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?
1 PM; overall this was a pretty productive day, but I can’t say it was very productive. I would almost say even odds, but for some reason I feel a little more inclined towards modafinil. Say 55%. That night’s sleep was vile: the Zeo says it took me 40 minutes to fall asleep, I only slept 7:37 total, and I woke up 7 times. I’m comfortable taking this as evidence of modafinil (half-life 10 hours, 1 PM to midnight is only 1 full halving), bumping my prediction to 75%. I check, and sure enough - modafinil.
Sarter is downbeat, however, about the likelihood of the pharmaceutical industry actually turning candidate smart drugs into products. Its interest in cognitive enhancers is shrinking, he says, “because these drugs are not working for the big indications, which is the market that drives these developments. Even adult ADHD has not been considered a sufficiently attractive large market.”
Similar to the way in which some athletes used anabolic steroids (muscle-building hormones) to artificially enhance their physique, some students turned to smart drugs, particularly Ritalin and Adderall, to heighten their intellectual abilities. A 2005 study reported that, at some universities in the United States, as many as 7 percent of respondents had used smart drugs at least once in their lifetime and 2.1 percent had used smart drugs in the past month. Modafinil was used increasingly by persons who sought to recover quickly from jet lag and who were under heavy work demands. Military personnel were given the same drug when sent on missions with extended flight times.
We’ve talk about how caffeine affects the body in great detail, but the basic idea is that it can improve your motivation and focus by increasing catecholamine signaling. Its effects can be dampened over time, however, as you start to build a caffeine tolerance. Research on L-theanine, a common amino acid, suggests it promotes neuronal health and can decrease the incidence of cold and flu symptoms by strengthening the immune system. And one study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, found that L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses—which is why it’s often taken with caffeine. In fact, in a 2014 systematic review of 11 different studies, published in the journal Nutrition Review, researchers found that use of caffeine in combination with L-theanine promoted alertness, task switching, and attention. The reviewers note the effects are most pronounced during the first two hours post-dose, and they also point out that caffeine is the major player here, since larger caffeine doses were found to have more of an effect than larger doses of L-theanine.
Alpha Lipoic Acid is a vitamin-like chemical filled with antioxidant properties, that naturally occur in broccoli, spinach, yeast, kidney, liver, and potatoes. The compound is generally prescribed to patients suffering from nerve-related symptoms of diabetes because it helps in preventing damage to the nerve cells and improves the functioning of neurons. It can be termed as one of the best memory boosting supplements.
A rough translation for the word “nootropic” comes from the Greek for “to bend or shape the mind.” And already, there are dozens of over-the-counter (OTC) products—many of which are sold widely online or in stores—that claim to boost creativity, memory, decision-making or other high-level brain functions. Some of the most popular supplements are a mixture of food-derived vitamins, lipids, phytochemicals and antioxidants that studies have linked to healthy brain function. One popular pick on Amazon, for example, is an encapsulated cocktail of omega-3s, B vitamins and plant-derived compounds that its maker claims can improve memory, concentration and focus.
The nonmedical use of substances—often dubbed smart drugs—to increase memory or concentration is known as pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE), and it rose in all 15 nations included in the survey. The study looked at prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin—prescribed medically to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—as well as the sleep-disorder medication modafinil and illegal stimulants such as cocaine.
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.
Many people find it difficult to think clearly when they are stressed out. Ongoing stress leads to progressive mental fatigue and an eventual breakdown. Luckily, there are several ways that nootropics can help relieve stress. One is through the natural promotion of feelings of relaxation and the other is by replenishing the brain chemicals drained by stress.
Finally, all of the questions raised here in relation to MPH and d-AMP can also be asked about newer drugs and even about nonpharmacological methods of cognitive enhancement. An example of a newer drug with cognitive-enhancing potential is modafinil. Originally marketed as a therapy for narcolepsy, it is widely used off label for other purposes (Vastag, 2004), and a limited literature on its cognitive effects suggests some promise as a cognitive enhancer for normal healthy people (see Minzenberg & Carter, 2008, for a review).
If you’re considering taking pharmaceutical nootropics, then it’s important that you learn as much as you can about how they work and that you seek professional advice before taking them. Be sure to read the side effects and contraindications of the nootropic that you are considering taking, and do not use it if you have any pre-existing medical conditions or allergies. If you’re taking other medications, then discuss your plans with a doctor or pharmacist to make sure that your nootropic is safe for you to use.
