In the nearer future, Lynch points to nicotinic receptor agents – molecules that act on the neurotransmitter receptors affected by nicotine – as ones to watch when looking out for potential new cognitive enhancers. Sarter agrees: a class of agents known as α4β2* nicotinic receptor agonists, he says, seem to act on mechanisms that control attention. Among the currently known candidates, he believes they come closest “to fulfilling the criteria for true cognition enhancers.”
Several new medications are on the market and in development for Alzheimer's disease, a progressive neurological disease leading to memory loss, language deterioration, and confusion that afflicts about 4.5 million Americans and is expected to strike millions more as the baby boom generation ages. Yet the burning question for those who aren't staring directly into the face of Alzheimer's is whether these medications might make us smarter.
Gibson and Green (2002), talking about a possible link between glucose and cognition, wrote that research in the area …is based on the assumption that, since glucose is the major source of fuel for the brain, alterations in plasma levels of glucose will result in alterations in brain levels of glucose, and thus neuronal function. However, the strength of this notion lies in its common-sense plausibility, not in scientific evidence… (p. 185).
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).
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a behavioral syndrome characterized by inattention and distractibility, restlessness, inability to sit still, and difficulty concentrating on one thing for any period of time. ADHD most commonly occurs in children, though an increasing number of adults are being diagnosed with the disorder. ADHD is three times more…
The difference in standard deviations is not, from a theoretical perspective, all that strange a phenomenon: at the very beginning of this page, I covered some basic principles of nootropics and mentioned how many stimulants or supplements follow a inverted U-curve where too much or too little lead to poorer performance (ironically, one of the examples in Kruschke 2012 was a smart drug which did not affect means but increased standard deviations).
The ethics of cognitive enhancement have been extensively debated in the academic literature (e.g., Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009; Farah et al., 2004; Greely et al., 2008; Mehlman, 2004; Sahakian & Morein-Zamir, 2007). We do not attempt to review this aspect of the problem here. Rather, we attempt to provide a firmer empirical basis for these discussions. Despite the widespread interest in the topic and its growing public health implications, there remains much researchers do not know about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement.
A key ingredient of Noehr’s chemical “stack” is a stronger racetam called Phenylpiracetam. He adds a handful of other compounds considered to be mild cognitive enhancers. One supplement, L-theanine, a natural constituent in green tea, is claimed to neutralise the jittery side-effects of caffeine. Another supplement, choline, is said to be important for experiencing the full effects of racetams. Each nootropic is distinct and there can be a lot of variation in effect from person to person, says Lawler. Users semi-annonymously compare stacks and get advice from forums on sites such as Reddit. Noehr, who buys his powder in bulk and makes his own capsules, has been tweaking chemicals and quantities for about five years accumulating more than two dozens of jars of substances along the way. He says he meticulously researches anything he tries, buys only from trusted suppliers and even blind-tests the effects (he gets his fiancée to hand him either a real or inactive capsule).
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.
More recently, the drug modafinil (brand name: Provigil) has become the brain-booster of choice for a growing number of Americans. According to the FDA, modafinil is intended to bolster “wakefulness” in people with narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea or shift work disorder. But when people without those conditions take it, it has been linked with improvements in alertness, energy, focus and decision-making. A 2017 study found evidence that modafinil may enhance some aspects of brain connectivity, which could explain these benefits.
The next morning, four giant pills’ worth of the popular piracetam-and-choline stack made me... a smidge more alert, maybe? (Or maybe that was just the fact that I had slept pretty well the night before. It was hard to tell.) Modafinil, which many militaries use as their “fatigue management” pill of choice, boasts glowing reviews from satisfied users. But in the United States, civilians need a prescription to get it; without one, they are stuck using adrafinil, a precursor substance that the body metabolizes into modafinil after ingestion. Taking adrafinil in lieu of coffee just made me keenly aware that I hadn’t had coffee.
My first impression of ~1g around 12:30PM was that while I do not feel like running around, within an hour I did feel like the brain fog was lighter than before. The effect wasn’t dramatic, so I can’t be very confident. Operationalizing brain fog for an experiment might be hard: it doesn’t necessarily feel like I would do better on dual n-back. I took 2 smaller doses 3 and 6 hours later, to no further effect. Over the following weeks and months, I continued to randomly alternate between potassium & non-potassium days. I noticed no effects other than sleep problems.
