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.
When I spoke with Jesse Lawler, who hosts the podcast Smart Drugs Smarts, about breakthroughs in brain health and neuroscience, he was unsurprised to hear of my disappointing experience. Many nootropics are supposed to take time to build up in the body before users begin to feel their impact. But even then, says Barry Gordon, a neurology professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, positive results wouldn’t necessarily constitute evidence of a pharmacological benefit.
Actually, researchers are studying substances that may improve mental abilities. These substances are called "cognitive enhancers" or "smart drugs" or "nootropics." ("Nootropic" comes from Greek - "noos" = mind and "tropos" = changed, toward, turn). The supposed effects of cognitive enhancement can be several things. For example, it could mean improvement of memory, learning, attention, concentration, problem solving, reasoning, social skills, decision making and planning.
Adrafinil is a prodrug for Modafinil, which means it can be metabolized into Modafinil to give you a similar effect. And you can buy it legally just about anywhere. But there are a few downsides. Patel explains that you have to take a lot more to achieve a similar effect as Modafinil, wait longer for it to kick in (45-60 minutes), there are more potential side effects, and there aren’t any other benefits to taking it.
“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.
(On a side note, I think I understand now why modafinil doesn’t lead to a Beggars in Spain scenario; BiS includes massive IQ and motivation boosts as part of the Sleepless modification. Just adding 8 hours a day doesn’t do the world-changing trick, no more than some researchers living to 90 and others to 60 has lead to the former taking over. If everyone were suddenly granted the ability to never need sleep, many of them would have no idea what to do with the extra 8 or 9 hours and might well be destroyed by the gift; it takes a lot of motivation to make good use of the time, and if one cannot, then it is a curse akin to the stories of immortals who yearn for death - they yearn because life is not a blessing to them, though that is a fact more about them than life.)
Remembering what Wedrifid told me, I decided to start with a quarter of a piece (~1mg). The gum was pretty tasteless, which ought to make blinding easier. The effects were noticeable around 10 minutes - greater energy verging on jitteriness, much faster typing, and apparent general quickening of thought. Like a more pleasant caffeine. While testing my typing speed in Amphetype, my speed seemed to go up >=5 WPM, even after the time penalties for correcting the increased mistakes; I also did twice the usual number without feeling especially tired. A second dose was similar, and the third dose was at 10 PM before playing Ninja Gaiden II seemed to stop the usual exhaustion I feel after playing through a level or so. (It’s a tough game, which I have yet to master like Ninja Gaiden Black.) Returning to the previous concern about sleep problems, though I went to bed at 11:45 PM, it still took 28 minutes to fall sleep (compared to my more usual 10-20 minute range); the next day I use 2mg from 7-8PM while driving, going to bed at midnight, where my sleep latency is a more reasonable 14 minutes. I then skipped for 3 days to see whether any cravings would pop up (they didn’t). I subsequently used 1mg every few days for driving or Ninja Gaiden II, and while there were no cravings or other side-effects, the stimulation definitely seemed to get weaker - benefits seemed to still exist, but I could no longer describe any considerable energy or jitteriness.
After 7 days, I ordered a kg of choline bitartrate from Bulk Powders. Choline is standard among piracetam-users because it is pretty universally supported by anecdotes about piracetam headaches, has support in rat/mice experiments27, and also some human-related research. So I figured I couldn’t fairly test piracetam without some regular choline - the eggs might not be enough, might be the wrong kind, etc. It has a quite distinctly fishy smell, but the actual taste is more citrus-y, and it seems to neutralize the piracetam taste in tea (which makes things much easier for me).
A randomized non-blind self-experiment of LLLT 2014-2015 yields a causal effect which is several times smaller than a correlative analysis and non-statistically-significant/very weak Bayesian evidence for a positive effect. This suggests that the earlier result had been driven primarily by reverse causation, and that my LLLT usage has little or no benefits.
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.
Let's start with the basics of what smart drugs are and what they aren't. The field of cosmetic psychopharmacology is still in its infancy, but the use of smart drugs is primed to explode during our lifetimes, as researchers gain increasing understanding of which substances affect the brain and how they do so. For many people, the movie Limitless was a first glimpse into the possibility of "a pill that can make you smarter," and while that fiction is a long way from reality, the possibilities - in fact, present-day certainties visible in the daily news - are nevertheless extremely exciting.
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.
