If smart drugs are the synthetic cognitive enhancers, sleep, nutrition and exercise are the "natural" ones. But the appeal of drugs like Ritalin and modafinil lies in their purported ability to enhance brain function beyond the norm. Indeed, at school or in the workplace, a pill that enhanced the ability to acquire and retain information would be particularly useful when it came to revising and learning lecture material. But despite their increasing popularity, do prescription stimulants actually enhance cognition in healthy users?
Cocoa flavanols (CF) positively influence physiological processes in ways which suggest that their consumption may improve aspects of cognitive function. This study investigated the acute cognitive and subjective effects of CF consumption during sustained mental demand. In this randomized, controlled, double-blinded, balanced, three period crossover trial 30 healthy adults consumed drinks containing 520 mg, 994 mg CF and a matched control, with a 3-day washout between drinks. Assessments included the state anxiety inventory and repeated 10-min cycles of a Cognitive Demand Battery comprising of two serial subtraction tasks (Serial Threes and Serial Sevens), a Rapid Visual Information Processing (RVIP) task and a mental fatigue scale, over the course of 1 h. Consumption of both 520 mg and 994 mg CF significantly improved Serial Threes performance. The 994 mg CF beverage significantly speeded RVIP responses but also resulted in more errors during Serial Sevens. Increases in self-reported mental fatigue were significantly attenuated by the consumption of the 520 mg CF beverage only. This is the first report of acute cognitive improvements following CF consumption in healthy adults. While the mechanisms underlying the effects are unknown they may be related to known effects of CF on endothelial function and blood flow.
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?)
Finally, a workforce high on stimulants wouldn’t necessarily be more productive overall. “One thinks ‘are these things dangerous?’ – and that’s important to consider in the short term,” says Huberman. “But there’s also a different question, which is: ‘How do you feel the day afterwards?’ Maybe you’re hyper-focused for four hours, 12 hours, but then you’re below baseline for 24 or 48.”
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
Nootropics – sometimes called smart drugs – are compounds that enhance brain function. They’re becoming a popular way to give your mind an extra boost. According to one Telegraph report, up to 25% of students at leading UK universities have taken the prescription smart drug modafinil , and California tech startup employees are trying everything from Adderall to LSD to push their brains into a higher gear .
Past noon, I began to feel better, but since I would be driving to errands around 4 PM, I decided to not risk it and take an hour-long nap, which went well, as did the driving. The evening was normal enough that I forgot I had stayed up the previous night, and indeed, I didn’t much feel like going to bed until past midnight. I then slept well, the Zeo giving me a 108 ZQ (not an all-time record, but still unusual).
Some of the newest substances being used as ‘smart drugs’ are medically prescribed for other conditions. For example, methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So is Adderall, a combination drug containing two forms of amphetamine. These are among a suite of pharmaceuticals now being used by healthy people, particularly university students, to enhance their capabilities for learning or working.
ADHD medication sales are growing rapidly, with annual revenues of $12.9 billion in 2015. These drugs can be obtained legally by those who have a prescription, which also includes those who have deliberately faked the symptoms in order to acquire the desired medication. (According to an experiment published in 2010, it is difficult for medical practitioners to separate those who feign the symptoms from those who actually have them.) That said, faking might not be necessary if a doctor deems your desired productivity level or your stress around a big project as reason enough to prescribe medication.
The effect? 3 or 4 weeks later, I’m not sure. When I began putting all of my nootropic powders into pill-form, I put half a lithium pill in each, and nevertheless ran out of lithium fairly quickly (3kg of piracetam makes for >4000 OO-size pills); those capsules were buried at the bottom of the bucket under lithium-less pills. So I suddenly went cold-turkey on lithium. Reflecting on the past 2 weeks, I seem to have been less optimistic and productive, with items now lingering on my To-Do list which I didn’t expect to. An effect? Possibly.
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Panax ginseng – A review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "there is a lack of convincing evidence to show a cognitive enhancing effect of Panax ginseng in healthy participants and no high quality evidence about its efficacy in patients with dementia." According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "[a]lthough Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb."