When it comes to coping with exam stress or meeting that looming deadline, the prospect of a "smart drug" that could help you focus, learn and think faster is very seductive. At least this is what current trends on university campuses suggest. Just as you might drink a cup of coffee to help you stay alert, an increasing number of students and academics are turning to prescription drugs to boost academic performance.


After trying out 2 6lb packs between 12 September & 25 November 2012, and 20 March & 20 August 2013, I have given up on flaxseed meal. They did not seem to go bad in the refrigerator or freezer, and tasted OK, but I had difficulty working them into my usual recipes: it doesn’t combine well with hot or cold oatmeal, and when I tried using flaxseed meal in soups I learned flaxseed is a thickener which can give soup the consistency of snot. It’s easier to use fish oil on a daily basis.

“Such an informative and inspiring read! Insight into how optimal nutrients improved Cavin’s own brain recovery make this knowledge-filled read compelling and relatable. The recommendations are easy to understand as well as scientifically-founded – it’s not another fad diet manual. The additional tools and resources provided throughout make it possible for anyone to integrate these enhancements into their nutritional repertoire. Looking forward to more from Cavin and Feed a Brain!!!!!!”

One claim was partially verified in passing by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Supplementing potassium (citrate) hasn’t helped me much, but works dramatically for Anna, Kevin, and Vassar…About the same as drinking a cup of coffee - i.e., it works as a perker-upper, somehow. I’m not sure, since it doesn’t do anything for me except possibly mitigate foot cramps.)
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First was a combination of L-theanine and aniracetam, a synthetic compound prescribed in Europe to treat degenerative neurological diseases. I tested it by downing the recommended dosages and then tinkering with a story I had finished a few days earlier, back when caffeine was my only performance-enhancing drug. I zoomed through the document with renewed vigor, striking some sentences wholesale and rearranging others to make them tighter and punchier.
It can easily pass through the blood-brain barrier and is known to protect the nerve tissues present in the brain. There is evidence that the acid plays an instrumental role in preventing strokes in adults by decreasing the number of free radicals in the body.  It increases the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that most Alzheimer’s patients are a deficit in.
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.
As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩
There are certain risks associated with smart pills that might restrain their use. A smart pill usually leaves the body within two weeks. Sometimes, the pill might get lodged in the digestive tract rather than exiting the body via normal bowel movements. The risk might be higher in people with a tumor, Crohns disease, or some surgery within that area that lead to narrowing of the digestive tract. CT scan is usually performed in people with high-risk to assess the narrowing of the tract. However, the pill might still be lodged even if the results are negative for the CT scan, which might lead to bowel obstruction and can be removed either by surgery or traditional endoscopy. Smart pills might lead to skin irritation, which results in mild redness and need to be treated topically. It may also lead to capsule aspiration, which involves the capsule going down the wrong pipe and entering the airway instead of the esophagus. This might result in choking and death if immediate bronchoscopic extraction is not performed. Patients with comorbidities related to brain injury or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may be at a higher risk. So, the health risks associated with the use of smart pills are hindering the smart pills technology market. The other factors, such as increasing cost with technological advancement and ethical constraints are also hindering the market.
These days, young, ambitious professionals prefer prescription stimulants—including methylphenidate (usually sold as Ritalin) and Adderall—that are designed to treat people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and are more common and more acceptable than cocaine or nicotine (although there is a black market for these pills). ADHD makes people more likely to lose their focus on tasks and to feel restless and impulsive. Diagnoses of the disorder have been rising dramatically over the past few decades—and not just in kids: In 2012, about 16 million Adderall prescriptions were written for adults between the ages of 20 and 39, according to a report in the New York Times. Both methylphenidate and Adderall can improve sustained attention and concentration, says Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge and author of the 2013 book Bad Moves: How Decision Making Goes Wrong, and the Ethics of Smart Drugs. But the drugs do have side effects, including insomnia, lack of appetite, mood swings, and—in extreme cases—hallucinations, especially when taken in amounts the exceed standard doses. Take a look at these 10 foods that help you focus.
Never heard of OptiMind before? This supplement promotes itself as an all-natural nootropic supplement that increases focus, improves memory, and enhances overall mental drive. The product first captured our attention when we noticed that their supplement blend contains a few of the same ingredients currently present in our editor’s #1 choice. So, of course, we grew curious to see whether their formula was as (un)successful as their initial branding techniques. Keep reading to find out what we discovered… Learn More...
The experiment then is straightforward: cut up a fresh piece of gum, randomly select from it and an equivalent dry piece of gum, and do 5 rounds of dual n-back to test attention/energy & WM. (If it turns out to be placebo, I’ll immediately use the remaining active dose: no sense in wasting gum, and this will test whether nigh-daily use renders nicotine gum useless, similar to how caffeine may be useless if taken daily. If there’s 3 pieces of active gum left, then I wrap it very tightly in Saran wrap which is sticky and air-tight.) The dose will be 1mg or 1/4 a gum. I cut up a dozen pieces into 4 pieces for 48 doses and set them out to dry. Per the previous power analyses, 48 groups of DNB rounds likely will be enough for detecting small-medium effects (partly since we will be only looking at one metric - average % right per 5 rounds - with no need for multiple correction). Analysis will be one-tailed, since we’re looking for whether there is a clear performance improvement and hence a reason to keep using nicotine gum (rather than whether nicotine gum might be harmful).

