Over the last few months, as part of a new research project, I have talked with five people who regularly use drugs at work. They are all successful in their jobs, financially secure, in stable relationships, and generally content with their lives. None of them have plans to stop using the drugs, and so far they have kept the secret from their employers. But as their colleagues become more likely to start using the same drugs (people talk, after all), will they continue to do so?
“Who doesn’t want to maximize their cognitive ability? Who doesn’t want to maximize their muscle mass?” asks Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System and has been an adviser to pharmaceutical and supplement manufacturers as well as the Food and Drug Administration. He attributes the demand to an increasingly knowledge-based society that values mental quickness and agility above all else.
“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 principal metric would be mood, however defined. Zeo’s web interface & data export includes a field for Day Feel, which is a rating 1-5 of general mood & quality of day. I can record a similar metric at the end of each day. 1-5 might be a little crude even with a year of data, so a more sophisticated measure might be in order. The first mood study is paywalled so I’m not sure what they used, but Shiotsuki 2008 used State-Trait of Anxiety Inventory (STAI) and Profiles of Mood States Test (POMS). The full POMS sounds too long to use daily, but the Brief POMS might work. In the original 1987 paper A brief POMS measure of distress for cancer patients, patients answering this questionnaire had a mean total mean of 10.43 (standard deviation 8.87). Is this the best way to measure mood? I’ve asked Seth Roberts; he suggested using a 0-100 scale, but personally, there’s no way I can assess my mood on 0-100. My mood is sufficiently stable (to me) that 0-5 is asking a bit much, even.


Up to 20% of Ivy League college students have already tried “smart drugs,” so we can expect these pills to feature prominently in organizations (if they don’t already). After all, the pressure to perform is unlikely to disappear the moment students graduate. And senior employees with demanding jobs might find these drugs even more useful than a 19-year-old college kid does. Indeed, a 2012 Royal Society report emphasized that these “enhancements,” along with other technologies for self-enhancement, are likely to have far-reaching implications for the business world.
Do you start your day with a cup (or two, or three) of coffee? It tastes delicious, but it’s also jump-starting your brain because of its caffeine content. Caffeine is definitely a nootropic substance—it’s a mild stimulant that can alleviate fatigue and improve concentration, according to the Mayo Clinic. Current research shows that coffee drinkers don’t suffer any ill effects from drinking up to about four cups of coffee per day. Caffeine is also found in tea, soda, and energy drinks. Not too surprisingly, it’s also in many of the nootropic supplements that are being marketed to people looking for a mental boost. Take a look at these 7 genius brain boosters to try in the morning.
Remembering what Wedrifid told me, I decided to start with a quarter of a piece (~1mg). The gum was pretty tasteless, which ought to make blinding easier. The effects were noticeable around 10 minutes - greater energy verging on jitteriness, much faster typing, and apparent general quickening of thought. Like a more pleasant caffeine. While testing my typing speed in Amphetype, my speed seemed to go up >=5 WPM, even after the time penalties for correcting the increased mistakes; I also did twice the usual number without feeling especially tired. A second dose was similar, and the third dose was at 10 PM before playing Ninja Gaiden II seemed to stop the usual exhaustion I feel after playing through a level or so. (It’s a tough game, which I have yet to master like Ninja Gaiden Black.) Returning to the previous concern about sleep problems, though I went to bed at 11:45 PM, it still took 28 minutes to fall sleep (compared to my more usual 10-20 minute range); the next day I use 2mg from 7-8PM while driving, going to bed at midnight, where my sleep latency is a more reasonable 14 minutes. I then skipped for 3 days to see whether any cravings would pop up (they didn’t). I subsequently used 1mg every few days for driving or Ninja Gaiden II, and while there were no cravings or other side-effects, the stimulation definitely seemed to get weaker - benefits seemed to still exist, but I could no longer describe any considerable energy or jitteriness.
Potassium citrate powder is neither expensive nor cheap: I purchased 453g for $21. The powder is crystalline white, dissolves instantly in water, and largely tasteless (sort of saline & slightly unpleasant). The powder is 37% potassium by weight (the formula is C6H5K3O7) so 453g is actually 167g of potassium, so 80-160 days’ worth depending on dose.
