Although piracetam has a history of “relatively few side effects,” it has fallen far short of its initial promise for treating any of the illnesses associated with cognitive decline, according to Lon Schneider, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “We don’t use it at all and never have.”
Another popular option is nicotine. Scientists are increasingly realising that this drug is a powerful nootropic, with the ability to improve a person’s memory and help them to focus on certain tasks – though it also comes with well-documented obvious risks and side effects. “There are some very famous neuroscientists who chew Nicorette in order to enhance their cognitive functioning. But they used to smoke and that’s their substitute,” says Huberman.
Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
For the sake of organizing the review, we have divided the literature according to the general type of cognitive process being studied, with sections devoted to learning and to various kinds of executive function. Executive function is a broad and, some might say, vague concept that encompasses the processes by which individual perceptual, motoric, and mnemonic abilities are coordinated to enable appropriate, flexible task performance, especially in the face of distracting stimuli or alternative competing responses. Two major aspects of executive function are working memory and cognitive control, responsible for the maintenance of information in a short-term active state for guiding task performance and responsible for inhibition of irrelevant information or responses, respectively. A large enough literature exists on the effects of stimulants on these two executive abilities that separate sections are devoted to each. In addition, a final section includes studies of miscellaneous executive abilities including planning, fluency, and reasoning that have also been the subjects of published studies.
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Racetams are often used as a smart drug by finance workers, students, and individuals in high-pressure jobs as a way to help them get into a mental flow state and work for long periods of time. Additionally, the habits and skills that an individual acquires while using a racetam can still be accessed when someone is not taking racetams because it becomes a habit.
On the other metric, suppose we removed the creatine? Dropping 4 grams of material means we only need to consume 5.75 grams a day, covered by 8 pills (compared to 13 pills). We save 5,000 pills, which would have cost $45 and also don’t spend the $68 for the creatine; assuming a modafinil formulation, that drops our $1761 down to $1648 or $1.65 a day. Or we could remove both the creatine and modafinil, for a grand total of $848 or $0.85 a day, which is pretty reasonable.
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for researchers to know just how common the “smart drug” or “neuro-enhancing” lifestyle is. However, a few recent studies suggest cognition hacking is appealing to a growing number of people. A survey conducted in 2016 found that 15% of University of Oxford students were popping pills to stay competitive, a rate that mirrored findings from other national surveys of UK university students. In the US, a 2014 study found that 18% of sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Ivy League colleges had knowingly used a stimulant at least once during their academic career, and among those who had ever used uppers, 24% said they had popped a little helper on eight or more occasions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pharmacological enhancement is also on the rise within the workplace, where modafinil, which treats sleep disorders, has become particularly popular.
Texas-based entrepreneur and podcaster Mansal Denton takes phenylpiracetam, a close relative of piracetam originally developed by the Soviet Union as a medication for cosmonauts, to help them endure the stresses of life in space. “I have a much easier time articulating certain things when I take it, so I typically do a lot of recording [of podcasts] on those days,” he says.
One of the most common strategies to beat this is cycling. Users who cycle their nootropics take them for a predetermined period, (usually around five days) before taking a two-day break from using them. Once the two days are up, they resume the cycle. By taking a break, nootropic users reduce the tolerance for nootropics and lessen the risk of regression and tolerance symptoms.
We started hearing the buzz when Daytime TV Doctors, started touting these new pills that improve concentration, memory recall, focus, mental clarity and energy. And though we love the good Doctor and his purple gloves, we don’t love the droves of hucksters who prey on his loyal viewers trying to make a quick buck, often selling low-grade versions of his medical discoveries.
In the United States, people consume more coffee than fizzy drink, tea and juice combined. Alas, no one has ever estimated its impact on economic growth – but plenty of studies have found myriad other benefits. Somewhat embarrassingly, caffeine has been proven to be better than the caffeine-based commercial supplement that Woo’s company came up with, which is currently marketed at $17.95 for 60 pills.
Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless. Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others.
To judge from recent reports in the popular media, healthy people have also begun to use MPH and AMPs for cognitive enhancement. Major daily newspapers such as The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal; magazines including Time, The Economist, The New Yorker, and Vogue; and broadcast news organizations including the BBC, CNN, and NPR have reported a trend toward growing use of prescription stimulants by healthy people for the purpose of enhancing school or work performance.
As it happened, Health Supplement Wholesalers (since renamed Powder City) offered me a sample of their products, including their 5g Noopept powder ($13). I’d never used HSW before & they had some issues in the past; but I haven’t seen any recent complaints, so I was willing to try them. My 5g from batch #130830 arrived quickly (photos: packaging, powder contents). I tried some (tastes just slightly unpleasant, like an ultra-weak piracetam), and I set about capping the fluffy white flour-like powder with the hilariously tiny scoop they provide.
