Use of prescription stimulants by normal healthy individuals to enhance cognition is said to be on the rise. Who is using these medications for cognitive enhancement, and how prevalent is this practice? Do prescription stimulants in fact enhance cognition for normal healthy people? We review the epidemiological and cognitive neuroscience literatures in search of answers to these questions. Epidemiological issues addressed include the prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use, user demographics, methods by which users obtain prescription stimulants, and motivations for use. Cognitive neuroscience issues addressed include the effects of prescription stimulants on learning and executive function, as well as the task and individual variables associated with these effects. Little is known about the prevalence of prescription stimulant use for cognitive enhancement outside of student populations. Among college students, estimates of use vary widely but, taken together, suggest that the practice is commonplace. The cognitive effects of stimulants on normal healthy people cannot yet be characterized definitively, despite the volume of research that has been carried out on these issues. Published evidence suggests that declarative memory can be improved by stimulants, with some evidence consistent with enhanced consolidation of memories. Effects on the executive functions of working memory and cognitive control are less reliable but have been found for at least some individuals on some tasks. In closing, we enumerate the many outstanding questions that remain to be addressed by future research and also identify obstacles facing this research.
I have no particularly compelling story for why this might be a correlation and not causation. It could be placebo, but I wasn’t expecting that. It could be selection effect (days on which I bothered to use the annoying LED set are better days) but then I’d expect the off-days to be below-average and compared to the 2 years of trendline before, there doesn’t seem like much of a fall.
As I am not any of the latter, I didn’t really expect a mental benefit. As it happens, I observed nothing. What surprised me was something I had forgotten about: its physical benefits. My performance in Taekwondo classes suddenly improved - specifically, my endurance increased substantially. Before, classes had left me nearly prostrate at the end, but after, I was weary yet fairly alert and happy. (I have done Taekwondo since I was 7, and I have a pretty good sense of what is and is not normal performance for my body. This was not anything as simple as failing to notice increasing fitness or something.) This was driven home to me one day when in a flurry before class, I prepared my customary tea with piracetam, choline & creatine; by the middle of the class, I was feeling faint & tired, had to take a break, and suddenly, thunderstruck, realized that I had absentmindedly forgot to actually drink it! This made me a believer.
Capsule Connection sells 1000 00 pills (the largest pills) for $9. I already have a pill machine, so that doesn’t count (a sunk cost). If we sum the grams per day column from the first table, we get 9.75 grams a day. Each 00 pill can take around 0.75 grams, so we need 13 pills. (Creatine is very bulky, alas.) 13 pills per day for 1000 days is 13,000 pills, and 1,000 pills is $9 so we need 13 units and 13 times 9 is $117.
That said, there are plenty of studies out there that point to its benefits. One study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, suggests brain function in elderly patients can be greatly improved after regular dosing with Piracetam. Another study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that Piracetam improved memory in most adult volunteers. And another, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, suggests it can help students, especially dyslexic students, improve their nonverbal learning skills, like reading ability and reading comprehension. Basically, researchers know it has an effect, but they don’t know what or how, and pinning it down requires additional research.
Another study on the olfactory impact of essential oils like lavender and rosemary revealed that they produced positive effects on cognitive performance and mood.16 And in another study on the inhalation of essential oils like grapefruit, fennel, Estragon, and black pepper essential oil, inhalation of the oils resulted in modulation of sympathetic activity in adults.17,18
Smart pills are defined as drugs or prescription medication used to treat certain mental disorders, from milder ones such as brain fog, to some more severe like ADHD. They are often referred to as ‘nootropics’ but even though the two terms are often used interchangeably, smart pills and nootropics represent two different types of cognitive enhancers.
From the standpoint of absorption, the drinking of tobacco juice and the interaction of the infusion or concoction with the small intestine is a highly effective method of gastrointestinal nicotine administration. The epithelial area of the intestines is incomparably larger than the mucosa of the upper tract including the stomach, and the small intestine represents the area with the greatest capacity for absorption (Levine 1983:81-83). As practiced by most of the sixty-four tribes documented here, intoxicated states are achieved by drinking tobacco juice through the mouth and/or nose…The large intestine, although functionally little equipped for absorption, nevertheless absorbs nicotine that may have passed through the small intestine.
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.
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.
Since my experiment had a number of flaws (non-blind, varying doses at varying times of day), I wound up doing a second better experiment using blind standardized smaller doses in the morning. The negative effect was much smaller, but there was still no mood/productivity benefit. Having used up my first batch of potassium citrate in these 2 experiments, I will not be ordering again since it clearly doesn’t work for me.
Two additional studies used other spatial working memory tasks. Barch and Carter (2005) required subjects to maintain one of 18 locations on the perimeter of a circle in working memory and then report the name of the letter that appeared there in a similarly arranged circle of letters. d-AMP caused a speeding of responses but no change in accuracy. Fleming et al. (1995) referred to a spatial delay response task, with no further description or citation. They reported no effect of d-AMP in the task except in the zero-delay condition (which presumably places minimal demand on working memory).
The blood half-life is 12-36 hours; hence two or three days ought to be enough to build up and wash out. A week-long block is reasonable since that gives 5 days for effects to manifest, although month-long blocks would not be a bad choice either. (I prefer blocks which fit in round periods because it makes self-experiments easier to run if the blocks fit in normal time-cycles like day/week/month. The most useless self-experiment is the one abandoned halfway.)
Coconut oil was recommended by Pontus Granström on the Dual N-Back mailing list for boosting energy & mental clarity. It is fairly cheap (~$13 for 30 ounces) and tastes surprisingly good; it has a very bad reputation in some parts, but seems to be in the middle of a rehabilitation. Seth Robert’s Buttermind experiment found no mental benefits to coconut oil (and benefits to eating butter), but I wonder.
Began double-blind trial. Today I took one pill blindly at 1:53 PM. at the end of the day when I have written down my impressions and guess whether it was one of the Adderall pills, then I can look in the baggy and count and see whether it was. there are many other procedures one can take to blind oneself (have an accomplice mix up a sequence of pills and record what the sequence was; don’t count & see but blindly take a photograph of the pill each day, etc.) Around 3, I begin to wonder whether it was Adderall because I am arguing more than usual on IRC and my heart rate seems a bit high just sitting down. 6 PM: I’ve started to think it was a placebo. My heart rate is back to normal, I am having difficulty concentrating on long text, and my appetite has shown up for dinner (although I didn’t have lunch, I don’t think I had lunch yesterday and yesterday the hunger didn’t show up until past 7). Productivity wise, it has been a normal day. All in all, I’m not too sure, but I think I’d guess it was Adderall with 40% confidence (another way of saying placebo with 60% confidence). When I go to examine the baggie at 8:20 PM, I find out… it was an Adderall pill after all. Oh dear. One little strike against Adderall that I guessed wrong. It may be that the problem is that I am intrinsically a little worse today (normal variation? come down from Adderall?).
“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.
Caffeine (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) is of course the most famous stimulant around. But consuming 200mg or more a day, I have discovered the downside: it is addictive and has a nasty withdrawal - headaches, decreased motivation, apathy, and general unhappiness. (It’s a little amusing to read academic descriptions of caffeine addiction9; if caffeine were a new drug, I wonder what Schedule it would be in and if people might be even more leery of it than modafinil.) Further, in some ways, aside from the ubiquitous placebo effect, caffeine combines a mix of weak performance benefits (Lorist & Snel 2008, Nehlig 2010) with some possible decrements, anecdotally and scientifically:
More than once I have seen results indicating that high-IQ types benefit the least from random nootropics; nutritional deficits are the premier example, because high-IQ types almost by definition suffer from no major deficiencies like iodine. But a stimulant modafinil may be another such nootropic (see Cognitive effects of modafinil in student volunteers may depend on IQ, Randall et al 2005), which mentions:
Some smart drugs can be found in health food stores; others are imported or are drugs that are intended for other disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. There are many Internet web sites, books, magazines and newspaper articles detailing the supposed effects of smart drugs. There are also plenty of advertisements and mail-order businesses that try to sell "smart drugs" to the public. However, rarely do these businesses or the popular press report results that show the failure of smart drugs to improve memory or learning. Rather, they try to show that their products have miraculous effects on the brain and can improve mental functioning. Wouldn't it be easy to learn something by "popping a pill" or drinking a soda laced with a smart drug? This would be much easier than taking the time to study. Feeling dull? Take your brain in for a mental tune up by popping a pill!