Now, what is the expected value (EV) of simply taking iodine, without the additional work of the experiment? 4 cans of 0.15mg x 200 is $20 for 2.1 years’ worth or ~$10 a year or a NPV cost of $205 (\frac{10}{\ln 1.05}) versus a 20% chance of $2000 or $400. So the expected value is greater than the NPV cost of taking it, so I should start taking iodine.

Competitors of importance in the smart pills market have been recorded and analyzed in MRFR's report. These market players include RF Co., Ltd., CapsoVision, Inc., JINSHAN Science & Technology, BDD Limited, MEDTRONIC, Check-Cap, PENTAX Medical, INTROMEDIC, Olympus Corporation, FUJIFILM Holdings Corporation, MEDISAFE, and Proteus Digital Health, Inc.


All of the coefficients are positive, as one would hope, and one specific factor (MR7) squeaks in at d=0.34 (p=0.05). The graph is much less impressive than the graph for just MP, suggesting that the correlation may be spread out over a lot of factors, the current dataset isn’t doing a good job of capturing the effect compared to the MP self-rating, or it really was a placebo effect:
I have a needle phobia, so injections are right out; but from the images I have found, it looks like testosterone enanthate gels using DMSO resemble other gels like Vaseline. This suggests an easy experimental procedure: spoon an appropriate dose of testosterone gel into one opaque jar, spoon some Vaseline gel into another, and pick one randomly to apply while not looking. If one gel evaporates but the other doesn’t, or they have some other difference in behavior, the procedure can be expanded to something like and then half an hour later, take a shower to remove all visible traces of the gel. Testosterone itself has a fairly short half-life of 2-4 hours, but the gel or effects might linger. (Injections apparently operate on a time-scale of weeks; I’m not clear on whether this is because the oil takes that long to be absorbed by surrounding materials or something else.) Experimental design will depend on the specifics of the obtained substance. As a controlled substance (Schedule III in the US), supplies will be hard to obtain; I may have to resort to the Silk Road.
along with the previous bit of globalization is an important factor: shipping is ridiculously cheap. The most expensive S&H in my modafinil price table is ~$15 (and most are international). To put this in perspective, I remember in the 90s you could easily pay $15 for domestic S&H when you ordered online - but it’s 2013, and the dollar has lost at least half its value, so in real terms, ordering from abroad may be like a quarter of what it used to cost, which makes a big difference to people dipping their toes in and contemplating a small order to try out this ’nootropics thing they’ve heard about.
(As I was doing this, I reflected how modafinil is such a pure example of the money-time tradeoff. It’s not that you pay someone else to do something for you, which necessarily they will do in a way different from you; nor is it that you have exchanged money to free yourself of a burden of some future time-investment; nor have you paid money for a speculative return of time later in life like with many medical expenses or supplements. Rather, you have paid for 8 hours today of your own time.)

Flaxseed oil is, ounce for ounce, about as expensive as fish oil, and also must be refrigerated and goes bad within months anyway. Flax seeds on the other hand, do not go bad within months, and cost dollars per pound. Various resources I found online estimated that the ALA component of human-edible flaxseed to be around 20% So Amazon’s 6lbs for $14 is ~1.2lbs of ALA, compared to 16fl-oz of fish oil weighing ~1lb and costing ~$17, while also keeping better and being a calorically useful part of my diet. The flaxseeds can be ground in an ordinary food processor or coffee grinder. It’s not a hugely impressive cost-savings, but I think it’s worth trying when I run out of fish oil.
NGF may sound intriguing, but the price is a dealbreaker: at suggested doses of 1-100μg (NGF dosing in humans for benefits is, shall we say, not an exact science), and a cost from sketchy suppliers of $1210/100μg/$470/500μg/$750/1000μg/$1000/1000μg/$1030/1000μg/$235/20μg. (Levi-Montalcini was presumably able to divert some of her lab’s production.) A year’s supply then would be comically expensive: at the lowest doses of 1-10μg using the cheapest sellers (for something one is dumping into one’s eyes?), it could cost anywhere up to $10,000.
In a broad sense, this is enhancement; in a stricter one, it’s optimisation. “I think people think about smart drugs the way they think about steroids in athletics,” Arnsten says, “but it’s not a proper analogy, because with steroids you’re creating more muscle. With smart drugs, all you’re doing is taking the brain that you have and putting it in its optimal chemical state. You’re not taking Homer Simpson and making him into Einstein.”