Nicotine absorption through the stomach is variable and relatively reduced in comparison with absorption via the buccal cavity and the small intestine. Drinking, eating, and swallowing of tobacco smoke by South American Indians have frequently been reported. Tenetehara shamans reach a state of tobacco narcosis through large swallows of smoke, and Tapirape shams are said to eat smoke by forcing down large gulps of smoke only to expel it again in a rapid sequence of belches. In general, swallowing of tobacco smoke is quite frequently likened to drinking. However, although the amounts of nicotine swallowed in this way - or in the form of saturated saliva or pipe juice - may be large enough to be behaviorally significant at normal levels of gastric pH, nicotine, like other weak bases, is not significantly absorbed.
Even party drugs are going to work: Biohackers are taking recreational drugs like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline in microdoses—about a tenth of what constitutes a typical dose—with the goal of becoming more focused and creative. Many who’ve tried it report positive results, but real research on the practice—and its safety—is a long way off. “Whether microdosing with LSD improves creativity and cognition remains to be determined in an objective experiment using double-blind, placebo-controlled methodology,” Sahakian says.
Participants (n=205) [young adults aged 18-30 years] were recruited between July 2010 and January 2011, and were randomized to receive either a daily 150 µg (0.15mg) iodine supplement or daily placebo supplement for 32 weeks…After adjusting for baseline cognitive test score, examiner, age, sex, income, and ethnicity, iodine supplementation did not significantly predict 32 week cognitive test scores for Block Design (p=0.385), Digit Span Backward (p=0.474), Matrix Reasoning (p=0.885), Symbol Search (p=0.844), Visual Puzzles (p=0.675), Coding (p=0.858), and Letter-Number Sequencing (p=0.408).
…researchers have added a new layer to the smart pill conversation. Adderall, they’ve found, makes you think you’re doing better than you actually are….Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job….But the results of the new University of Pennsylvania study, funded by the U.S. Navy and not yet published but presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference last month, are consistent with much of the existing research. As a group, no overall statistically-significant improvement or impairment was seen as a result of taking Adderall. The research team tested 47 subjects, all in their 20s, all without a diagnosis of ADHD, on a variety of cognitive functions, from working memory-how much information they could keep in mind and manipulate-to raw intelligence, to memories for specific events and faces….The last question they asked their subjects was: How and how much did the pill influence your performance on today’s tests? Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job on the tasks they’d been given, even though their performance did not show an improvement over that of those who had taken the placebo. According to Irena Ilieva…it’s the first time since the 1960s that a study on the effects of amphetamine, a close cousin of Adderall, has asked how subjects perceive the effect of the drug on their performance.
Still, the scientific backing and ingredient sourcing of nootropics on the market varies widely, and even those based in some research won't necessarily immediately, always or ever translate to better grades or an ability to finally crank out that novel. Nor are supplements of any kind risk-free, says Jocelyn Kerl, a pharmacist in Madison, Wisconsin.
Burke says he definitely got the glow. “The first time I took it, I was working on a business plan. I had to juggle multiple contingencies in my head, and for some reason a tree with branches jumped into my head. I was able to place each contingency on a branch, retract and go back to the trunk, and in this visual way I was able to juggle more information.”
Cytisine is not known as a stimulant and I’m not addicted to nicotine, so why give it a try? Nicotine is one of the more effective stimulants available, and it’s odd how few nicotine analogues or nicotinic agonists there are available; nicotine has a few flaws like short half-life and increasing blood pressure, so I would be interested in a replacement. The nicotine metabolite cotinine, in the human studies available, looks intriguing and potentially better, but I have been unable to find a source for it. One of the few relevant drugs which I can obtain is cytisine, from Ceretropic, at 2x1.5mg doses. There are not many anecdotal reports on cytisine, but at least a few suggest somewhat comparable effects with nicotine, so I gave it a try.
Phenylpiracetam (Phenotropil) is one of the best smart drugs in the racetam family. It has the highest potency and bioavailability among racetam nootropics. This substance is almost the same as Piracetam; only it contains a phenyl group molecule. The addition to its chemical structure improves blood-brain barrier permeability. This modification allows Phenylpiracetam to work faster than other racetams. Its cognitive enhancing effects can last longer as well.
Nicotine’s stimulant effects are general and do not come with the same tweakiness and aggression associated with the amphetamines, and subjectively are much cleaner with less of a crash. I would say that its stimulant effects are fairly strong, around that of modafinil. Another advantage is that nicotine operates through nicotinic receptors and so doesn’t cross-tolerate with dopaminergic stimulants (hence one could hypothetically cycle through nicotine, modafinil, amphetamines, and caffeine, hitting different receptors each time).
