Smart pills are defined as drugs or prescription medication used to treat certain mental disorders, from milder ones such as brain fog, to some more severe like ADHD. They are often referred to as ‘nootropics’ but even though the two terms are often used interchangeably, smart pills and nootropics represent two different types of cognitive enhancers.

Over the last few months, as part of a new research project, I have talked with five people who regularly use drugs at work. They are all successful in their jobs, financially secure, in stable relationships, and generally content with their lives. None of them have plans to stop using the drugs, and so far they have kept the secret from their employers. But as their colleagues become more likely to start using the same drugs (people talk, after all), will they continue to do so?
Nootrobox co-founder Geoffrey Woo declines a caffeinated drink in favour of a capsule of his newest product when I meet him in a San Francisco coffee shop. The entire industry has a “wild west” aura about it, he tells me, and Nootrobox wants to fix it by pushing for “smarter regulation” so safe and effective drugs that are currently unclassified can be brought into the fold. Predictably, both companies stress the higher goal of pushing forward human cognition. “I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created,” says Nootroo founder Eric Matzner.
Nevertheless, a drug that improved your memory could be said to have made you smarter. We tend to view rote memory, the ability to memorize facts and repeat them, as a dumber kind of intelligence than creativity, strategy, or interpersonal skills. "But it is also true that certain abilities that we view as intelligence turn out to be in fact a very good memory being put to work," Farah says.
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:
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.
Before you try nootropics, I suggest you start with the basics: get rid of the things in your diet and life that reduce cognitive performance first. That is easiest. Then, add in energizers like Brain Octane and clean up your diet. Then, go for the herbals and the natural nootropics. Use the pharmaceuticals selectively only after you’ve figured out your basics.

First off, overwhelming evidence suggests that smart drugs actually work. A meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Oxford showed that Modafinil has significant cognitive benefits for those who do not suffer from sleep deprivation. The drug improves their ability to plan and make decisions and has a positive effect on learning and creativity. Another study, by researchers at Imperial College London, showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
Finally, a workforce high on stimulants wouldn’t necessarily be more productive overall. “One thinks ‘are these things dangerous?’ – and that’s important to consider in the short term,” says Huberman. “But there’s also a different question, which is: ‘How do you feel the day afterwards?’ Maybe you’re hyper-focused for four hours, 12 hours, but then you’re below baseline for 24 or 48.”
As it happens, these are areas I am distinctly lacking in. When I first began reading about testosterone I had no particular reason to think it might be an issue for me, but it increasingly sounded plausible, an aunt independently suggested I might be deficient, a biological uncle turned out to be severely deficient with levels around 90 ng/dl (where the normal range for 20-49yo males is 249-839), and finally my blood test in August 2013 revealed that my actual level was 305 ng/dl; inasmuch as I was 25 and not 49, this is a tad low.
You have the highest density of mitochondria in your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps to explain why I feel Unfair Advantage in my head first. You have the second highest density in your heart, which is probably why I feel it in the center of my chest next. Mitochondrial energizers can have profound nootropic effects! At higher doses mitochondrial energizers also make for an excellent pre-workout supplements.
Thursday: 3g piracetam/4g choline bitartrate at 1; 1 200mg modafinil at 2:20; noticed a leveling of fatigue by 3:30; dry eyes? no bad after taste or anything. a little light-headed by 4:30, but mentally clear and focused. wonder if light-headedness is due simply to missing lunch and not modafinil. 5:43: noticed my foot jiggling - doesn’t usually jiggle while in piracetam/choline. 7:30: starting feeling a bit jittery & manic - not much or to a problematic level but definitely noticeable; but then, that often happens when I miss lunch & dinner. 12:30: bedtime. Can’t sleep even with 3mg of melatonin! Subjectively, I toss & turn (in part thanks to my cat) until 4:30, when I really wake up. I hang around bed for another hour & then give up & get up. After a shower, I feel fairly normal, strangely, though not as good as if I had truly slept 8 hours. The lesson here is to pay attention to wikipedia when it says the half-life is 12-15 hours! About 6AM I take 200mg; all the way up to 2pm I feel increasingly less energetic and unfocused, though when I do apply myself I think as well as ever. Not fixed by food or tea or piracetam/choline. I want to be up until midnight, so I take half a pill of 100mg and chew it (since I’m not planning on staying up all night and I want it to work relatively soon). From 4-12PM, I notice that today as well my heart rate is elevated; I measure it a few times and it seems to average to ~70BPM, which is higher than normal, but not high enough to concern me. I stay up to midnight fine, take 3mg of melatonin at 12:30, and have no trouble sleeping; I think I fall asleep around 1. Alarm goes off at 6, I get up at 7:15 and take the other 100mg. Only 100mg/half-a-pill because I don’t want to leave the half laying around in the open, and I’m curious whether 100mg + ~5 hours of sleep will be enough after the last 2 days. Maybe next weekend I’ll just go without sleep entirely to see what my limits are.
Caffeine (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) is of course the most famous stimulant around. But consuming 200mg or more a day, I have discovered the downside: it is addictive and has a nasty withdrawal - headaches, decreased motivation, apathy, and general unhappiness. (It’s a little amusing to read academic descriptions of caffeine addiction9; if caffeine were a new drug, I wonder what Schedule it would be in and if people might be even more leery of it than modafinil.) Further, in some ways, aside from the ubiquitous placebo effect, caffeine combines a mix of weak performance benefits (Lorist & Snel 2008, Nehlig 2010) with some possible decrements, anecdotally and scientifically:

At this point I began to get bored with it and the lack of apparent effects, so I began a pilot trial: I’d use the LED set for 10 minutes every few days before 2PM, record, and in a few months look for a correlation with my daily self-ratings of mood/productivity (for 2.5 years I’ve asked myself at the end of each day whether I did more, the usual, or less work done that day than average, so 2=below-average, 3=average, 4=above-average; it’s ad hoc, but in some factor analyses I’ve been playing with, it seems to load on a lot of other variables I’ve measured, so I think it’s meaningful).
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.
If you want to try a nootropic in supplement form, check the label to weed out products you may be allergic to and vet the company as best you can by scouring its website and research basis, and talking to other customers, Kerl recommends. "Find one that isn't just giving you some temporary mental boost or some quick fix – that’s not what a nootropic is intended to do," Cyr says.
Like caffeine, nicotine tolerates rapidly and addiction can develop, after which the apparent performance boosts may only represent a return to baseline after withdrawal; so nicotine as a stimulant should be used judiciously, perhaps roughly as frequent as modafinil. Another problem is that nicotine has a half-life of merely 1-2 hours, making regular dosing a requirement. There is also some elevated heart-rate/blood-pressure often associated with nicotine, which may be a concern. (Possible alternatives to nicotine include cytisine, 2’-methylnicotine, GTS-21, galantamine, Varenicline, WAY-317,538, EVP-6124, and Wellbutrin, but none have emerged as clearly superior.)

NGF may sound intriguing, but the price is a dealbreaker: at suggested doses of 1-100μg (NGF dosing in humans for benefits is, shall we say, not an exact science), and a cost from sketchy suppliers of $1210/100μg/$470/500μg/$750/1000μg/$1000/1000μg/$1030/1000μg/$235/20μg. (Levi-Montalcini was presumably able to divert some of her lab’s production.) A year’s supply then would be comically expensive: at the lowest doses of 1-10μg using the cheapest sellers (for something one is dumping into one’s eyes?), it could cost anywhere up to $10,000.

