Smart drugs, formally known as nootropics, are medications, supplements, and other substances that improve some aspect of mental function. In the broadest sense, smart drugs can include common stimulants such as caffeine, herbal supplements like ginseng, and prescription medications for conditions such as ADHD, Alzheimer's disease, and narcolepsy. These substances can enhance concentration, memory, and learning.

None of that has kept entrepreneurs and their customers from experimenting and buying into the business of magic pills, however. In 2015 alone, the nootropics business raked in over $1 billion dollars, and web sites like the nootropics subreddit, the Bluelight forums, and Bulletproof Exec are popular and packed with people looking for easy ways to boost their mental performance. Still, this bizarre, Philip K. Dick-esque world of smart drugs is a tough pill to swallow. To dive into the topic and explain, I spoke to Kamal Patel, Director of evidence-based medical database Examine.com, and even tried a few commercially-available nootropics myself.


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.”
As already mentioned, AMPs and MPH are classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Schedule II substances, which means that buying or selling them is a felony offense. This raises the question of how the drugs are obtained by students for nonmedical use. Several studies addressed this question and yielded reasonably consistent answers.
Began double-blind trial. Today I took one pill blindly at 1:53 PM. at the end of the day when I have written down my impressions and guess whether it was one of the Adderall pills, then I can look in the baggy and count and see whether it was. there are many other procedures one can take to blind oneself (have an accomplice mix up a sequence of pills and record what the sequence was; don’t count & see but blindly take a photograph of the pill each day, etc.) Around 3, I begin to wonder whether it was Adderall because I am arguing more than usual on IRC and my heart rate seems a bit high just sitting down. 6 PM: I’ve started to think it was a placebo. My heart rate is back to normal, I am having difficulty concentrating on long text, and my appetite has shown up for dinner (although I didn’t have lunch, I don’t think I had lunch yesterday and yesterday the hunger didn’t show up until past 7). Productivity wise, it has been a normal day. All in all, I’m not too sure, but I think I’d guess it was Adderall with 40% confidence (another way of saying placebo with 60% confidence). When I go to examine the baggie at 8:20 PM, I find out… it was an Adderall pill after all. Oh dear. One little strike against Adderall that I guessed wrong. It may be that the problem is that I am intrinsically a little worse today (normal variation? come down from Adderall?).

