Some of the newest substances being used as ‘smart drugs’ are medically prescribed for other conditions. For example, methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So is Adderall, a combination drug containing two forms of amphetamine. These are among a suite of pharmaceuticals now being used by healthy people, particularly university students, to enhance their capabilities for learning or working.
Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes. Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals. The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.
Nootropics. You might have heard of them. The “limitless pill” that keeps Billionaires rich. The ‘smart drugs’ that students are taking to help boost their hyperfocus. The cognitive enhancers that give corporate executives an advantage. All very exciting. But as always, the media are way behind the curve. Yes, for the past few decades, cognitive enhancers were largely sketchy substances that people used to grasp at a short term edge at the expense of their health and well being. But the days of taking prescription pills to pull an all-nighter are so 2010. The better, safer path isn’t with these stimulants but with nootropics. Nootropics consist of dietary supplements and substances which enhance your cognition, in particular when it comes to motivation, creativity, memory, and other executive functions. They play an important role in supporting memory and promoting optimal brain function.
“In the hospital and ICU struggles, this book and Cavin’s experience are golden, and if we’d have had this book’s special attention to feeding tube nutrition, my son would be alive today sitting right here along with me saying it was the cod liver oil, the fish oil, and other nutrients able to be fed to him instead of the junk in the pharmacy tubes, that got him past the liver-test results, past the internal bleeding, past the brain difficulties controlling so many response-obstacles back then. Back then, the ‘experts’ in rural hospitals were unwilling to listen, ignored my son’s unexpected turnaround when we used codliver oil transdermally on his sore skin, threatened instead to throw me out, but Cavin has his own proof and his accumulated experience in others’ journeys. Cavin’s boxed areas of notes throughout the book on applying the brain nutrient concepts in feeding tubes are powerful stuff, details to grab onto and run with… hammer them!
2ml is supposed to translate to 24mg, which is a big dose. I do not believe any of the commercial patches go much past that. I asked Wedrifid, whose notes inspired my initial interest, and he was taking perhaps 2-4mg, and expressed astonishment that I might be taking 24mg. (2mg is in line with what I am told by another person - that 2mg was so much that they actually felt a little sick. On the other hand, in one study, the subjects could not reliably distinguish between 1mg and placebo24.) 24mg is particularly troubling in that I weigh ~68kg, and nicotine poisoning and the nicotine LD50 start, for me, at around 68mg of nicotine. (I reflected that the entire jar could be a useful murder weapon, although nicotine presumably would be caught in an autopsy’s toxicology screen; I later learned nicotine was an infamous weapon in the 1800s before any test was developed. It doesn’t seem used anymore, but there are still fatal accidents due to dissolved nicotine.) The upper end of the range, 10mg/kg or 680mg for me, is calculated based on experienced smokers. Something is wrong here - I can’t see why I would have nicotine tolerance comparable to a hardened smoker, inasmuch as my maximum prior exposure was second-hand smoke once in a blue moon. More likely is that either the syringe is misleading me or the seller NicVape sold me something more dilute than 12mg/ml. (I am sure that it’s not simply plain water; when I mix the drops with regular water, I can feel the propylene glycol burning as it goes down.) I would rather not accuse an established and apparently well-liked supplier of fraud, nor would I like to simply shrug and say I have a mysterious tolerance and must experiment with doses closer to the LD50, so the most likely problem is a problem with the syringe. The next day I altered the procedure to sucking up 8ml, squirting out enough fluid to move the meniscus down to 7ml, and then ejecting the rest back into the container. The result was another mild clean stimulation comparable to the previous 1ml days. The next step is to try a completely different measuring device, which doesn’t change either.
Turning to analyses related specifically to the drugs that are the subject of this article, reanalysis of the 2002 NSDUH data by Kroutil and colleagues (2006) found past-year nonmedical use of stimulants other than methamphetamine by 2% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 and by 0.3% of individuals 26 years of age and older. For ADHD medications in particular, these rates were 1.3% and 0.1%, respectively. Finally, Novak, Kroutil, Williams, and Van Brunt (2007) surveyed a sample of over four thousand individuals from the Harris Poll Online Panel and found that 4.3% of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 25 had used prescription stimulants nonmedically in the past year, compared with only 1.3% between the ages of 26 and 49.
Caffeine dose dependently decreased the 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) induced VDR expression and at concentrations of 1 and 10mM, VDR expression was decreased by about 50-70%, respectively. In addition, the 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) induced alkaline phosphatase activity was also reduced at similar doses thus affecting the osteoblastic function. The basal ALP activity was not affected with increasing doses of caffeine. Overall, our results suggest that caffeine affects 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) stimulated VDR protein expression and 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) mediated actions in human osteoblast cells.