Take quarter at midnight, another quarter at 2 AM. Night runs reasonably well once I remember to eat a lot of food (I finish a big editing task I had put off for weeks), but the apathy kicks in early around 4 AM so I gave up and watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, finishing around 6 AM. I then read until it’s time to go to a big shotgun club function, which occupies the rest of the morning and afternoon; I had nothing to do much of the time and napped very poorly on occasion. By the time we got back at 4 PM, the apathy was completely gone and I started some modafinil research with gusto (interrupted by going to see Puss in Boots). That night: Zeo recorded 8:30 of sleep, gap of about 1:50 in the recording, figure 10:10 total sleep; following night, 8:33; third night, 8:47; fourth, 8:20 (▇▁▁▁).
Taken together, these considerations suggest that the cognitive effects of stimulants for any individual in any task will vary based on dosage and will not easily be predicted on the basis of data from other individuals or other tasks. Optimizing the cognitive effects of a stimulant would therefore require, in effect, a search through a high-dimensional space whose dimensions are dose; individual characteristics such as genetic, personality, and ability levels; and task characteristics. The mixed results in the current literature may be due to the lack of systematic optimization.

But while some studies have found short-term benefits, Doraiswamy says there is no evidence that what are commonly known as smart drugs — of any type — improve thinking or productivity over the long run. “There’s a sizable demand, but the hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence,” notes Doraiswamy, adding that, for healthy young people such as Silicon Valley go-getters, “it’s a zero-sum game. That’s because when you up one circuit in the brain, you’re probably impairing another system.”


But he has also seen patients whose propensity for self-experimentation to improve cognition got out of hand. One chief executive he treated, Ngo said, developed an unhealthy predilection for albuterol, because he felt the asthma inhaler medicine kept him alert and productive long after others had quit working. Unfortunately, the drug ended up severely imbalancing his electrolytes, which can lead to dehydration, headaches, vision and cardiac problems, muscle contractions and, in extreme cases, seizures.
Companies already know a great deal about how their employees live their lives. With the help of wearable technologies and health screenings, companies can now analyze the relation between bodily activities — exercise, sleep, nutrition, etc. — and work performance. With the justification that healthy employees perform better, some companies have made exercise mandatory by using sanctions against those who refuse to perform. And according to The Kaiser Family Foundation, of the large U.S. companies that offer health screenings, nearly half of them use financial incentives to persuade employees to participate.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA, naturally produced in the brain from glutamate, is a neurotransmitter that helps in the communication between the nervous system and brain. The primary function of this GABA Nootropic is to reduce the additional activity of the nerve cells and helps calm the mind. Thus, it helps to improve various conditions, like stress, anxiety, and depression by decreasing the beta brain waves and increasing the alpha brain waves. It is one of the best nootropic for anxiety that you can find in the market today.  As a result, cognitive abilities like memory power, attention, and alertness also improve. GABA helps drug addicts recover from addiction by normalizing the brain’s GABA receptors which reduce anxiety and craving levels in the absence of addictive substances.
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:

However, normally when you hear the term nootropic kicked around, people really mean a “cognitive enhancer” — something that does benefit thinking in some way (improved memory, faster speed-of-processing, increased concentration, or a combination of these, etc.), but might not meet the more rigorous definition above.  “Smart drugs” is another largely-interchangeable term.