Another prescription stimulant medication, modafinil (known by the brand name Provigil), is usually prescribed to patients suffering from narcolepsy and shift-work sleep disorder, but it might turn out to have broader applications. “We have conducted at the University of Cambridge double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in healthy people using modafinil and have found improvements in cognition, including in working memory,” Sahakian says. However, she doesn’t think everyone should start using the drug off-label. “There are no long-term safety and efficacy studies of modafinil in healthy people, and so it is unclear what the risks might be.”
Known widely as ‘Brahmi,’ the Bacopa Monnieri or Water Hyssop, is a small herb native to India that finds mention in various Ayurvedic texts for being the best natural cognitive enhancer. It has been used traditionally for memory enhancement, asthma, epilepsy and improving mood and attention of people over 65. It is known to be one of the best brain supplement in the world.
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.
However, when I didn’t stack it with Choline, I would get what users call “racetam headaches.” Choline, as Patel explains, is not a true nootropic, but it’s still a pro-cognitive compound that many take with other nootropics in a stack. It’s an essential nutrient that humans need for functions like memory and muscle control, but we can’t produce it, and many Americans don’t get enough of it. The headaches I got weren’t terribly painful, but they were uncomfortable enough that I stopped taking Piracetam on its own. Even without the headache, though, I didn’t really like the level of focus Piracetam gave me. I didn’t feel present when I used it, even when I tried to mix in caffeine and L-theanine. And while it seemed like I could focus and do my work faster, I was making more small mistakes in my writing, like skipping words. Essentially, it felt like my brain was moving faster than I could.
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?
Nootropics are a broad classification of cognition-enhancing compounds that produce minimal side effects and are suitable for long-term use. These compounds include those occurring in nature or already produced by the human body (such as neurotransmitters), and their synthetic analogs. We already regularly consume some of these chemicals: B vitamins, caffeine, and L-theanine, in our daily diets.
Some cognitive enhancers, such as donepezil and galantamine, are prescribed for elderly patients with impaired reasoning and memory deficits caused by various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease with dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and vascular dementia. Children and young adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often treated with the cognitive enhancers Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts). Persons diagnosed with narcolepsy find relief from sudden attacks of sleep through wake-promoting agents such as Provigil (modafinil). Generally speaking, cognitive enhancers improve working and episodic (event-specific) memory, attention, vigilance, and overall wakefulness but act through different brain systems and neurotransmitters to exert their enhancing effects.
As I am not any of the latter, I didn’t really expect a mental benefit. As it happens, I observed nothing. What surprised me was something I had forgotten about: its physical benefits. My performance in Taekwondo classes suddenly improved - specifically, my endurance increased substantially. Before, classes had left me nearly prostrate at the end, but after, I was weary yet fairly alert and happy. (I have done Taekwondo since I was 7, and I have a pretty good sense of what is and is not normal performance for my body. This was not anything as simple as failing to notice increasing fitness or something.) This was driven home to me one day when in a flurry before class, I prepared my customary tea with piracetam, choline & creatine; by the middle of the class, I was feeling faint & tired, had to take a break, and suddenly, thunderstruck, realized that I had absentmindedly forgot to actually drink it! This made me a believer.
One of the other suggested benefits is for boosting serotonin levels; low levels of serotonin are implicated in a number of issues like depression. I’m not yet sure whether tryptophan has helped with motivation or happiness. Trial and error has taught me that it’s a bad idea to take tryptophan in the morning or afternoon, however, even smaller quantities like 0.25g. Like melatonin, the dose-response curve is a U: ~1g is great and induces multiple vivid dreams for me, but ~1.5g leads to an awful night and a headache the next day that was worse, if anything, than melatonin. (One morning I woke up with traces of at least 7 dreams, although I managed to write down only 2. No lucid dreams, though.)
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.
Historically used to help people with epilepsy, piracetam is used in some cases of myoclonus, or muscle twitching. Its actual mechanism of action is unclear: It doesn’t act exactly as a sedative or stimulant, but still influences cognitive function, and is believed to act on receptors for acetylcholine in the brain. Piracetam is used off-label as a 'smart drug' to help focus and concentration or sometimes as a way to allegedly boost your mood. Again, piracetam is a prescription-only drug - any supply to people without a prescription is illegal, and supplying it may result in a fine or prison sentence.