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When I worked on the Bulletproof Diet book, I wanted to verify that the effects I was getting from Bulletproof Coffee were not coming from modafinil, so I stopped using it and measured my cognitive performance while I was off of it. What I found was that on Bulletproof Coffee and the Bulletproof Diet, my mental performance was almost identical to my performance on modafinil. I still travel with modafinil, and I’ll take it on occasion, but while living a Bulletproof lifestyle I rarely feel the need.
For illustration, consider amphetamines, Ritalin, and modafinil, all of which have been proposed as cognitive enhancers of attention. These drugs exhibit some positive effects on cognition, especially among individuals with lower baseline abilities. However, individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance following drug treatment (for details, see de Jongh, Bolt, Schermer, & Olivier, 2008). For instance, Randall, Shneerson, and File (2005) found that modafinil improved performance only among individuals with lower IQ, not among those with higher IQ. [See also Finke et al 2010 on visual attention.] Farah, Haimm, Sankoorikal, & Chatterjee 2009 found a similar nonlinear relationship of dose to response for amphetamines in a remote-associates task, with low-performing individuals showing enhanced performance but high-performing individuals showing reduced performance. Such ∩-shaped dose-response curves are quite common (see Cools & Robbins, 2004)
The next cheap proposition to test is that the 2ml dose is so large that the sedation/depressive effect of nicotine has begun to kick in. This is easy to test: take much less, like half a ml. I do so two or three times over the next day, and subjectively the feeling seems to be the same - which seems to support that proposition (although perhaps I’ve been placebo effecting myself this whole time, in which case the exact amount doesn’t matter). If this theory is true, my previous sleep results don’t show anything; one would expect nicotine-as-sedative to not hurt sleep or improve it. I skip the day (no cravings or addiction noticed), and take half a ml right before bed at 11:30; I fall asleep in 12 minutes and have a ZQ of ~105. The next few days I try putting one or two drops into the tea kettle, which seems to work as well (or poorly) as before. At that point, I was warned that there were some results that nicotine withdrawal can kick in with delays as long as a week, so I shouldn’t be confident that a few days off proved an absence of addiction; I immediately quit to see what the week would bring. 4 or 7 days in, I didn’t notice anything. I’m still using it, but I’m definitely a little nonplussed and disgruntled - I need some independent source of nicotine to compare with!
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%.
My first dose on 1 March 2017, at the recommended 0.5ml/1.5mg was miserable, as I felt like I had the flu and had to nap for several hours before I felt well again, requiring 6h to return to normal; after waiting a month, I tried again, but after a week of daily dosing in May, I noticed no benefits; I tried increasing to 3x1.5mg but this immediately caused another afternoon crash/nap on 18 May. So I scrapped my cytisine. Oh well.
One of the most obscure -racetams around, coluracetam (Smarter Nootropics, Ceretropic, Isochroma) acts in a different way from piracetam - piracetam apparently attacks the breakdown of acetylcholine while coluracetam instead increases how much choline can be turned into useful acetylcholine. This apparently is a unique mechanism. A crazy Longecity user, ScienceGuy ponied up $16,000 (!) for a custom synthesis of 500g; he was experimenting with 10-80mg sublingual doses (the ranges in the original anti-depressive trials) and reported a laundry list of effects (as does Isochroma): primarily that it was anxiolytic and increased work stamina. Unfortunately for my stack, he claims it combines poorly with piracetam. He offered free 2g samples for regulars to test his claims. I asked & received some.
I had tried 8 randomized days like the Adderall experiment to see whether I was one of the people whom modafinil energizes during the day. (The other way to use it is to skip sleep, which is my preferred use.) I rarely use it during the day since my initial uses did not impress me subjectively. The experiment was not my best - while it was double-blind randomized, the measurements were subjective, and not a good measure of mental functioning like dual n-back (DNB) scores which I could statistically compare from day to day or against my many previous days of dual n-back scores. Between my high expectation of finding the null result, the poor experiment quality, and the minimal effect it had (eliminating an already rare use), the value of this information was very small.
An expert in legal and ethical issues surrounding health care technology, Associate Professor Eric Swirsky suggested that both groups have valid arguments, but that neither group is asking the right questions. Prof Swirsky is the clinical associate professor of biomedical and health information sciences in the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences.
Sleep itself is an underrated cognition enhancer. It is involved in enhancing long-term memories as well as creativity. For instance, it is well established that during sleep memories are consolidated-a process that "fixes" newly formed memories and determines how they are shaped. Indeed, not only does lack of sleep make most of us moody and low on energy, cutting back on those precious hours also greatly impairs cognitive performance. Exercise and eating well also enhance aspects of cognition. It turns out that both drugs and "natural" enhancers produce similar physiological changes in the brain, including increased blood flow and neuronal growth in structures such as the hippocampus. Thus, cognition enhancers should be welcomed but not at the expense of our health and well being.

The fish oil can be considered a free sunk cost: I would take it in the absence of an experiment. The empty pill capsules could be used for something else, so we’ll put the 500 at $5. Filling 500 capsules with fish and olive oil will be messy and take an hour. Taking them regularly can be added to my habitual morning routine for vitamin D and the lithium experiment, so that is close to free but we’ll call it an hour over the 250 days. Recording mood/productivity is also free a sunk cost as it’s necessary for the other experiments; but recording dual n-back scores is more expensive: each round is ~2 minutes and one wants >=5, so each block will cost >10 minutes, so 18 tests will be >180 minutes or >3 hours. So >5 hours. Total: 5 + (>5 \times 7.25) = >41.
But where will it all stop? Ambitious parents may start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children. People go to all sorts of lengths to gain an educational advantage, and eventually success might be dependent on access to these mind-improving drugs. No major studies have been conducted on the long-term effects. Some neuroscientists fear that, over time, these memory-enhancing pills may cause people to store too much detail, cluttering the brain. Read more about smart drugs here.
Caffeine dose dependently decreased the 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) induced VDR expression and at concentrations of 1 and 10mM, VDR expression was decreased by about 50-70%, respectively. In addition, the 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) induced alkaline phosphatase activity was also reduced at similar doses thus affecting the osteoblastic function. The basal ALP activity was not affected with increasing doses of caffeine. Overall, our results suggest that caffeine affects 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) stimulated VDR protein expression and 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) mediated actions in human osteoblast cells.
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?
Some work has been done on estimating the value of IQ, both as net benefits to the possessor (including all zero-sum or negative-sum aspects) and as net positive externalities to the rest of society. The estimates are substantial: in the thousands of dollars per IQ point. But since increasing IQ post-childhood is almost impossible barring disease or similar deficits, and even increasing childhood IQs is very challenging, much of these estimates are merely correlations or regressions, and the experimental childhood estimates must be weakened considerably for any adult - since so much time and so many opportunities have been lost. A wild guess: $1000 net present value per IQ point. The range for severely deficient children was 10-15 points, so any normal (somewhat deficient) adult gain must be much smaller and consistent with Fitzgerald 2012’s ceiling on possible effect sizes (small).
Your mileage will vary. There are so many parameters and interactions in the brain that any of them could be the bottleneck or responsible pathway, and one could fall prey to the common U-shaped dose-response curve (eg. Yerkes-Dodson law; see also Chemistry of the adaptive mind & de Jongh et al 2007) which may imply that the smartest are those who benefit least23 but ultimately they all cash out in a very few subjective assessments like energetic or motivated, with even apparently precise descriptions like working memory or verbal fluency not telling you much about what the nootropic actually did. It’s tempting to list the nootropics that worked for you and tell everyone to go use them, but that is merely generalizing from one example (and the more nootropics - or meditation styles, or self-help books, or getting things done systems - you try, the stronger the temptation is to evangelize). The best you can do is read all the testimonials and studies and use that to prioritize your list of nootropics to try. You don’t know in advance which ones will pay off and which will be wasted. You can’t know in advance. And wasted some must be; to coin a Umeshism: if all your experiments work, you’re just fooling yourself. (And the corollary - if someone else’s experiments always work, they’re not telling you everything.)