Some people aren’t satisfied with a single supplement—the most devoted self-improvers buy a variety of different compounds online and create their own custom regimens, which they call “stacks.” According to Kaleigh Rogers, writing in Vice last year, companies will now take their customers’ genetic data from 23andMe or another source and use it to recommend the right combinations of smart drugs to optimize each individual’s abilities. The problem with this practice is that there’s no evidence the practice works. (And remember, the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements.) Find out the 9 best foods to boost your brain health.
Many laboratory tasks have been developed to study working memory, each of which taxes to varying degrees aspects such as the overall capacity of working memory, its persistence over time, and its resistance to interference either from task-irrelevant stimuli or among the items to be retained in working memory (i.e., cross-talk). Tasks also vary in the types of information to be retained in working memory, for example, verbal or spatial information. The question of which of these task differences correspond to differences between distinct working memory systems and which correspond to different ways of using a single underlying system is a matter of debate (e.g., D’Esposito, Postle, & Rypma, 2000; Owen, 2000). For the present purpose, we ignore this question and simply ask, Do MPH and d-AMP affect performance in the wide array of tasks that have been taken to operationalize working memory? If the literature does not yield a unanimous answer to this question, then what factors might be critical in determining whether stimulant effects are manifest?
Imagine a pill you can take to speed up your thought processes, boost your memory, and make you more productive. If it sounds like the ultimate life hack, you’re not alone. There are pills that promise that out there, but whether they work is complicated. Here are the most popular cognitive enhancers available, and what science actually says about them.
Most of the most solid fish oil results seem to meliorate the effects of age; in my 20s, I’m not sure they are worth the cost. But I would probably resume fish oil in my 30s or 40s when aging really becomes a concern. So the experiment at most will result in discontinuing for a decade. At $X a year, that’s a net present value of sum $ map (\n -> 70 / (1 + 0.05)^n) [1..10] = $540.5.
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).
Remember: The strictest definition of nootropics today says that for a substance to be a true brain-boosting nootropic it must have low toxicity and few side effects. Therefore, by definition, a nootropic is safe to use. However, when people start stacking nootropics indiscriminately, taking megadoses, or importing them from unknown suppliers that may have poor quality control, it’s easy for safety concerns to start creeping in.
None of that has kept entrepreneurs and their customers from experimenting and buying into the business of magic pills, however. In 2015 alone, the nootropics business raked in over $1 billion dollars, and web sites like the nootropics subreddit, the Bluelight forums, and Bulletproof Exec are popular and packed with people looking for easy ways to boost their mental performance. Still, this bizarre, Philip K. Dick-esque world of smart drugs is a tough pill to swallow. To dive into the topic and explain, I spoke to Kamal Patel, Director of evidence-based medical database Examine.com, and even tried a few commercially-available nootropics myself.
“As a physical therapist with 30+ years of experience in treating neurological disorders such as traumatic brain injury, I simply could not believe it when Cavin told me the extent of his injuries. His story opened a new door to my awareness of the incredible benefits of proper nutrition, the power of attitude and community to heal anything we have arise in our lives Cavin is an inspiration and a true way-shower for anyone looking to invest in their health and well-being. No matter the state your brain is in, you will benefit from this cutting-edge information and be very glad (and entertained) that you read this fine work.”
Vinpocetine walks a line between herbal and pharmaceutical product. It’s a synthetic derivative of a chemical from the periwinkle plant, and due to its synthetic nature we feel it’s more appropriate as a ‘smart drug’. Plus, it’s illegal in the UK. Vinpocetine is purported to improve cognitive function by improving blood flow to the brain, which is why it's used in some 'study drugs' or 'smart pills'.

If you’re concerned with using either supplement, speak to your doctor. Others will replace these supplements with something like Phenylpiracetam or Pramiracetam. Both of these racetams provide increased energy levels, yielding less side-effects. If you do plan on taking Modafinil or Adrafinil, it’s best to use them on occasion or cycle your doses.