Bacopa is a supplement herb often used for memory or stress adaptation. Its chronic effects reportedly take many weeks to manifest, with no important acute effects. Out of curiosity, I bought 2 bottles of Bacognize Bacopa pills and ran a non-randomized non-blinded ABABA quasi-self-experiment from June 2014 to September 2015, measuring effects on my memory performance, sleep, and daily self-ratings of mood/productivity. Because of the very slow onset, small effective sample size, definite temporal trends probably unrelated to Bacopa, and noise in the variables, the results were as expected, ambiguous, and do not strongly support any correlation between Bacopa and memory/sleep/self-rating (+/-/- respectively).
10:30 AM; no major effect that I notice throughout the day - it’s neither good nor bad. This smells like placebo (and part of my mind is going how unlikely is it to get placebo 3 times in a row!, which is just the Gambler’s fallacy talking inasmuch as this is sampling with replacement). I give it 60% placebo; I check the next day right before taking, and it is. Man!
That is, perhaps light of the right wavelength can indeed save the brain some energy by making it easier to generate ATP. Would 15 minutes of LLLT create enough ATP to make any meaningful difference, which could possibly cause the claimed benefits? The problem here is like that of the famous blood-glucose theory of willpower - while the brain does indeed use up more glucose while active, high activity uses up very small quantities of glucose/energy which doesn’t seem like enough to justify a mental mechanism like weak willpower.↩
One of the most widely known classes of smart drugs on the market, Racetams, have a long history of use and a lot of evidence of their effectiveness. They hasten the chemical exchange between brain cells, directly benefiting our mental clarity and learning process. They are generally not controlled substances and can be purchased without a prescription in a lot of locations globally.
We’ve talk about how caffeine affects the body in great detail, but the basic idea is that it can improve your motivation and focus by increasing catecholamine signaling. Its effects can be dampened over time, however, as you start to build a caffeine tolerance. Research on L-theanine, a common amino acid, suggests it promotes neuronal health and can decrease the incidence of cold and flu symptoms by strengthening the immune system. And one study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, found that L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses—which is why it’s often taken with caffeine. In fact, in a 2014 systematic review of 11 different studies, published in the journal Nutrition Review, researchers found that use of caffeine in combination with L-theanine promoted alertness, task switching, and attention. The reviewers note the effects are most pronounced during the first two hours post-dose, and they also point out that caffeine is the major player here, since larger caffeine doses were found to have more of an effect than larger doses of L-theanine.
Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)
A randomized non-blind self-experiment of LLLT 2014-2015 yields a causal effect which is several times smaller than a correlative analysis and non-statistically-significant/very weak Bayesian evidence for a positive effect. This suggests that the earlier result had been driven primarily by reverse causation, and that my LLLT usage has little or no benefits.
Nootrobox co-founder Geoffrey Woo declines a caffeinated drink in favour of a capsule of his newest product when I meet him in a San Francisco coffee shop. The entire industry has a “wild west” aura about it, he tells me, and Nootrobox wants to fix it by pushing for “smarter regulation” so safe and effective drugs that are currently unclassified can be brought into the fold. Predictably, both companies stress the higher goal of pushing forward human cognition. “I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created,” says Nootroo founder Eric Matzner.
So what’s the catch? Well, it’s potentially addictive for one. Anything that messes with your dopamine levels can be. And Patel says there are few long-term studies on it yet, so we don’t know how it will affect your brain chemistry down the road, or after prolonged, regular use. Also, you can’t get it very easily, or legally for that matter, if you live in the U.S. It’s classified as a schedule IV controlled substance. That’s where Adrafinil comes in.
One curious thing that leaps out looking at the graphs is that the estimated underlying standard deviations differ: the nicotine days have a strikingly large standard deviation, indicating greater variability in scores - both higher and lower, since the means weren’t very different. The difference in standard deviations is just 6.6% below 0, so the difference almost reaches our usual frequentist levels of confidence too, which we can verify by testing:
As professionals and aging baby boomers alike become more interested in enhancing their own brain power (either to achieve more in a workday or to stave off cognitive decline), a huge market has sprung up for nonprescription nootropic supplements. These products don’t convince Sahakian: “As a clinician scientist, I am interested in evidence-based cognitive enhancement,” she says. “Many companies produce supplements, but few, if any, have double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to show that these supplements are cognitive enhancers.” Plus, supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so consumers don’t have that assurance as to exactly what they are getting. Check out these 15 memory exercises proven to keep your brain sharp.
That doesn’t necessarily mean all smart drugs – now and in the future – will be harmless, however. The brain is complicated. In trying to upgrade it, you risk upsetting its intricate balance. “It’s not just about more, it’s about having to be exquisitely and exactly right. And that’s very hard to do,” says Arnstein. “What’s good for one system may be bad for another system,” adds Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “It’s clear from the experimental literature that you can affect memory with pharmacological agents, but the problem is keeping them safe.”