“It is important to note that Abilify MyCite’s prescribing information (labeling) notes that the ability of the product to improve patient compliance with their treatment regimen has not been shown. Abilify MyCite should not be used to track drug ingestion in “real-time” or during an emergency because detection may be delayed or may not occur,” the FDA said in a statement.
An unusual intervention is infrared/near-infrared light of particular wavelengths (LLLT), theorized to assist mitochondrial respiration and yielding a variety of therapeutic benefits. Some have suggested it may have cognitive benefits. LLLT sounds strange but it’s simple, easy, cheap, and just plausible enough it might work. I tried out LLLT treatment on a sporadic basis 2013-2014, and statistically, usage correlated strongly & statistically-significantly with increases in my daily self-ratings, and not with any sleep disturbances. Excited by that result, I did a randomized self-experiment 2014-2015 with the same procedure, only to find that the causal effect was weak or non-existent. I have stopped using LLLT as likely not worth the inconvenience.
In general, I feel a little bit less alert, but still close to normal. By 6PM, I have a mild headache, but I try out 30 rounds of gbrainy (haven’t played it in months) and am surprised to find that I reach an all-time high; no idea whether this is due to DNB or not, since Gbrainy is very heavily crystallized (half the challenge disappears as you learn how the problems work), but it does indicate I’m not deluding myself about mental ability. (To give a figure: my last score well before I did any DNB was 64, and I was doing well that day; on modafinil, I had a 77.) I figure the headache might be food related, eat, and by 7:30 the headache is pretty much gone and I’m fine up to midnight.
Rogers RD, Blackshaw AJ, Middleton HC, Matthews K, Hawtin K, Crowley C, Robbins TW. Tryptophan depletion impairs stimulus-reward learning while methylphenidate disrupts attentional control in healthy young adults: Implications for the monoaminergic basis of impulsive behaviour. Psychopharmacology. 1999;146:482–491. doi: 10.1007/PL00005494. [PubMed] [CrossRef]
How should the mixed results just summarized be interpreted vis-á-vis the cognitive-enhancing potential of prescription stimulants? One possibility is that d-AMP and MPH enhance cognition, including the retention of just-acquired information and some or all forms of executive function, but that the enhancement effect is small. If this were the case, then many of the published studies were underpowered for detecting enhancement, with most samples sizes under 50. It follows that the observed effects would be inconsistent, a mix of positive and null findings.

To make things more interesting, I think I would like to try randomizing different dosages as well: 12mg, 24mg, and 36mg (1-3 pills); on 5 May 2014, because I wanted to finish up the experiment earlier, I decided to add 2 larger doses of 48 & 60mg (4-5 pills) as options. Then I can include the previous pilot study as 10mg doses, and regress over dose amount.
One study of helicopter pilots suggested that 600 mg of modafinil given in three doses can be used to keep pilots alert and maintain their accuracy at pre-deprivation levels for 40 hours without sleep.[60] However, significant levels of nausea and vertigo were observed. Another study of fighter pilots showed that modafinil given in three divided 100 mg doses sustained the flight control accuracy of sleep-deprived F-117 pilots to within about 27% of baseline levels for 37 hours, without any considerable side effects.[61] In an 88-hour sleep loss study of simulated military grounds operations, 400 mg/day doses were mildly helpful at maintaining alertness and performance of subjects compared to placebo, but the researchers concluded that this dose was not high enough to compensate for most of the effects of complete sleep loss.

Too much caffeine may be bad for bone health because it can deplete calcium. Overdoing the caffeine also may affect the vitamin D in your body, which plays a critical role in your body’s bone metabolism. However, the roles of vitamin D as well as caffeine in the development of osteoporosis continue to be a source of debate. Significance: Caffeine may interfere with your body’s metabolism of vitamin D, according to a 2007 Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology study. You have vitamin D receptors, or VDRs, in your osteoblast cells. These large cells are responsible for the mineralization and synthesis of bone in your body. They create a sheet on the surface of your bones. The D receptors are nuclear hormone receptors that control the action of vitamin D-3 by controlling hormone-sensitive gene expression. These receptors are critical to good bone health. For example, a vitamin D metabolism disorder in which these receptors don’t work properly causes rickets.

