amphetamines and methylphenidate, which are prescription drugs sold under the brand names Adderall and Ritalin. In the United States, both are approved as treatments for people with ADHD, a behavioural disorder which makes it hard to sit still or concentrate. Now they’re also widely abused by people in highly competitive environments, looking for a way to remain focused on specific tasks.
The word “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by a Romanian scientist, Corneliu Giurgea, who combined the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.” Caffeine and nicotine can be considered mild nootropics, while prescription Ritalin, Adderall and Provigil (modafinil, a drug for treating narcolepsy) lie at the far end of the spectrum when prescribed off-label as cognitive enhancers. Even microdosing of LSD is increasingly viewed as a means to greater productivity.
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.
Not included in the list below are prescription psychostimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin. Non-medical, illicit use of these drugs for the purpose of cognitive enhancement in healthy individuals comes with a high cost, including addiction and other adverse effects. Although these drugs are prescribed for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to help with focus, attention and other cognitive functions, they have been shown to in fact impair these same functions when used for non-medical purposes. More alarming, when taken in high doses, they have the potential to induce psychosis.
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.
Finally, all of the questions raised here in relation to MPH and d-AMP can also be asked about newer drugs and even about nonpharmacological methods of cognitive enhancement. An example of a newer drug with cognitive-enhancing potential is modafinil. Originally marketed as a therapy for narcolepsy, it is widely used off label for other purposes (Vastag, 2004), and a limited literature on its cognitive effects suggests some promise as a cognitive enhancer for normal healthy people (see Minzenberg & Carter, 2008, for a review).
"They're not regulated by the FDA like other drugs, so safety testing isn't required," Kerl says. What's more, you can't always be sure that what's on the ingredient label is actually in the product. Keep in mind, too, that those that contain water-soluble vitamins like B and C, she adds, aren't going to help you if you're already getting enough of those vitamins through diet. "If your body is getting more than you need, you're just going to pee out the excess," she says. "You're paying a lot of money for these supplements; maybe just have orange juice."
Taking the tryptophan is fairly difficult. The powder as supplied by Bulk Nutrition is extraordinarily dry and fine; it seems to be positively hydrophobic. The first time I tried to swallow a teaspoon, I nearly coughed it out - the power had seemed to explode in my mouth and go down my lungs. Thenceforth I made sure to have a mouth of water first. After a while, I took a different tack: I mixed in as much Hericium as would fit in the container. The mushroom powder is wetter and chunkier than the tryptophan, and seems to reduce the problem. Combining the mix with chunks of melatonin inside a pill works even better.
Integrity & Reputation: Go with a company that sells more than just a brain formula. If a company is just selling this one item,buyer-beware!!! It is an indication that it is just trying to capitalize on a trend and make a quick buck. Also, if a website selling a brain health formula does not have a highly visible 800# for customer service, you should walk away.
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All clear? Try one (not dozens) of nootropics for a few weeks and keep track of how you feel, Kerl suggests. It’s also important to begin with as low a dose as possible; when Cyr didn’t ease into his nootropic regimen, his digestion took the blow, he admits. If you don’t notice improvements, consider nixing the product altogether and focusing on what is known to boost cognitive function – eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep regularly and exercising. "Some of those lifestyle modifications," Kerl says, "may improve memory over a supplement."
(In particular, I don’t think it’s because there’s a sudden new surge of drugs. FDA drug approval has been decreasing over the past few decades, so this is unlikely a priori. More specifically, many of the major or hot drugs go back a long time. Bacopa goes back millennia, melatonin I don’t even know, piracetam was the ’60s, modafinil was ’70s or ’80s, ALCAR was ’80s AFAIK, Noopept & coluracetam were ’90s, and so on.)
Amphetamines have a long track record as smart drugs, from the workaholic mathematician Paul Erdös, who relied on them to get through 19-hour maths binges, to the writer Graham Greene, who used them to write two books at once. More recently, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts in magazines about their widespread use in certain industries, such as journalism, the arts and finance.
And in his followup work, An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance (discussion). Kurzban seems to have successfully refuted the blood-glucose theory, with few dissenters from commenting researchers. The more recent opinion seems to be that the sugar interventions serve more as a reward-signal indicating more effort is a good idea, not refueling the engine of the brain (which would seem to fit well with research on procrastination).↩
The nonmedical use of substances—often dubbed smart drugs—to increase memory or concentration is known as pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE), and it rose in all 15 nations included in the survey. The study looked at prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin—prescribed medically to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—as well as the sleep-disorder medication modafinil and illegal stimulants such as cocaine.
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.
Another empirical question concerns the effects of stimulants on motivation, which can affect academic and occupational performance independent of cognitive ability. Volkow and colleagues (2004) showed that MPH increased participants’ self-rated interest in a relatively dull mathematical task. This is consistent with student reports that prescription stimulants make schoolwork seem more interesting (e.g., DeSantis et al., 2008). To what extent are the motivational effects of prescription stimulants distinct from their cognitive effects, and to what extent might they be more robust to differences in individual traits, dosage, and task? Are the motivational effects of stimulants responsible for their usefulness when taken by normal healthy individuals for cognitive enhancement?
^ Sattler, Sebastian; Mehlkop, Guido; Graeff, Peter; Sauer, Carsten (February 1, 2014). "Evaluating the drivers of and obstacles to the willingness to use cognitive enhancement drugs: the influence of drug characteristics, social environment, and personal characteristics". Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. 9 (1): 8. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-9-8. ISSN 1747-597X. PMC 3928621. PMID 24484640.