Last spring, 100 people showed up at a Peak Performance event where psychedelic psychologist James Fadiman said the key to unleashing the cognition-enhancing effects of LSD — which he listed as less anxiety, better focus, improved sleep, greater creativity — was all in the dosage. He recommended a tenth of a “party dose” — enough to give you “the glow” and enhance your cognitive powers without “the trip.”
The goal of this article has been to synthesize what is known about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement and what is known about the cognitive effects of these drugs. We have eschewed discussion of ethical issues in favor of simply trying to get the facts straight. Although ethical issues cannot be decided on the basis of facts alone, neither can they be decided without relevant facts. Personal and societal values will dictate whether success through sheer effort is as good as success with pharmacologic help, whether the freedom to alter one’s own brain chemistry is more important than the right to compete on a level playing field at school and work, and how much risk of dependence is too much risk. Yet these positions cannot be translated into ethical decisions in the real world without considerable empirical knowledge. Do the drugs actually improve cognition? Under what circumstances and for whom? Who will be using them and for what purposes? What are the mental and physical health risks for frequent cognitive-enhancement users? For occasional users?
The experiment then is straightforward: cut up a fresh piece of gum, randomly select from it and an equivalent dry piece of gum, and do 5 rounds of dual n-back to test attention/energy & WM. (If it turns out to be placebo, I’ll immediately use the remaining active dose: no sense in wasting gum, and this will test whether nigh-daily use renders nicotine gum useless, similar to how caffeine may be useless if taken daily. If there’s 3 pieces of active gum left, then I wrap it very tightly in Saran wrap which is sticky and air-tight.) The dose will be 1mg or 1/4 a gum. I cut up a dozen pieces into 4 pieces for 48 doses and set them out to dry. Per the previous power analyses, 48 groups of DNB rounds likely will be enough for detecting small-medium effects (partly since we will be only looking at one metric - average % right per 5 rounds - with no need for multiple correction). Analysis will be one-tailed, since we’re looking for whether there is a clear performance improvement and hence a reason to keep using nicotine gum (rather than whether nicotine gum might be harmful).
Lebowitz says that if you're purchasing supplements to improve your brain power, you're probably wasting your money. "There is nothing you can buy at your local health food store that will improve your thinking skills," Lebowitz says. So that turmeric latte you've been drinking everyday has no additional brain benefits compared to a regular cup of java.
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A provisional conclusion about the effects of stimulants on learning is that they do help with the consolidation of declarative learning, with effect sizes varying widely from small to large depending on the task and individual study. Indeed, as a practical matter, stimulants may be more helpful than many of the laboratory tasks indicate, given the apparent dependence of enhancement on length of delay before testing. Although, as a matter of convenience, experimenters tend to test memory for learned material soon after the learning, this method has not generally demonstrated stimulant-enhanced learning. However, when longer periods intervene between learning and test, a more robust enhancement effect can be seen. Note that the persistence of the enhancement effect well past the time of drug action implies that state-dependent learning is not responsible. In general, long-term effects on learning are of greater practical value to people. Even students cramming for exams need to retain information for more than an hour or two. We therefore conclude that stimulant medication does enhance learning in ways that may be useful in the real world.
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).
Finally, it’s not clear that caffeine results in performance gains after long-term use; homeostasis/tolerance is a concern for all stimulants, but especially for caffeine. It is plausible that all caffeine consumption does for the long-term chronic user is restore performance to baseline. (Imagine someone waking up and drinking coffee, and their performance improves - well, so would the performance of a non-addict who is also slowly waking up!) See for example, James & Rogers 2005, Sigmon et al 2009, and Rogers et al 2010. A cross-section of thousands of participants in the Cambridge brain-training study found caffeine intake showed negligible effect sizes for mean and component scores (participants were not told to use caffeine, but the training was recreational & difficult, so one expects some difference).
Most diehard nootropic users have considered using racetams for enhancing brain function. Racetams are synthetic nootropic substances first developed in Russia. These smart drugs vary in potency, but they are not stimulants. They are unlike traditional ADHD medications (Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, etc.). Instead, racetams boost cognition by enhancing the cholinergic system.
Another common working memory task is the n-back task, which requires the subject to view a series of items (usually letters) and decide whether the current item is identical to the one presented n items back. This task taxes working memory because the previous items must be held in working memory to be compared with the current item. The easiest version of this is a 1-back task, which is also called a double continuous performance task (CPT) because the subject is continuously monitoring for a repeat or double. Three studies examined the effects of MPH on working memory ability as measured by the 1-back task, and all found enhancement of performance in the form of reduced errors of omission (Cooper et al., 2005; Klorman et al., 1984; Strauss et al., 1984). Fleming et al. (1995) tested the effects of d-AMP on a 5-min CPT and found a decrease in reaction time, but did not specify which version of the CPT was used.
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."