Schroeder, Mann-Koepke, Gualtieri, Eckerman, and Breese (1987) assessed the performance of subjects on placebo and MPH in a game that allowed subjects to switch between two different sectors seeking targets to shoot. They did not observe an effect of the drug on overall level of performance, but they did find fewer switches between sectors among subjects who took MPH, and perhaps because of this, these subjects did not develop a preference for the more fruitful sector.
Still, the scientific backing and ingredient sourcing of nootropics on the market varies widely, and even those based in some research won't necessarily immediately, always or ever translate to better grades or an ability to finally crank out that novel. Nor are supplements of any kind risk-free, says Jocelyn Kerl, a pharmacist in Madison, Wisconsin.
Ethical issues also arise with the use of drugs to boost brain power. Their use as cognitive enhancers isn’t currently regulated. But should it be, just as the use of certain performance-enhancing drugs is regulated for professional athletes? Should universities consider dope testing to check that students aren’t gaining an unfair advantage through drug use? 
Unfortunately, cognitive enhancement falls between the stools of research funding, which makes it unlikely that such research programs will be carried out. Disease-oriented funders will, by definition, not support research on normal healthy individuals. The topic intersects with drug abuse research only in the assessment of risk, leaving out the study of potential benefits, as well as the comparative benefits of other enhancement methods. As a fundamentally applied research question, it will not qualify for support by funders of basic science. The pharmaceutical industry would be expected to support such research only if cognitive enhancement were to be considered a legitimate indication by the FDA, which we hope would happen only after considerably more research has illuminated its risks, benefits, and societal impact. Even then, industry would have little incentive to delve into all of the issues raised here, including the comparison of drug effects to nonpharmaceutical means of enhancing cognition.
The choline-based class of smart drugs play important cognitive roles in memory, attention, and mood regulation. Acetylcholine (ACh) is one of the brain’s primary neurotransmitters, and also vital in the proper functioning of the peripheral nervous system. Studies with rats have shown that certain forms of learning and neural plasticity seem to be impossible in acetylcholine-depleted areas of the brain. This is particularly worth mentioning because (as noted above under the Racetams section), the Racetam class of smart drugs tends to deplete cholines from the brain, so one of the classic “supplement stacks” – chemical supplements that are used together – are Piracetam and Choline Bitartrate. Cholines can also be found in normal food sources, like egg yolks and soybeans.
Terms and Conditions: The content and products found at feedabrain.com, adventuresinbraininjury.com, the Adventures in Brain Injury Podcast, or provided by Cavin Balaster or others on the Feed a Brain team is intended for informational purposes only and is not provided by medical professionals. The information on this website has not been evaluated by the food & drug administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. Readers/listeners/viewers should not act upon any information provided on this website or affiliated websites without seeking advice from a licensed physician, especially if pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or suffering from a medical condition. This website is not intended to create a physician-patient relationship.
A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.
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.
AMP was first investigated as an asthma medication in the 1920s, but its psychological effects were soon noticed. These included increased feelings of energy, positive mood, and prolonged physical endurance and mental concentration. These effects have been exploited in a variety of medical and nonmedical applications in the years since they were discovered, including to treat depression, to enhance alertness in military personnel, and to provide a competitive edge in athletic competition (Rasmussen, 2008). Today, AMP remains a widely used and effective treatment for ADHD (Wilens, 2006).
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.
In 3, you’re considering adding a new supplement, not stopping a supplement you already use. The I don’t try Adderall case has value $0, the Adderall fails case is worth -$40 (assuming you only bought 10 pills, and this number should be increased by your analysis time and a weighted cost for potential permanent side effects), and the Adderall succeeds case is worth $X-40-4099, where $X is the discounted lifetime value of the increased productivity due to Adderall, minus any discounted long-term side effect costs. If you estimate Adderall will work with p=.5, then you should try out Adderall if you estimate that 0.5 \times (X-4179) > 0 ~> $X>4179$. (Adderall working or not isn’t binary, and so you might be more comfortable breaking down the various how effective Adderall is cases when eliciting X, by coming up with different levels it could work at, their values, and then using a weighted sum to get X. This can also give you a better target with your experiment- this needs to show a benefit of at least Y from Adderall for it to be worth the cost, and I’ve designed it so it has a reasonable chance of showing that.)