11:30 AM. By 2:30 PM, my hunger is quite strong and I don’t feel especially focused - it’s difficult to get through the tab-explosion of the morning, although one particularly stupid poster on the DNB ML makes me feel irritated like I might on Adderall. I initially figure the probability at perhaps 60% for Adderall, but when I wake up at 2 AM and am completely unable to get back to sleep, eventually racking up a Zeo score of 73 (compared to the usual 100s), there’s no doubt in my mind (95%) that the pill was Adderall. And it was the last Adderall pill indeed.
At small effects like d=0.07, a nontrivial chance of negative effects, and an unknown level of placebo effects (this was non-blinded, which could account for any residual effects), this strongly implies that LLLT is not doing anything for me worth bothering with. I was pretty skeptical of LLLT in the first place, and if 167 days can’t turn up anything noticeable, I don’t think I’ll be continuing with LLLT usage and will be giving away my LED set. (Should any experimental studies of LLLT for cognitive enhancement in healthy people surface with large quantitative effects - as opposed to a handful of qualitative case studies about brain-damaged people - and I decide to give LLLT another try, I can always just buy another set of LEDs: it’s only ~$15, after all.)
The evidence? Found helpful in reducing bodily twitching in myoclonus epilepsy, a rare disorder, but otherwise little studied. Mixed evidence from a study published in 1991 suggests it may improve memory in subjects with cognitive impairment. A meta-analysis published in 2010 that reviewed studies of piracetam and other racetam drugs found that piracetam was somewhat helpful in improving cognition in people who had suffered a stroke or brain injury; the drugs’ effectiveness in treating depression and reducing anxiety was more significant.
“I enjoyed this book. It was full of practical information. It was easy to understand. I implemented some of the ideas in the book and they have made a positive impact for me. Not only is this book a wealth of knowledge it helps you think outside the box and piece together other ideas to research and helps you understand more about TBI and the way food might help you mitigate symptoms.”

Piracetam is well studied and is credited by its users with boosting their memory, sharpening their focus, heightening their immune system, even bettering their personalities. But it’s only one of many formulations in the racetam drug family. Newer ones include aniracetam, phenylpiracetam and oxiracetam. All are available online, where their efficacy and safety are debated and reviewed on message boards and in podcasts.
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:

Adderall is an amphetamine, used as a drug to help focus and concentration in people with ADHD, and promote wakefulness for sufferers of narcolepsy. Adderall increases levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, along with a few other chemicals and neurotransmitters. It’s used off-label as a study drug, because, as mentioned, it is believed to increase focus and concentration, improve cognition and help users stay awake. Please note: Side Effects Possible.


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.
I can’t try either of the products myself – I am pregnant and my doctor doesn’t recommend it – but my husband agrees to. He describes the effect of the Nootrobox product as like having a cup of coffee but not feeling as jittery. “I had a very productive day, but I don’t know if that was why,” he says. His Nootroo experience ends after one capsule. He gets a headache, which he is convinced is related, and refuses to take more. “It is just not a beginner friendly cocktail,” offers Noehr.
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Starting from the studies in my meta-analysis, we can try to estimate an upper bound on how big any effect would be, if it actually existed. One of the most promising null results, Southon et al 1994, turns out to be not very informative: if we punch in the number of kids, we find that they needed a large effect size (d=0.81) before they could see anything:
One of the most popular legal stimulants in the world, nicotine is often conflated with the harmful effects of tobacco; considered on its own, it has performance & possibly health benefits. Nicotine is widely available at moderate prices as long-acting nicotine patches, gums, lozenges, and suspended in water for vaping. While intended for smoking cessation, there is no reason one cannot use a nicotine patch or nicotine gum for its stimulant effects.

I was contacted by the Longecity user lostfalco, and read through some of his writings on the topic. I had never heard of LLLT before, but the mitochondria mechanism didn’t sound impossible (although I wondered whether it made sense at a quantity level14151617), and there was at least some research backing it; more importantly, lostfalco had discovered that devices for LLLT could be obtained as cheap as $15. (Clearly no one will be getting rich off LLLT or affiliate revenue any time soon.) Nor could I think of any way the LLLT could be easily harmful: there were no drugs involved, physical contact was unnecessary, power output was too low to directly damage through heating, and if it had no LLLT-style effect but some sort of circadian effect through hitting photoreceptors, using it in the morning wouldn’t seem to interfere with sleep.
Null results are generally less likely to be published. Consistent with the operation of such a bias in the present literature, the null results found in our survey were invariably included in articles reporting the results of multiple tasks or multiple measures of a single task; published single-task studies with exclusively behavioral measures all found enhancement. This suggests that some single-task studies with null results have gone unreported. The present mixed results are consistent with those of other recent reviews that included data from normal subjects, using more limited sets of tasks or medications (Advokat, 2010; Chamberlain et al., 2010; Repantis, Schlattmann, Laisney, & Heuser, 2010).
The truth is that, almost 20 years ago when my brain was failing and I was fat and tired, I did not know to follow this advice. I bought $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe, took them all at once out of desperation, and got enough cognitive function to save my career and tackle my metabolic problems. With the information we have now, you don’t need to do that. Please learn from my mistakes!
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