Many of the food-derived ingredients that are often included in nootropics—omega-3s in particular, but also flavonoids—do seem to improve brain health and function. But while eating fatty fish, berries and other healthy foods that are high in these nutrients appears to be good for your brain, the evidence backing the cognitive benefits of OTC supplements that contain these and other nutrients is weak.
The evidence? Found helpful in reducing bodily twitching in myoclonus epilepsy, a rare disorder, but otherwise little studied. Mixed evidence from a study published in 1991 suggests it may improve memory in subjects with cognitive impairment. A meta-analysis published in 2010 that reviewed studies of piracetam and other racetam drugs found that piracetam was somewhat helpful in improving cognition in people who had suffered a stroke or brain injury; the drugs’ effectiveness in treating depression and reducing anxiety was more significant.
This world is a competitive place. If you’re not seeking an advantage, you’ll get passed by those who do. Whether you’re studying for a final exam or trying to secure a big business deal, you need a definitive mental edge. Are smart drugs and brain-boosting pills the answer for cognitive enhancement in 2019? If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying, right? Bad advice for some scenarios, but there is a grain of truth to every saying—even this one.
Or in other words, since the standard deviation of my previous self-ratings is 0.75 (see the Weather and my productivity data), a mean rating increase of >0.39 on the self-rating. This is, unfortunately, implying an extreme shift in my self-assessments (for example, 3s are ~50% of the self-ratings and 4s ~25%; to cause an increase of 0.25 while leaving 2s alone in a sample of 23 days, one would have to push 3s down to ~25% and 4s up to ~47%). So in advance, we can see that the weak plausible effects for Noopept are not going to be detected here at our usual statistical levels with just the sample I have (a more plausible experiment might use 178 pairs over a year, detecting down to d>=0.18). But if the sign is right, it might make Noopept worthwhile to investigate further. And the hardest part of this was just making the pills, so it’s not a waste of effort.
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Similarly, we could try applying Nick Bostrom’s reversal test and ask ourselves, how would we react to a virus which had no effect but to eliminate sleep from alternating nights and double sleep in the intervening nights? We would probably grouch about it for a while and then adapt to our new hedonistic lifestyle of partying or working hard. On the other hand, imagine the virus had the effect of eliminating normal sleep but instead, every 2 minutes, a person would fall asleep for a minute. This would be disastrous! Besides the most immediate problems like safely driving vehicles, how would anything get done? You would hold a meeting and at any point, a third of the participants would be asleep. If the virus made it instead 2 hours on, one hour off, that would be better but still problematic: there would be constant interruptions. And so on, until we reach our present state of 16 hours on, 8 hours off. Given that we rejected all the earlier buffer sizes, one wonders if 16:8 can be defended as uniquely suited to circumstances. Is that optimal? It may be, given the synchronization with the night-day cycle, but I wonder; rush hour alone stands as an argument against synchronized sleep - wouldn’t our infrastructure would be much cheaper if it only had to handle the average daily load rather than cope with the projected peak loads? Might not a longer cycle be better? The longer the day, the less we are interrupted by sleep; it’s a hoary cliche about programmers that they prefer to work in long sustained marathons during long nights rather than sprint occasionally during a distraction-filled day, to the point where some famously adopt a 28 hour day (which evenly divides a week into 6 days). Are there other occupations which would benefit from a 20 hour waking period? Or 24 hour waking period? We might not know because without chemical assistance, circadian rhythms would overpower anyone attempting such schedules. It certainly would be nice if one had long time chunks in which could read a challenging book in one sitting, without heroic arrangements.↩
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.”
I am not alone in thinking of the potential benefits of smart drugs in the military. In their popular novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, P.W. Singer and August Cole tell the story of a future war using drug-like nootropic implants and pills, such as Modafinil. DARPA is also experimenting with neurological technology and enhancements such as the smart drugs discussed here. As demonstrated in the following brain initiatives: Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT), Augmented Cognition, and High-quality Interface Systems such as their Next-Generational Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3).
Some cognitive enhancers, such as donepezil and galantamine, are prescribed for elderly patients with impaired reasoning and memory deficits caused by various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease with dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and vascular dementia. Children and young adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often treated with the cognitive enhancers Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts). Persons diagnosed with narcolepsy find relief from sudden attacks of sleep through wake-promoting agents such as Provigil (modafinil). Generally speaking, cognitive enhancers improve working and episodic (event-specific) memory, attention, vigilance, and overall wakefulness but act through different brain systems and neurotransmitters to exert their enhancing effects.