Exercise and nutrition also play an important role in neuroplasticity. Many vitamins and ingredients found naturally in food products have been shown to have cognitive enhancing effects. Some of these include vitamins B6 and B12, caffeine, phenethylamine found in chocolate and l-theanine, found in green tea, whose combined effects with caffeine are more extensively researched.
My predictions were substantially better than random chance7, so my default belief - that Adderall does affect me and (mostly) for the better - is borne out. I usually sleep very well and 3 separate incidents of horrible sleep in a few weeks seems rather unlikely (though I didn’t keep track of dates carefully enough to link the Zeo data with the Adderall data). Between the price and the sleep disturbances, I don’t think Adderall is personally worthwhile.
The Defense Department reports rely on data collected by the private real estate firms that operate base housing in partnership with military branches. The companies' compensation is partly determined by the results of resident satisfaction surveys. I had to re-read this sentence like 5 times to make sure I understood it correctly. I just can't even. Seriously, in what universe did anyone think that this would be a good idea?
Government restrictions and difficulty getting approval for various medical devices is expected to impede market growth. The stringency of approval by regulatory authorities is accompanied by the high cost of smart pills to challenge the growth of the smart pills market. However, the demand for speedy diagnosis, and improving reimbursement policies are likely to reveal market opportunities.
Herbal supplements have been used for centuries to treat a wide range of medical conditions. Studies have shown that certain herbs may improve memory and cognition, and they can be used to help fight the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. These herbs are considered safe when taken in normal doses, but care should be taken as they may interfere with other medications.
…Four subjects correctly stated when they received nicotine, five subjects were unsure, and the remaining two stated incorrectly which treatment they received on each occasion of testing. These numbers are sufficiently close to chance expectation that even the four subjects whose statements corresponded to the treatments received may have been guessing.
A synthetic derivative of Piracetam, aniracetam is believed to be the second most widely used nootropic in the Racetam family, popular for its stimulatory effects because it enters the bloodstream quickly. Initially developed for memory and learning, many anecdotal reports also claim that it increases creativity. However, clinical studies show no effect on the cognitive functioning of healthy adult mice.
This looks interesting: the Noopept effect is positive for all the dose levels, but it looks like a U-curve - low at 10mg, high at 15mg, lower at 20mg, and even lower at 30mg 48mg and 60mg aren’t estimated because they are hit by the missingness problem: the magnesium citrate variable is unavailable for the days the higher doses were taken on, and so their days are omitted and those levels of the factor are not estimated. One way to fix this is to drop magnesium from the model entirely, at the cost of fitting the data much more poorly and losing a lot of R2:
In the nearer future, Lynch points to nicotinic receptor agents – molecules that act on the neurotransmitter receptors affected by nicotine – as ones to watch when looking out for potential new cognitive enhancers. Sarter agrees: a class of agents known as α4β2* nicotinic receptor agonists, he says, seem to act on mechanisms that control attention. Among the currently known candidates, he believes they come closest “to fulfilling the criteria for true cognition enhancers.”
When comparing supplements, consider products with a score above 90% to get the greatest benefit from smart pills to improve memory. Additionally, we consider the reviews that users send to us when scoring supplements, so you can determine how well products work for others and use this information to make an informed decision. Every month, our editor puts her name on that month’s best smart bill, in terms of results and value offered to users.
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people. It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks. At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.