I noticed on SR something I had never seen before, an offer for 150mgx10 of Waklert for ฿13.47 (then, ฿1 = $3.14). I searched and it seemed Sun was somehow manufacturing armodafinil! Interesting. Maybe not cost-effective, but I tried out of curiosity. They look and are packaged the same as the Modalert, but at a higher price-point: 150 rather than 81 rupees. Not entirely sure how to use them: assuming quality is the same, 150mg Waklert is still 100mg less armodafinil than the 250mg Nuvigil pills.
Four of the studies focused on middle and high school students, with varied results. Boyd, McCabe, Cranford, and Young (2006) found a 2.3% lifetime prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use in their sample, and McCabe, Teter, and Boyd (2004) found a 4.1% lifetime prevalence in public school students from a single American public school district. Poulin (2001) found an 8.5% past-year prevalence in public school students from four provinces in the Atlantic region of Canada. A more recent study of the same provinces found a 6.6% and 8.7% past-year prevalence for MPH and AMP use, respectively (Poulin, 2007).
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While the mechanism is largely unknown, one commonly mechanism possibility is that light of the relevant wavelengths is preferentially absorbed by the protein cytochrome c oxidase, which is a key protein in mitochondrial metabolism and production of ATP, substantially increasing output, and this extra output presumably can be useful for cellular activities like healing or higher performance.
If smart drugs are the synthetic cognitive enhancers, sleep, nutrition and exercise are the "natural" ones. But the appeal of drugs like Ritalin and modafinil lies in their purported ability to enhance brain function beyond the norm. Indeed, at school or in the workplace, a pill that enhanced the ability to acquire and retain information would be particularly useful when it came to revising and learning lecture material. But despite their increasing popularity, do prescription stimulants actually enhance cognition in healthy users?
2ml is supposed to translate to 24mg, which is a big dose. I do not believe any of the commercial patches go much past that. I asked Wedrifid, whose notes inspired my initial interest, and he was taking perhaps 2-4mg, and expressed astonishment that I might be taking 24mg. (2mg is in line with what I am told by another person - that 2mg was so much that they actually felt a little sick. On the other hand, in one study, the subjects could not reliably distinguish between 1mg and placebo24.) 24mg is particularly troubling in that I weigh ~68kg, and nicotine poisoning and the nicotine LD50 start, for me, at around 68mg of nicotine. (I reflected that the entire jar could be a useful murder weapon, although nicotine presumably would be caught in an autopsy’s toxicology screen; I later learned nicotine was an infamous weapon in the 1800s before any test was developed. It doesn’t seem used anymore, but there are still fatal accidents due to dissolved nicotine.) The upper end of the range, 10mg/kg or 680mg for me, is calculated based on experienced smokers. Something is wrong here - I can’t see why I would have nicotine tolerance comparable to a hardened smoker, inasmuch as my maximum prior exposure was second-hand smoke once in a blue moon. More likely is that either the syringe is misleading me or the seller NicVape sold me something more dilute than 12mg/ml. (I am sure that it’s not simply plain water; when I mix the drops with regular water, I can feel the propylene glycol burning as it goes down.) I would rather not accuse an established and apparently well-liked supplier of fraud, nor would I like to simply shrug and say I have a mysterious tolerance and must experiment with doses closer to the LD50, so the most likely problem is a problem with the syringe. The next day I altered the procedure to sucking up 8ml, squirting out enough fluid to move the meniscus down to 7ml, and then ejecting the rest back into the container. The result was another mild clean stimulation comparable to the previous 1ml days. The next step is to try a completely different measuring device, which doesn’t change either.
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.
The pill delivers an intestinal injection without exposing the drug to digestive enzymes. The patient takes what seems to be an ordinary capsule, but the “robotic” pill is a sophisticated device which incorporates a number of innovations, enabling it to navigate through the stomach and enter the small intestine. The Rani Pill™ goes through a transformation and positions itself to inject the drug into the intestinal wall.
The research literature, while copious, is messy and varied: methodologies and devices vary substantially, sample sizes are tiny, the study designs vary from paper to paper, metrics are sometimes comically limited (one study measured speed of finishing a RAPM IQ test but not scores), blinding is rare and unclear how successful, etc. Relevant papers include Chung et al 2012, Rojas & Gonzalez-Lima 2013, & Gonzalez-Lima & Barrett 2014. Another Longecity user ran a self-experiment, with some design advice from me, where he performed a few cognitive tests over several periods of LLLT usage (the blocks turned out to be ABBA), using his father and towels to try to blind himself as to condition. I analyzed his data, and his scores did seem to improve, but his scores improved so much in the last part of the self-experiment I found myself dubious as to what was going on - possibly a failure of randomness given too few blocks and an temporal exogenous factor in the last quarter which was responsible for the improvement.
Powders are good for experimenting with (easy to vary doses and mix), but not so good for regular taking. I use OO gel capsules with a Capsule Machine: it’s hard to beat $20, it works, it’s not that messy after practice, and it’s not too bad to do 100 pills. However, I once did 3kg of piracetam + my other powders, and doing that nearly burned me out on ever using capsules again. If you’re going to do that much, something more automated is a serious question! (What actually wound up infuriating me the most was when capsules would stick in either the bottom or top try - requiring you to very gingerly pull and twist them out, lest the two halves slip and spill powder - or when the two halves wouldn’t lock and you had to join them by hand. In contrast: loading the gel caps could be done automatically without looking, after some experience.)

Following up on the promising but unrandomized pilot, I began randomizing my LLLT usage since I worried that more productive days were causing use rather than vice-versa. I began on 2 August 2014, and the last day was 3 March 2015 (n=167); this was twice the sample size I thought I needed, and I stopped, as before, as part of cleaning up (I wanted to know whether to get rid of it or not). The procedure was simple: by noon, I flipped a bit and either did or did not use my LED device; if I was distracted or didn’t get around to randomization by noon, I skipped the day. This was an unblinded experiment because finding a randomized on/off switch is tricky/expensive and it was easier to just start the experiment already. The question is simple too: controlling for the simultaneous blind magnesium experiment & my rare nicotine use (I did not use modafinil during this period or anything else I expect to have major influence), is the pilot correlation of d=0.455 on my daily self-ratings borne out by the experiment?
Barbaresi WJ, Katusic SK, Colligan RC, Weaver AL, Jacobsen SJ. Modifiers of long-term school outcomes for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Does treatment with stimulant medication make a difference? Results from a population-based study. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2007;28:274–287. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e3180cabc28. [PubMed] [CrossRef]
Exercise and nutrition also play an important role in neuroplasticity. Many vitamins and ingredients found naturally in food products have been shown to have cognitive enhancing effects. Some of these include vitamins B6 and B12, caffeine, phenethylamine found in chocolate and l-theanine, found in green tea, whose combined effects with caffeine are more extensively researched.

I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 9 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.
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