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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.
Modafinil is a eugeroic, or ‘wakefulness promoting agent’, intended to help people with narcolepsy. It was invented in the 1970s, but was first approved by the American FDA in 1998 for medical use. Recent years have seen its off-label use as a ‘smart drug’ grow. It’s not known exactly how Modafinil works, but scientists believe it may increase levels of histamines in the brain, which can keep you awake. It might also inhibit the dissipation of dopamine, again helping wakefulness, and it may help alertness by boosting norepinephrine levels, contributing to its reputation as a drug to help focus and concentration.
There are some other promising prescription drugs that may have performance-related effects on the brain. But at this point, all of them seem to involve a roll of the dice. You may experience a short-term brain boost, but you could also end up harming your brain (or some other aspect of your health) in the long run. “To date, there is no safe drug that may increase cognition in healthy adults,” Fond says of ADHD drugs, modafinil and other prescription nootropics.
Exercise is also important, says Lebowitz. Studies have shown it sharpens focus, elevates your mood and improves concentration. Likewise, maintaining a healthy social life and getting enough sleep are vital, too. Studies have consistently shown that regularly skipping out on the recommended eight hours can drastically impair critical thinking skills and attention.
How exactly – and if – nootropics work varies widely. Some may work, for example, by strengthening certain brain pathways for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is involved in motivation, Barbour says. Others aim to boost blood flow – and therefore funnel nutrients – to the brain to support cell growth and regeneration. Others protect brain cells and connections from inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in conditions like Alzheimer's, Barbour explains. Still others boost metabolism or pack in vitamins that may help protect the brain and the rest of the nervous system, explains Dr. Anna Hohler, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.
So with these 8 results in hand, what do I think? Roughly, I was right 5 of the days and wrong 3 of them. If not for the sleep effect on #4, which is - in a way - cheating (one hopes to detect modafinil due to good effects), the ratio would be 5:4 which is awfully close to a coin-flip. Indeed, a scoring rule ranks my performance at almost identical to a coin flip: -5.49 vs -5.5419. (The bright side is that I didn’t do worse than a coin flip: I was at least calibrated.)

I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 9 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.


A total of 14 studies surveyed reasons for using prescription stimulants nonmedically, all but one study confined to student respondents. The most common reasons were related to cognitive enhancement. Different studies worded the multiple-choice alternatives differently, but all of the following appeared among the top reasons for using the drugs: “concentration” or “attention” (Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; Teter, McCabe, Cranford, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2005; White et al., 2006); “help memorize,” “study,” “study habits,” or “academic assignments” (Arria et al., 2008; Barrett et al., 2005; Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; DuPont et al., 2008; Low & Gendaszek, 2002; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2005, 2006; White et al., 2006); “grades” or “intellectual performance” (Low & Gendaszek, 2002; White et al., 2006); “before tests” or “finals week” (Hall et al., 2005); “alertness” (Boyd et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Teter et al., 2003, 2005, 2006); or “performance” (Novak et al., 2007). However, every survey found other motives mentioned as well. The pills were also taken to “stay awake,” “get high,” “be able to drink and party longer without feeling drunk,” “lose weight,” “experiment,” and for “recreational purposes.”
Regardless, while in the absence of piracetam, I did notice some stimulant effects (somewhat negative - more aggressive than usual while driving) and similar effects to piracetam, I did not notice any mental performance beyond piracetam when using them both. The most I can say is that on some nights, I seemed to be less easily tired when writing or editing or n-backing (and I felt less tired than ICON 2011 than ICON 2010), but those were also often nights I was also trying out all the other things I had gotten in that order from Smart Powders, and I am still dis-entangling what was responsible. (Probably the l-theanine or sulbutiamine.)
The chemicals he takes, dubbed nootropics from the Greek “noos” for “mind”, are intended to safely improve cognitive functioning. They must not be harmful, have significant side-effects or be addictive. That means well-known “smart drugs” such as the prescription-only stimulants Adderall and Ritalin, popular with swotting university students, are out. What’s left under the nootropic umbrella is a dizzying array of over-the-counter supplements, prescription drugs and unclassified research chemicals, some of which are being trialled in older people with fading cognition.
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.

The ethics of cognitive enhancement have been extensively debated in the academic literature (e.g., Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009; Farah et al., 2004; Greely et al., 2008; Mehlman, 2004; Sahakian & Morein-Zamir, 2007). We do not attempt to review this aspect of the problem here. Rather, we attempt to provide a firmer empirical basis for these discussions. Despite the widespread interest in the topic and its growing public health implications, there remains much researchers do not know about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement.
One symptom of Alzheimer's disease is a reduced brain level of the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It is thought that an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease might be to increase brain levels of acetylcholine. Another possible treatment would be to slow the death of neurons that contain acetylcholine. Two drugs, Tacrine and Donepezil, are both inhibitors of the enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) that breaks down acetylcholine. These drugs are approved in the US for treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
If stimulants truly enhance cognition but do so to only a small degree, this raises the question of whether small effects are of practical use in the real world. Under some circumstances, the answer would undoubtedly be yes. Success in academic and occupational competitions often hinges on the difference between being at the top or merely near the top. A scholarship or a promotion that can go to only one person will not benefit the runner-up at all. Hence, even a small edge in the competition can be important.

Nootropics are also sought out by consumers because of their ability to enhance mood and relieve stress and anxiety. Nootropics like bacopa monnieri and L-theanine are backed by research as stress-relieving options. Lion’s mane mushroom is also well-studied for its ability to boost the nerve growth factor, thereby leading to a balanced and bright mood.14


I decided to try out day-time usage on 2 consecutive days, taking the 100mg at noon or 1 PM. On both days, I thought I did feel more energetic but nothing extraordinary (maybe not even as strong as the nicotine), and I had trouble falling asleep on Halloween, thinking about the meta-ethics essay I had been writing diligently on both days. Not a good use compared to staying up a night.
…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.
On the plus side: - I noticed the less-fatigue thing to a greater extent, getting out of my classes much less tired than usual. (Caveat: my sleep schedule recently changed for the saner, so it’s possible that’s responsible. I think it’s more the piracetam+choline, though.) - One thing I wasn’t expecting was a decrease in my appetite - nobody had mentioned that in their reports.I don’t like being bothered by my appetite (I know how to eat fine without it reminding me), so I count this as a plus. - Fidgeting was reduced further
There’s been a lot of talk about the ketogenic diet recently—proponents say that minimizing the carbohydrates you eat and ingesting lots of fat can train your body to burn fat more effectively. It’s meant to help you both lose weight and keep your energy levels constant. The diet was first studied and used in patients with epilepsy, who suffered fewer seizures when their bodies were in a state of ketosis. Because seizures originate in the brain, this discovery showed researchers that a ketogenic diet can definitely affect the way the brain works. Brain hackers naturally started experimenting with diets to enhance their cognitive abilities, and now a company called HVMN even sells ketone esters in a bottle; to achieve these compounds naturally, you’d have to avoid bread and cake. Here are 6 ways exercise makes your brain better.

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.

^ 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.
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