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.
The main area of the brain effected by smart pills is the prefrontal cortex, where representations of our goals for the future are created. Namely, the prefrontal cortex consists of pyramidal cells that keep each other firing. However in some instances they can become disconnected due to chemical imbalances, or due to being tired, stressed, and overworked.
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?
Bought 5,000 IU soft-gels of Vitamin D-333 (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) because I was feeling very apathetic in January 2011 and not getting much done, even slacking on regular habits like Mnemosyne spaced repetition review or dual n-back or my Wikipedia watchlist. Introspecting, I was reminded of depression & dysthymia & seasonal affective disorder.
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.
“It is important to note that Abilify MyCite’s prescribing information (labeling) notes that the ability of the product to improve patient compliance with their treatment regimen has not been shown. Abilify MyCite should not be used to track drug ingestion in “real-time” or during an emergency because detection may be delayed or may not occur,” the FDA said in a statement.

The hormone testosterone (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) needs no introduction. This is one of the scariest substances I have considered using: it affects so many bodily systems in so many ways that it seems almost impossible to come up with a net summary, either positive or negative. With testosterone, the problem is not the usual nootropics problem that that there is a lack of human research, the problem is that the summary constitutes a textbook - or two. That said, the 2011 review The role of testosterone in social interaction (excerpts) gives me the impression that testosterone does indeed play into risk-taking, motivation, and social status-seeking; some useful links and a representative anecdote:
Nootropics – sometimes called smart drugs – are compounds that enhance brain function. They’re becoming a popular way to give your mind an extra boost. According to one Telegraph report, up to 25% of students at leading UK universities have taken the prescription smart drug modafinil [1], and California tech startup employees are trying everything from Adderall to LSD to push their brains into a higher gear [2].
Fatty acids are well-studied natural smart drugs that support many cognitive abilities. They play an essential role in providing structural support to cell membranes. Fatty acids also contribute to the growth and repair of neurons. Both functions are crucial for maintaining peak mental acuity as you age. Among the most prestigious fatty acids known to support cognitive health are:
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It arrived as described, a little bottle around the volume of a soda can. I had handy a plastic syringe with milliliter units which I used to measure out the nicotine-water into my tea. I began with half a ml the first day, 1ml the second day, and 2ml the third day. (My Zeo sleep scores were 85/103/86 (▁▇▁), and the latter had a feline explanation; these values are within normal variation for me, so if nicotine affects my sleep, it does so to a lesser extent than Adderall.) Subjectively, it’s hard to describe. At half a ml, I didn’t really notice anything; at 1 and 2ml, I thought I began to notice it - sort of a cleaner caffeine. It’s nice so far. It’s not as strong as I expected. I looked into whether the boiling water might be breaking it down, but the answer seems to be no - boiling tobacco is a standard way to extract nicotine, actually, and nicotine’s own boiling point is much higher than water; nor do I notice a drastic difference when I take it in ordinary water. And according to various e-cigarette sources, the liquid should be good for at least a year.
White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop (2006) 2002 Large university undergraduates and graduates (N = 1,025) 16.2% (lifetime) 68.9%: improve attention; 65.2:% partying; 54.3%: improve study habits; 20%: improve grades; 9.1%: reduce hyperactivity 15.5%: 2–3 times per week; 33.9%: 2–3 times per month; 50.6%: 2–3 times per year 58%: easy or somewhat easy to obtain; write-in comments indicated many obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions
Since the discovery of the effect of nootropics on memory and focus, the number of products on the market has increased exponentially. The ingredients used in a supplement can tell you about the effectiveness of the product. Brain enhancement pills that produce the greatest benefit are formulated with natural vitamins and substances, rather than caffeine and synthetic ingredients. In addition to better results, natural supplements are less likely to produce side effects, compared with drugs formulated with chemical ingredients.
Power times prior times benefit minus cost of experimentation: (0.20 \times 0.30 \times 540) - 41 = -9. So the VoI is negative: because my default is that fish oil works and I am taking it, weak information that it doesn’t work isn’t enough. If the power calculation were giving us 40% reliable information, then the chance of learning I should drop fish oil is improved enough to make the experiment worthwhile (going from 20% to 40% switches the value from -$9 to +$23.8).