Low level laser therapy (LLLT) is a curious treatment based on the application of a few minutes of weak light in specific near-infrared wavelengths (the name is a bit of a misnomer as LEDs seem to be employed more these days, due to the laser aspect being unnecessary and LEDs much cheaper). Unlike most kinds of light therapy, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with circadian rhythms or zeitgebers. Proponents claim efficacy in treating physical injuries, back pain, and numerous other ailments, recently extending it to case studies of mental issues like brain fog. (It’s applied to injured parts; for the brain, it’s typically applied to points on the skull like F3 or F4.) And LLLT is, naturally, completely safe without any side effects or risk of injury.
The word “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by a Romanian scientist, Corneliu Giurgea, who combined the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.” Caffeine and nicotine can be considered mild nootropics, while prescription Ritalin, Adderall and Provigil (modafinil, a drug for treating narcolepsy) lie at the far end of the spectrum when prescribed off-label as cognitive enhancers. Even microdosing of LSD is increasingly viewed as a means to greater productivity.
The one indisputable finding from the literature so far is that many people are seeking cognitive enhancement. Beyond that, the literature yields only partial and tentative answers to the questions just raised. Given the potential impact of cognitive enhancement on society, more research is needed. For research on the epidemiology of cognitive enhancement, studies focused on the cognitive-enhancement practices and experiences of students and nonstudent workers are needed. For research on the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants, larger samples are needed. Only with substantially larger samples will it be possible to assess small but potentially important benefits, as well as risks, and to distinguish individual differences in drug response. Large samples would also be required to compare these effects to the cognitive effects of improved sleep, exercise, nutrition, and stress management. To include more ecologically valid measures of cognition in academic and work environments would in addition require the equivalent of a large clinical trial.
Low-tech methods of cognitive enhancement include many components of what has traditionally been viewed as a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and stress management. These low-tech methods nevertheless belong in a discussion of brain enhancement because, in addition to benefiting cognitive performance, their effects on brain function have been demonstrated (Almeida et al., 2002; Boonstra, Stins, Daffertshofer, & Beek, 2007; Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008; Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008; Van Dongen, Maislin, Mullington, & Dinges, 2003).
Many of the most popular “smart drugs” (Piracetam, Sulbutiamine, Ginkgo Biloba, etc.) have been around for decades or even millenia but are still known only in medical circles or among esoteric practicioners of herbal medicine. Why is this? If these compounds have proven cognitive benefits, why are they not ubiquitous? How come every grade-school child gets fluoride for the development of their teeth (despite fluoride’s being a known neurotoxin) but not, say, Piracetam for the development of their brains? Why does the nightly news slant stories to appeal more to a fear-of-change than the promise of a richer cognitive future?
With all these studies pointing to the nootropic benefits of some essential oils, it can logically be concluded then that some essential oils can be considered “smart drugs.” However, since essential oils have so much variety and only a small fraction of this wide range has been studied, it cannot be definitively concluded that absolutely all essential oils have brain-boosting benefits. The connection between the two is strong, however.
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.
Herbal supplements have been used for centuries to treat a wide range of medical conditions. Studies have shown that certain herbs may improve memory and cognition, and they can be used to help fight the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. These herbs are considered safe when taken in normal doses, but care should be taken as they may interfere with other medications.
Since dietary supplements do not require double-blind, placebo-controlled, pharmaceutical-style human studies before going to market, there is little incentive for companies to really prove that something does what they say it does. This means that, in practice, nootropics may not live up to all the grandiose, exuberant promises advertised on the bottle in which they come. The flip side, though? There’s no need to procure a prescription in order to try them out. Good news for aspiring biohackers—and for people who have no aspirations to become biohackers, but still want to be Bradley Cooper in Limitless (me).
“Who doesn’t want to maximize their cognitive ability? Who doesn’t want to maximize their muscle mass?” asks Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System and has been an adviser to pharmaceutical and supplement manufacturers as well as the Food and Drug Administration. He attributes the demand to an increasingly knowledge-based society that values mental quickness and agility above all else.
However, history has shown that genies don’t stay in bottles. All ethics aside, there is ample proof that use of smart drugs can profoundly improve human cognition, and where there is an advantage to be gained – even where risks are involved – some people will leap at the chance to capitalize. At Smart Drug Smarts, we anticipate the social tide will continue to turn in favor of elective neural enhancers, and that the beneficial effects to users who choose to make the most of their brains will inevitably outweigh the costs.