When taken as prescribed, Modafinil is safer than Adderall with fewer side effects. Smart pill enthusiasts find a heightened sense of alertness and motivation with Modafinil. In healthy individuals, Modafinil will reliably boost energy levels. If you find that it gives you headaches, add a choline supplement to your stack. With that said, you should only use Modafinil in moderation on an as-needed basis.
My answer is that this is not a lot of research or very good research (not nearly as good as the research on nicotine, eg.), and assuming it’s true, I don’t value long-term memory that much because LTM is something that is easily assisted or replaced (personal archives, and spaced repetition). For me, my problems tend to be more about akrasia and energy and not getting things done, so even if a stimulant comes with a little cost to long-term memory, it’s still useful for me. I’m going continue to use the caffeine. It’s not so bad in conjunction with tea, is very cheap, and I’m already addicted, so why not? Caffeine is extremely cheap, addictive, has minimal effects on health (and may be beneficial, from the various epidemiological associations with tea/coffee/chocolate & longevity), and costs extra to remove from drinks popular regardless of their caffeine content (coffee and tea again). What would be the point of carefully investigating it? Suppose there was conclusive evidence on the topic, the value of this evidence to me would be roughly $0 or since ignorance is bliss, negative money - because unless the negative effects were drastic (which current studies rule out, although tea has other issues like fluoride or metal contents), I would not change anything about my life. Why? I enjoy my tea too much. My usual tea seller doesn’t even have decaffeinated oolong in general, much less various varieties I might want to drink, apparently because de-caffeinating is so expensive it’s not worthwhile. What am I supposed to do, give up my tea and caffeine just to save on the cost of caffeine? Buy de-caffeinating machines (which I couldn’t even find any prices for, googling)? This also holds true for people who drink coffee or caffeinated soda. (As opposed to a drug like modafinil which is expensive, and so the value of a definitive answer is substantial and would justify some more extensive calculating of cost-benefit.)
The use of cognitive enhancers by healthy individuals sparked debate about ethics and safety. Cognitive enhancement by pharmaceutical means was considered a form of illicit drug use in some places, even while other cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine and nicotine, were freely available. The conflict therein raised the possibility for further acceptance of smart drugs in the future. However, the long-term effects of smart drugs on otherwise healthy brains were unknown, delaying safety assessments.
Not all drug users are searching for a chemical escape hatch. A newer and increasingly normalized drug culture is all about heightening one’s current relationship to reality—whether at work or school—by boosting the brain’s ability to think under stress, stay alert and productive for long hours, and keep track of large amounts of information. In the name of becoming sharper traders, medical interns, or coders, people are taking pills typically prescribed for conditions including ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s. Others down “stacks” of special “nootropic” supplements.
Brain-imaging studies are consistent with the existence of small effects that are not reliably captured by the behavioral paradigms of the literature reviewed here. Typically with executive function tasks, reduced activation of task-relevant areas is associated with better performance and is interpreted as an indication of higher neural efficiency (e.g., Haier, Siegel, Tang, Abel, & Buchsbaum, 1992). Several imaging studies showed effects of stimulants on task-related activation while failing to find effects on cognitive performance. Although changes in brain activation do not necessarily imply functional cognitive changes, they are certainly suggestive and may well be more sensitive than behavioral measures. Evidence of this comes from a study of COMT variation and executive function. Egan and colleagues (2001) found a genetic effect on executive function in an fMRI study with sample sizes as small as 11 but did not find behavioral effects in these samples. The genetic effect on behavior was demonstrated in a separate study with over a hundred participants. In sum, d-AMP and MPH measurably affect the activation of task-relevant brain regions when participants’ task performance does not differ. This is consistent with the hypothesis (although by no means positive proof) that stimulants exert a true cognitive-enhancing effect that is simply too small to be detected in many studies.
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:
Do you start your day with a cup (or two, or three) of coffee? It tastes delicious, but it’s also jump-starting your brain because of its caffeine content. Caffeine is definitely a nootropic substance—it’s a mild stimulant that can alleviate fatigue and improve concentration, according to the Mayo Clinic. Current research shows that coffee drinkers don’t suffer any ill effects from drinking up to about four cups of coffee per day. Caffeine is also found in tea, soda, and energy drinks. Not too surprisingly, it’s also in many of the nootropic supplements that are being marketed to people looking for a mental boost. Take a look at these 7 genius brain boosters to try in the morning.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if you are already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.
×