Today piracetam is a favourite with students and young professionals looking for a way to boost their performance, though decades after Giurgea’s discovery, there still isn’t much evidence that it can improve the mental abilities of healthy people. It’s a prescription drug in the UK, though it’s not approved for medical use by the US Food and Drug Administration and can’t be sold as a dietary supplement either.
Table 4 lists the results of 27 tasks from 23 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on working memory. The oldest and most commonly used type of working memory task in this literature is the Sternberg short-term memory scanning paradigm (Sternberg, 1966), in which subjects hold a set of items (typically letters or numbers) in working memory and are then presented with probe items, to which they must respond “yes” (in the set) or “no” (not in the set). The size of the set, and hence the working memory demand, is sometimes varied, and the set itself may be varied from trial to trial to maximize working memory demands or may remain fixed over a block of trials. Taken together, the studies that have used a version of this task to test the effects of MPH and d-AMP on working memory have found mixed and somewhat ambiguous results. No pattern is apparent concerning the specific version of the task or the specific drug. Four studies found no effect (Callaway, 1983; Kennedy, Odenheimer, Baltzley, Dunlap, & Wood, 1990; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007; Tipper et al., 2005), three found faster responses with the drugs (Fitzpatrick, Klorman, Brumaghim, & Keefover, 1988; Ward et al., 1997; D. E. Wilson et al., 1971), and one found higher accuracy in some testing sessions at some dosages, but no main effect of drug (Makris et al., 2007). The meaningfulness of the increased speed of responding is uncertain, given that it could reflect speeding of general response processes rather than working memory–related processes. Aspects of the results of two studies suggest that the effects are likely due to processes other than working memory: D. E. Wilson et al. (1971) reported comparable speeding in a simple task without working memory demands, and Tipper et al. (2005) reported comparable speeding across set sizes.
Another classic approach to the assessment of working memory is the span task, in which a series of items is presented to the subject for repetition, transcription, or recognition. The longest series that can be reproduced accurately is called the forward span and is a measure of working memory capacity. The ability to reproduce the series in reverse order is tested in backward span tasks and is a more stringent test of working memory capacity and perhaps other working memory functions as well. The digit span task from the Wechsler (1981) IQ test was used in four studies of stimulant effects on working memory. One study showed that d-AMP increased digit span (de Wit et al., 2002), and three found no effects of d-AMP or MPH (Oken, Kishiyama, & Salinsky, 1995; Schmedtje, Oman, Letz, & Baker, 1988; Silber, Croft, Papafotiou, & Stough, 2006). A spatial span task, in which subjects must retain and reproduce the order in which boxes in a scattered spatial arrangement change color, was used by Elliott et al. (1997) to assess the effects of MPH on working memory. For subjects in the group receiving placebo first, MPH increased spatial span. However, for the subjects who received MPH first, there was a nonsignificant opposite trend. The group difference in drug effect is not easily explained. The authors noted that the subjects in the first group performed at an overall lower level, and so, this may be another manifestation of the trend for a larger enhancement effect for less able subjects.
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Federal law classifies most nootropics as dietary supplements, which means that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate manufacturers’ statements about their benefits (as the giant “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” disclaimer on the label indicates). And the types of claims that the feds do allow supplement companies to make are often vague and/or supported by less-than-compelling scientific evidence. “If you find a study that says that an ingredient caused neurons to fire on rat brain cells in a petri dish,” says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “you can probably get away with saying that it ‘enhances memory’ or ‘promotes brain health.’”
Took full pill at 10:21 PM when I started feeling a bit tired. Around 11:30, I noticed my head feeling fuzzy but my reading seemed to still be up to snuff. I would eventually finish the science book around 9 AM the next day, taking some very long breaks to walk the dog, write some poems, write a program, do Mnemosyne review (memory performance: subjectively below average, but not as bad as I would have expected from staying up all night), and some other things. Around 4 AM, I reflected that I felt much as I had during my nightwatch job at the same hour of the day - except I had switched sleep schedules for the job. The tiredness continued to build and my willpower weakened so the morning wasn’t as productive as it could have been - but my actual performance when I could be bothered was still pretty normal. That struck me as kind of interesting that I can feel very tired and not act tired, in line with the anecdotes.
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So what about the flip side: a drug to erase bad memories? It may have failed Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but neuroscientists have now discovered an amnesia drug that can dull the pain of traumatic events. The drug, propranolol, was originally used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors noticed that patients given the drug suffered fewer signs of stress when recalling a trauma.
When Giurgea coined the word nootropic (combining the Greek words for mind and bending) in the 1970s, he was focused on a drug he had synthesized called piracetam. Although it is approved in many countries, it isn’t categorized as a prescription drug in the United States. That means it can be purchased online, along with a number of newer formulations in the same drug family (including aniracetam, phenylpiracetam, and oxiracetam). Some studies have shown beneficial effects, including one in the 1990s that indicated possible improvement in the hippocampal membranes in Alzheimer’s patients. But long-term studies haven’t yet borne out the hype.
A number of so-called ‘smart drugs’ or cognitive enhancers have captured attention recently, from stimulants such as modafinil, to amphetamines (often prescribed under the name Adderall) and methylphenidate (also known by its brand name Ritalin). According to widespread news reports, students have begun using these drugs to enhance their performance in school and college, and are continuing to do so in their professional lives.
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Take at 10 AM; seem a bit more active but that could just be the pressure of the holiday season combined with my nice clean desk. I do the chores without too much issue and make progress on other things, but nothing major; I survive going to The Sitter without too much tiredness, so ultimately I decide to give the palm to it being active, but only with 60% confidence. I check the next day, and it was placebo. Oops.
^ Sattler, Sebastian; Mehlkop, Guido; Graeff, Peter; Sauer, Carsten (February 1, 2014). "Evaluating the drivers of and obstacles to the willingness to use cognitive enhancement drugs: the influence of drug characteristics, social environment, and personal characteristics". Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. 9 (1): 8. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-9-8. ISSN 1747-597X. PMC 3928621. PMID 24484640.