As shown in Table 6, two of these are fluency tasks, which require the generation of as large a set of unique responses as possible that meet the criteria given in the instructions. Fluency tasks are often considered tests of executive function because they require flexibility and the avoidance of perseveration and because they are often impaired along with other executive functions after prefrontal damage. In verbal fluency, subjects are asked to generate as many words that begin with a specific letter as possible. Neither Fleming et al. (1995), who administered d-AMP, nor Elliott et al. (1997), who administered MPH, found enhancement of verbal fluency. However, Elliott et al. found enhancement on a more complex nonverbal fluency task, the sequence generation task. Subjects were able to touch four squares in more unique orders with MPH than with placebo.
Using the 21mg patches, I cut them into quarters. What I would do is I would cut out 1 quarter, and then seal the two edges with scotch tape, and put the Pac-Man back into its sleeve. Then the next time I would cut another quarter, seal the new edge, and so on. I thought that 5.25mg might be too much since I initially found 4mg gum to be too much, but it’s delivered over a long time and it wound up feeling much more like 1mg gum used regularly. I don’t know if the tape worked, but I did not notice any loss of potency. I didn’t like them as much as the gum because I would sometimes forget to take off a patch at the end of the day and it would interfere with sleep, and because the onset is much slower and I find I need stimulants more for getting started than for ongoing stimulation so it is better to have gum which can be taken precisely when needed and start acting quickly. (One case where the patches were definitely better than the gum was long car trips where slow onset is fine, since you’re most alert at the start.) When I finally ran out of patches in June 2016 (using them sparingly), I ordered gum instead.
Nootropics are also sought out by consumers because of their ability to enhance mood and relieve stress and anxiety. Nootropics like bacopa monnieri and L-theanine are backed by research as stress-relieving options. Lion’s mane mushroom is also well-studied for its ability to boost the nerve growth factor, thereby leading to a balanced and bright mood.14
A study mentioned in Neuropsychopharmacology as of August 2002, revealed that Bacopa Monnieri decreases the rate of forgetting newly acquired information, memory consolidations, and verbal learning rate. It also helps in enhancing the nerve impulse transmission, which leads to increased alertness. It is also known to relieve the effects of anxiety and depression. All these benefits happen as Bacopa Monnieri dosage helps in activating choline acetyltransferase and inhibiting acetylcholinesterase which enhances the levels of acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that is also associated in improving memory and attention.
In sum, the evidence concerning stimulant effects of working memory is mixed, with some findings of enhancement and some null results, although no findings of overall performance impairment. A few studies showed greater enhancement for less able participants, including two studies reporting overall null results. When significant effects have been found, their sizes vary from small to large, as shown in Table 4. Taken together, these results suggest that stimulants probably do enhance working memory, at least for some individuals in some task contexts, although the effects are not so large or reliable as to be observable in all or even most working memory studies.
Starting from the studies in my meta-analysis, we can try to estimate an upper bound on how big any effect would be, if it actually existed. One of the most promising null results, Southon et al 1994, turns out to be not very informative: if we punch in the number of kids, we find that they needed a large effect size (d=0.81) before they could see anything:
A poster or two on Longecity claimed that iodine supplementation had changed their eye color, suggesting a connection to the yellow-reddish element bromine - bromides being displaced by their chemical cousin, iodine. I was skeptical this was a real effect since I don’t know why visible amounts of either iodine or bromine would be in the eye, and the photographs produced were less than convincing. But it’s an easy thing to test, so why not?
One symptom of Alzheimer's disease is a reduced brain level of the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It is thought that an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease might be to increase brain levels of acetylcholine. Another possible treatment would be to slow the death of neurons that contain acetylcholine. Two drugs, Tacrine and Donepezil, are both inhibitors of the enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) that breaks down acetylcholine. These drugs are approved in the US for treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
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.
But there are some potential side effects, including headaches, anxiety and insomnia. Part of the way modafinil works is by shifting the brain’s levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters; it’s not clear what effects these shifts may have on a person’s health in the long run, and some research on young people who use modafinil has found changes in brain plasticity that are associated with poorer cognitive function.
Before taking any supplement or chemical, people want to know if there will be long term effects or consequences, When Dr. Corneliu Giurgea first authored the term “nootropics” in 1972, he also outlined the characteristics that define nootropics. Besides the ability to benefit memory and support the cognitive processes, Dr. Giurgea believed that nootropics should be safe and non-toxic.