Fortunately, there are some performance-enhancing habits that have held up under rigorous scientific scrutiny. They are free, and easy to pronounce. Unfortunately, they are also the habits you were perhaps hoping to forego by using nootropics instead. “Of all the things that are supposed to be ‘good for the brain,’” says Stanford neurology professor Sharon Sha, “there is more evidence for exercise than anything else.” Next time you’re facing a long day, you could take a pill and see what happens.
Another important epidemiological question about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement concerns the risk of dependence. MPH and d-AMP both have high potential for abuse and addiction related to their effects on brain systems involved in motivation. On the basis of their reanalysis of NSDUH data sets from 2000 to 2002, Kroutil and colleagues (2006) estimated that almost one in 20 nonmedical users of prescription ADHD medications meets criteria for dependence or abuse. This sobering estimate is based on a survey of all nonmedical users. The immediate and long-term risks to individuals seeking cognitive enhancement remain unknown.
Of all the smart drugs in the world, Modafinil is most often touted as the best. It’s a powerful cognitive enhancer, great for boosting alertness, and has very few, mild side effects that most healthy users will never experience. And no, you can’t have any. Sorry. Modafinil is a prescription medication used to treat disorders like narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and for those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.
Stayed up with the purpose of finishing my work for a contest. This time, instead of taking the pill as a single large dose (I feel that after 3 times, I understand what it’s like), I will take 4 doses over the new day. I took the first quarter at 1 AM, when I was starting to feel a little foggy but not majorly impaired. Second dose, 5:30 AM; feeling a little impaired. 8:20 AM, third dose; as usual, I feel physically a bit off and mentally tired - but still mentally sharp when I actually do something. Early on, my heart rate seemed a bit high and my limbs trembling, but it’s pretty clear now that that was the caffeine or piracetam. It may be that the other day, it was the caffeine’s fault as I suspected. The final dose was around noon. The afternoon crash wasn’t so pronounced this time, although motivation remains a problem. I put everything into finishing up the spaced repetition literature review, and didn’t do any n-backing until 11:30 PM: 32/34/31/54/40%.
Dallas Michael Cyr, a 41-year-old life coach and business mentor in San Diego, California, also says he experienced a mental improvement when he regularly took another product called Qualia Mind, which its makers say enhances focus, energy, mental clarity, memory and even creativity and mood. "One of the biggest things I noticed was it was much more difficult to be distracted," says Cyr, who took the supplements for about six months but felt their effects last longer. While he's naturally great at starting projects and tasks, the product allowed him to be a "great finisher" too, he says.
These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”
Recent developments include biosensor-equipped smart pills that sense the appropriate environment and location to release pharmacological agents. Medimetrics (Eindhoven, Netherlands) has developed a pill called IntelliCap with drug reservoir, pH and temperature sensors that release drugs to a defined region of the gastrointestinal tract. This device is CE marked and is in early stages of clinical trials for FDA approval. Recently, Google announced its intent to invest and innovate in this space.
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.
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.
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.
Smart drugs act within the brain speeding up chemical transfers, acting as neurotransmitters, or otherwise altering the exchange of brain chemicals. There are typically very few side effects, and they are considered generally safe when used as indicated. Special care should be used by those who have underlying health conditions, are on other medications, pregnant women, and children, as there is no long-term data on the use and effects of nootropics in these groups.
Of course, there are drugs out there with more transformative powers. “I think it’s very clear that some do work,” says Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist based at Stanford University. In fact, there’s one category of smart drugs which has received more attention from scientists and biohackers – those looking to alter their own biology and abilities – than any other. These are the stimulants.
As it happened, Health Supplement Wholesalers (since renamed Powder City) offered me a sample of their products, including their 5g Noopept powder ($13). I’d never used HSW before & they had some issues in the past; but I haven’t seen any recent complaints, so I was willing to try them. My 5g from batch #130830 arrived quickly (photos: packaging, powder contents). I tried some (tastes just slightly unpleasant, like an ultra-weak piracetam), and I set about capping the fluffy white flour-like powder with the hilariously tiny scoop they provide.
As Sulbutiamine crosses the blood-brain barrier very easily, it has a positive effect on the cholinergic and the glutamatergic receptors that are responsible for essential activities impacting memory, concentration, and mood. The compound is also fat-soluble, which means it circulates rapidly and widely throughout the body and the brain, ensuring positive results. Thus, patients with schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease will find the drug to be very effective.
I have elsewhere remarked on the apparent lack of benefit to taking multivitamins and the possible harm; so one might well wonder about a specific vitamin like vitamin D. However, a multivitamin is not vitamin D, so it’s no surprise that they might do different things. If a multivitamin had no vitamin D in it, or if it had vitamin D in different doses, or if it had substances which interacted with vitamin D (such as calcium), or if it had substances which had negative effects which outweigh the positive (such as vitamin A?), we could well expect differing results. In this case, all of those are true to varying extents. Some multivitamins I’ve had contained no vitamin D. The last multivitamin I was taking both contains vitamins used in the negative trials and also some calcium; the listed vitamin D dosage was a trivial ~400IU, while I take >10x as much now (5000IU).