Table 5 lists the results of 16 tasks from 13 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on cognitive control. One of the simplest tasks used to study cognitive control is the go/no-go task. Subjects are instructed to press a button as quickly as possible for one stimulus or class of stimuli (go) and to refrain from pressing for another stimulus or class of stimuli (no go). De Wit et al. (2002) used a version of this task to measure the effects of d-AMP on subjects’ ability to inhibit a response and found enhancement in the form of decreased false alarms (responses to no-go stimuli) and increased speed of correct go responses. They also found that subjects who made the most errors on placebo experienced the greatest enhancement from the drug.
70 pairs is 140 blocks; we can drop to 36 pairs or 72 blocks if we accept a power of 0.5/50% chance of reaching significance. (Or we could economize by hoping that the effect size is not 3.5 but maybe twice the pessimistic guess; a d=0.5 at 50% power requires only 12 pairs of 24 blocks.) 70 pairs of blocks of 2 weeks, with 2 pills a day requires (70 \times 2) \times (2 \times 7) \times 2 = 3920 pills. I don’t even have that many empty pills! I have <500; 500 would supply 250 days, which would yield 18 2-week blocks which could give 9 pairs. 9 pairs would give me a power of:
In contrast to the types of memory discussed in the previous section, which are long-lasting and formed as a result of learning, working memory is a temporary store of information. Working memory has been studied extensively by cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists because of its role in executive function. It has been likened to an internal scratch pad; by holding information in working memory, one keeps it available to consult and manipulate in the service of performing tasks as diverse as parsing a sentence and planning a route through the environment. Presumably for this reason, working memory ability correlates with measures of general intelligence (Friedman et al., 2006). The possibility of enhancing working memory ability is therefore of potential real-world interest.
Last spring, 100 people showed up at a Peak Performance event where psychedelic psychologist James Fadiman said the key to unleashing the cognition-enhancing effects of LSD — which he listed as less anxiety, better focus, improved sleep, greater creativity — was all in the dosage. He recommended a tenth of a “party dose” — enough to give you “the glow” and enhance your cognitive powers without “the trip.”
Racetams, specifically Piracetam, an ingredient popular in over-the-counter nootropics, are synthetic stimulants designed to improve brain function. Patel notes Piracetam is the granddaddy of all racetams, and the term “nootropic” was originally coined to describe its effects. However, despite its popularity and how long it’s been around and in use, researchers don’t know what its mechanism of action is. Patel explained that the the most prominent hypothesis suggests Piracetam enhances neuronal function by increasing membrane fluidity in the brain, but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. And Patel elaborated that most studies on Piracetam aren’t done with the target market for nootropics in mind, the young professional:
Popular smart drugs on the market include methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin) and amphetamine (Adderall), stimulants normally used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. In recent years, another drug called modafinil has emerged as the new favourite amongst college students. Primarily used to treat excessive sleepiness associated with the sleep disorder narcolepsy, modafinil increases alertness and energy.
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.
This research is in contrast to the other substances I like, such as piracetam or fish oil. I knew about withdrawal of course, but it was not so bad when I was drinking only tea. And the side-effects like jitteriness are worse on caffeine without tea; I chalk this up to the lack of theanine. (My later experiences with theanine seems to confirm this.) These negative effects mean that caffeine doesn’t satisfy the strictest definition of nootropic (having no negative effects), but is merely a cognitive enhancer (with both benefits & costs). One might wonder why I use caffeine anyway if I am so concerned with mental ability.
At this point, I began thinking about what I was doing. Black-market Adderall is fairly expensive; $4-10 a pill vs prescription prices which run more like $60 for 120 20mg pills. It would be a bad idea to become a fan without being quite sure that it is delivering bang for the buck. Now, why the piracetam mix as the placebo as opposed to my other available powder, creatine powder, which has much smaller mental effects? Because the question for me is not whether the Adderall works (I am quite sure that the amphetamines have effects!) but whether it works better for me than my cheap legal standbys (piracetam & caffeine)? (Does Adderall have marginal advantage for me?) Hence, I want to know whether Adderall is better than my piracetam mix. People frequently underestimate the power of placebo effects, so it’s worth testing. (Unfortunately, it seems that there is experimental evidence that people on Adderall know they are on Adderall and also believe they have improved performance, when they do not5. So the blind testing does not buy me as much as it could.)
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