Factor analysis. The strategy: read in the data, drop unnecessary data, impute missing variables (data is too heterogeneous and collected starting at varying intervals to be clean), estimate how many factors would fit best, factor analyze, pick the ones which look like they match best my ideas of what productive is, extract per-day estimates, and finally regress LLLT usage on the selected factors to look for increases.
The greatly increased variance, but only somewhat increased mean, is consistent with nicotine operating on me with an inverted U-curve for dosage/performance (or the Yerkes-Dodson law): on good days, 1mg nicotine is too much and degrades performance (perhaps I am overstimulated and find it hard to focus on something as boring as n-back) while on bad days, nicotine is just right and improves n-back performance.
First half at 6 AM; second half at noon. Wrote a short essay I’d been putting off and napped for 1:40 from 9 AM to 10:40. This approach seems to work a little better as far as the aboulia goes. (I also bother to smell my urine this time around - there’s a definite off smell to it.) Nights: 10:02; 8:50; 10:40; 7:38 (2 bad nights of nasal infections); 8:28; 8:20; 8:43 (▆▃█▁▂▂▃).
AMP was first investigated as an asthma medication in the 1920s, but its psychological effects were soon noticed. These included increased feelings of energy, positive mood, and prolonged physical endurance and mental concentration. These effects have been exploited in a variety of medical and nonmedical applications in the years since they were discovered, including to treat depression, to enhance alertness in military personnel, and to provide a competitive edge in athletic competition (Rasmussen, 2008). Today, AMP remains a widely used and effective treatment for ADHD (Wilens, 2006).
Most epidemiological research on nonmedical stimulant use has been focused on issues relevant to traditional problems of drug abuse and addiction, and so, stimulant use for cognitive enhancement is not generally distinguished from use for other purposes, such as staying awake or getting high. As Boyd and McCabe (2008) pointed out, the large national surveys of nonmedical prescription drug use have so far failed to distinguish the ways and reasons that people use the drugs, and this is certainly true where prescription stimulants are concerned. The largest survey to investigate prescription stimulant use in a nationally representative sample of Americans, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), phrases the question about nonmedical use as follows: “Have you ever, even once, used any of these stimulants when they were not prescribed for you or that you took only for the experience or feeling they caused?” (Snodgrass & LeBaron 2007). This phrasing does not strictly exclude use for cognitive enhancement, but it emphasizes the noncognitive effects of the drugs. In 2008, the NSDUH found a prevalence of 8.5% for lifetime nonmedical stimulant use by Americans over the age of 12 years and a prevalence of 12.3% for Americans between 21 and 25 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2009).
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.
The abuse of drugs is something that can lead to large negative outcomes. If you take Ritalin (Methylphenidate) or Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) but don’t have ADHD, you may experience more focus. But what many people don’t know is that the drug is very similar to amphetamines. And the use of Ritalin is associated with serious adverse events of drug dependence, overdose and suicide attempts [80]. Taking a drug for another reason than originally intended is stupid, irresponsible and very dangerous.
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.
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people.[21][22][23] It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks.[25] At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.[26]
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