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.
There are some other promising prescription drugs that may have performance-related effects on the brain. But at this point, all of them seem to involve a roll of the dice. You may experience a short-term brain boost, but you could also end up harming your brain (or some other aspect of your health) in the long run. “To date, there is no safe drug that may increase cognition in healthy adults,” Fond says of ADHD drugs, modafinil and other prescription nootropics.
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.
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.
Another class of substances with the potential to enhance cognition in normal healthy individuals is the class of prescription stimulants used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These include methylphenidate (MPH), best known as Ritalin or Concerta, and amphetamine (AMP), most widely prescribed as mixed AMP salts consisting primarily of dextroamphetamine (d-AMP), known by the trade name Adderall. These medications have become familiar to the general public because of the growing rates of diagnosis of ADHD children and adults (Froehlich et al., 2007; Sankaranarayanan, Puumala, & Kratochvil, 2006) and the recognition that these medications are effective for treating ADHD (MTA Cooperative Group, 1999; Swanson et al., 2008).
Took pill 1:27 PM. At 2 my hunger gets the best of me (despite my usual tea drinking and caffeine+piracetam pills) and I eat a large lunch. This makes me suspicious it was placebo - on the previous days I had noted a considerable appetite-suppressant effect. 5:25 PM: I don’t feel unusually tired, but nothing special about my productivity. 8 PM; no longer so sure. Read and excerpted a fair bit of research I had been putting off since the morning. After putting away all the laundry at 10, still feeling active, I check. It was Adderall. I can’t claim this one either way. By 9 or 10 I had begun to wonder whether it was really Adderall, but I didn’t feel confident saying it was; my feeling could be fairly described as 50%.
Interesting. On days ranked 2 (below-average mood/productivity), nicotine seems to have boosted scores; on days ranked 3, nicotine hurts scores; there aren’t enough 4’s to tell, but even ’5 days seem to see a boost from nicotine, which is not predicted by the theory. But I don’t think much of a conclusion can be drawn: not enough data to make out any simple relationship. Some modeling suggests no relationship in this data either (although also no difference in standard deviations, leading me to wonder if I screwed up the data recording - not all of the DNB scores seem to match the input data in the previous analysis). So although the 2 days in the graph are striking, the theory may not be right.
Elaborating on why the psychological side effects of testosterone injection are individual dependent: Not everyone get the same amount of motivation and increased goal seeking from the steroid and most people do not experience periods of chronic avolition. Another psychological effect is a potentially drastic increase in aggression which in turn can have negative social consequences. In the case of counterfactual Wedrifid he gets a net improvement in social consequences. He has observed that aggression and anger are a prompt for increased ruthless self-interested goal seeking. Ruthless self-interested goal seeking involves actually bothering to pay attention to social politics. People like people who do social politics well. Most particularly it prevents acting on contempt which is what Wedrifid finds prompts the most hostility and resentment in others. Point is, what is a sanity promoting change in one person may not be in another.
A LessWronger found that it worked well for him as far as motivation and getting things done went, as did another LessWronger who sells it online (terming it a reasonable productivity enhancer) as did one of his customers, a pickup artist oddly enough. The former was curious whether it would work for me too and sent me Speciosa Pro’s Starter Pack: Test Drive (a sampler of 14 packets of powder and a cute little wooden spoon). In SE Asia, kratom’s apparently chewed, but the powders are brewed as a tea.
A fancier method of imputation would be multiple imputation using, for example, the R library mice (Multivariate Imputation by Chained Equations) (guide), which will try to impute all missing values in a way which mimicks the internal structure of the data and provide several possible datasets to give us an idea of what the underlying data might have looked like, so we can see how our estimates improve with no missingness & how much of the estimate is now due to the imputation:
Upon examining the photographs, I noticed no difference in eye color, but it seems that my move had changed the ambient lighting in the morning and so there was a clear difference between the two sets of photographs! The before photographs had brighter lighting than the after photographs. Regardless, I decided to run a small survey on QuickSurveys/Toluna to confirm my diagnosis of no-change; the survey was 11 forced-choice pairs of photographs (before-after), with the instructions as follows:
What worries me about amphetamine is its addictive potential, and the fact that it can cause stress and anxiety. Research says it’s only slightly likely to cause addiction in people with ADHD,  but we don’t know much about its addictive potential in healthy adults. We all know the addictive potential of methamphetamine, and amphetamine is closely related enough to make me nervous about so many people giving it to their children. Amphetamines cause withdrawal symptoms, so the potential for addiction is there.