A total of 14 studies surveyed reasons for using prescription stimulants nonmedically, all but one study confined to student respondents. The most common reasons were related to cognitive enhancement. Different studies worded the multiple-choice alternatives differently, but all of the following appeared among the top reasons for using the drugs: “concentration” or “attention” (Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; Teter, McCabe, Cranford, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2005; White et al., 2006); “help memorize,” “study,” “study habits,” or “academic assignments” (Arria et al., 2008; Barrett et al., 2005; Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; DuPont et al., 2008; Low & Gendaszek, 2002; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2005, 2006; White et al., 2006); “grades” or “intellectual performance” (Low & Gendaszek, 2002; White et al., 2006); “before tests” or “finals week” (Hall et al., 2005); “alertness” (Boyd et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Teter et al., 2003, 2005, 2006); or “performance” (Novak et al., 2007). However, every survey found other motives mentioned as well. The pills were also taken to “stay awake,” “get high,” “be able to drink and party longer without feeling drunk,” “lose weight,” “experiment,” and for “recreational purposes.”
Productivity is the most cited reason for using nootropics. With all else being equal, smart drugs are expected to give you that mental edge over other and advance your career. Nootropics can also be used for a host of other reasons. From studying to socialising. And from exercise and health to general well-being. Different nootropics cater to different audiences.
Adaptogens are plant-derived chemicals whose activity helps the body maintain or regain homeostasis (equilibrium between the body’s metabolic processes). Almost without exception, adaptogens are available over-the-counter as dietary supplements, not controlled drugs. Well-known adaptogens include Ginseng, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, St. Johns Wort, and Gotu Kola. Many of these traditional remedies border on being “folk wisdom,” and have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years, and are used to treat everything from anxiety and mild depression to low libido. While these smart drugs work in a many different ways (their commonality is their resultant function within the body, not their chemical makeup), it can generally be said that the cognitive boost users receive is mostly a result of fixing an imbalance in people with poor diets, body toxicity, or other metabolic problems, rather than directly promoting the growth of new brain cells or neural connections.
The first night I was eating some coconut oil, I did my n-backing past 11 PM; normally that damages my scores, but instead I got 66/66/75/88/77% (▁▁▂▇▃) on D4B and did not feel mentally exhausted by the end. The next day, I performed well on the Cambridge mental rotations test. An anecdote, of course, and it may be due to the vitamin D I simultaneously started. Or another day, I was slumped under apathy after a promising start to the day; a dose of fish & coconut oil, and 1 last vitamin D, and I was back to feeling chipper and optimist. Unfortunately I haven’t been testing out coconut oil & vitamin D separately, so who knows which is to thank. But still interesting.

Vitamin B12 is also known as Cobalamin and is a water-soluble essential vitamin.  A (large) deficiency of Vitamin B12 will ultimately lead to cognitive impairment [52]. Older people and people who don’t eat meat are at a higher risk than young people who eat more meat. And people with depression have less Vitamin B12 than the average population [53].

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.
Sarter is downbeat, however, about the likelihood of the pharmaceutical industry actually turning candidate smart drugs into products. Its interest in cognitive enhancers is shrinking, he says, “because these drugs are not working for the big indications, which is the market that drives these developments. Even adult ADHD has not been considered a sufficiently attractive large market.”
Many people quickly become overwhelmed by the volume of information and number of products on the market. Because each website claims its product is the best and most effective, it is easy to feel confused and unable to decide. Smart Pill Guide is a resource for reliable information and independent reviews of various supplements for brain enhancement.
Because smart drugs like modafinil, nicotine, and Adderall come with drawbacks, I developed my own line of nootropics, including Forbose and SmartMode, that’s safe, widely available, and doesn’t require a prescription. Forskolin, found in Forbose, has been a part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation. [8]
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