My predictions were substantially better than random chance7, so my default belief - that Adderall does affect me and (mostly) for the better - is borne out. I usually sleep very well and 3 separate incidents of horrible sleep in a few weeks seems rather unlikely (though I didn’t keep track of dates carefully enough to link the Zeo data with the Adderall data). Between the price and the sleep disturbances, I don’t think Adderall is personally worthwhile.
Ongoing studies are looking into the possible pathways by which nootropic substances function. Researchers have postulated that the mental health advantages derived from these substances can be attributed to their effects on the cholinergic and dopaminergic systems of the brain. These systems regulate two important neurotransmitters, acetylcholine and dopamine.
Supplements, medications, and coffee certainly might play a role in keeping our brains running smoothly at work or when we’re trying to remember where we left our keys. But the long-term effects of basic lifestyle practices can’t be ignored. “For good brain health across the life span, you should keep your brain active,” Sahakian says. “There is good evidence for ‘use it or lose it.’” She suggests brain-training apps to improve memory, as well as physical exercise. “You should ensure you have a healthy diet and not overeat. It is also important to have good-quality sleep. Finally, having a good work-life balance is important for well-being.” Try these 8 ways to get smarter while you sleep.
AMP and MPH increase catecholamine activity in different ways. MPH primarily inhibits the reuptake of dopamine by pre-synaptic neurons, thus leaving more dopamine in the synapse and available for interacting with the receptors of the postsynaptic neuron. AMP also affects reuptake, as well as increasing the rate at which neurotransmitter is released from presynaptic neurons (Wilens, 2006). These effects are manifest in the attention systems of the brain, as already mentioned, and in a variety of other systems that depend on catecholaminergic transmission as well, giving rise to other physical and psychological effects. Physical effects include activation of the sympathetic nervous system (i.e., a fight-or-flight response), producing increased heart rate and blood pressure. Psychological effects are mediated by activation of the nucleus accumbens, ventral striatum, and other parts of the brain’s reward system, producing feelings of pleasure and the potential for dependence.
Smart Pill is a dietary supplement that blends vitamins, amino acids, and herbal extracts to sustain mental alertness, memory and concentration. One of the ingredients used in this formula is Vitamin B-1, also known as Thiamine, which sustains almost all functions present in the body, but plays a key role in brain health and function. A deficiency of this vitamin can lead to several neurological function problems. The most common use of Thiamine is to improve brain function; it acts as a neurotransmitter helping the brain prevent learning and memory disorders; it also provides help with mood disorders and offers stress relief.
I have no particularly compelling story for why this might be a correlation and not causation. It could be placebo, but I wasn’t expecting that. It could be selection effect (days on which I bothered to use the annoying LED set are better days) but then I’d expect the off-days to be below-average and compared to the 2 years of trendline before, there doesn’t seem like much of a fall.
Flow diagram of epidemiology literature search completed July 1, 2010. Search terms were nonmedical use, nonmedical use, misuse, or illicit use, and prescription stimulants, dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, Ritalin, or Adderall. Stages of subsequent review used the information contained in the titles, abstracts, and articles to determine whether articles reported studies of the extent of nonmedical prescription stimulant use by students and related questions addressed in the present article including students’ motives and frequency of use.
Sulbutiamine, mentioned earlier as a cholinergic smart drug, can also be classed a dopaminergic, although its mechanism is counterintuitive: by reducing the release of dopamine in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the density of dopamine receptors actually increase after continued Sulbutiamine exposure, through a compensatory mechanism. (This provides an interesting example of how dividing smart drugs into sensible “classes” is a matter of taste as well as science, especially since many of them create their discernable neural effects through still undefined mechanisms.)
The majority of studies seem to be done on types of people who are NOT buying nootropics. Like the elderly, people with blatant cognitive deficits, etc. This is analogous to some of the muscle-building research but more extreme. Like there are studies on some compound increasing muscle growth in elderly patients or patients with wasting, and supplement companies use some of those studies to back their supplements.
Going back to the 1960s, although it was a Romanian chemist who is credited with discovering nootropics, a substantial amount of research on racetams was conducted in the Soviet Union. This resulted in the birth of another category of substances entirely: adaptogens, which, in addition to benefiting cognitive function were thought to allow the body to better adapt to stress.