Remember: The strictest definition of nootropics today says that for a substance to be a true brain-boosting nootropic it must have low toxicity and few side effects. Therefore, by definition, a nootropic is safe to use. However, when people start stacking nootropics indiscriminately, taking megadoses, or importing them from unknown suppliers that may have poor quality control, it’s easy for safety concerns to start creeping in.
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.
One study of helicopter pilots suggested that 600 mg of modafinil given in three doses can be used to keep pilots alert and maintain their accuracy at pre-deprivation levels for 40 hours without sleep. However, significant levels of nausea and vertigo were observed. Another study of fighter pilots showed that modafinil given in three divided 100 mg doses sustained the flight control accuracy of sleep-deprived F-117 pilots to within about 27% of baseline levels for 37 hours, without any considerable side effects. In an 88-hour sleep loss study of simulated military grounds operations, 400 mg/day doses were mildly helpful at maintaining alertness and performance of subjects compared to placebo, but the researchers concluded that this dose was not high enough to compensate for most of the effects of complete sleep loss.
Table 3 lists the results of 24 tasks from 22 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on learning, assessed by a variety of declarative and nondeclarative memory tasks. Results for the 24 tasks are evenly split between enhanced learning and null results, but they yield a clearer pattern when the nature of the learning task and the retention interval are taken into account. In general, with single exposures of verbal material, no benefits are seen immediately following learning, but later recall and recognition are enhanced. Of the six articles reporting on memory performance (Camp-Bruno & Herting, 1994; Fleming, Bigelow, Weinberger, & Goldberg, 1995; Rapoport, Busbaum, & Weingartner, 1980; Soetens, D’Hooge, & Hueting, 1993; Unrug, Coenen, & van Luijtelaar, 1997; Zeeuws & Soetens 2007), encompassing eight separate experiments, only one of the experiments yielded significant memory enhancement at short delays (Rapoport et al., 1980). In contrast, retention was reliably enhanced by d-AMP when subjects were tested after longer delays, with recall improved after 1 hr through 1 week (Soetens, Casaer, D’Hooge, & Hueting, 1995; Soetens et al., 1993; Zeeuws & Soetens, 2007). Recognition improved after 1 week in one study (Soetens et al., 1995), while another found recognition improved after 2 hr (Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007). The one long-term memory study to examine the effects of MPH found a borderline-significant reduction in errors when subjects answered questions about a story (accompanied by slides) presented 1 week before (Brignell, Rosenthal, & Curran, 2007).
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 he has also seen patients whose propensity for self-experimentation to improve cognition got out of hand. One chief executive he treated, Ngo said, developed an unhealthy predilection for albuterol, because he felt the asthma inhaler medicine kept him alert and productive long after others had quit working. Unfortunately, the drug ended up severely imbalancing his electrolytes, which can lead to dehydration, headaches, vision and cardiac problems, muscle contractions and, in extreme cases, seizures.
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.
Not all drug users are searching for a chemical escape hatch. A newer and increasingly normalized drug culture is all about heightening one’s current relationship to reality—whether at work or school—by boosting the brain’s ability to think under stress, stay alert and productive for long hours, and keep track of large amounts of information. In the name of becoming sharper traders, medical interns, or coders, people are taking pills typically prescribed for conditions including ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s. Others down “stacks” of special “nootropic” supplements.
A quick search for drugs that make you smarter will lead you to the discovery of piracetam. Piracetam is the first synthetic smart drug of its kind. All other racetams derive from Piracetam. Some are far more potent, but they may also carry more side effects. Piracetam is an allosteric modulator of acetylcholine receptors. In other words, it enhances acetylcholine synthesis which boosts cognitive function.
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)
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for researchers to know just how common the “smart drug” or “neuro-enhancing” lifestyle is. However, a few recent studies suggest cognition hacking is appealing to a growing number of people. A survey conducted in 2016 found that 15% of University of Oxford students were popping pills to stay competitive, a rate that mirrored findings from other national surveys of UK university students. In the US, a 2014 study found that 18% of sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Ivy League colleges had knowingly used a stimulant at least once during their academic career, and among those who had ever used uppers, 24% said they had popped a little helper on eight or more occasions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pharmacological enhancement is also on the rise within the workplace, where modafinil, which treats sleep disorders, has become particularly popular.
In addition, while the laboratory research reviewed here is of interest concerning the effects of stimulant drugs on specific cognitive processes, it does not tell us about the effects on cognition in the real world. How do these drugs affect academic performance when used by students? How do they affect the total knowledge and understanding that students take with them from a course? How do they affect various aspects of occupational performance? Similar questions have been addressed in relation to students and workers with ADHD (Barbaresi, Katusic, Colligan, Weaver, & Jacobsen, 2007; Halmøy, Fasmer, Gillberg, & Haavik, 2009; see also Advokat, 2010) but have yet to be addressed in the context of cognitive enhancement of normal individuals.
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.
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
The acid is also known to restore the vitamin C and E levels in the body. Alpha Lipoic Acid’s potent antioxidant property protects brain cells from damage during an injury. This helps in making sure that your brain functions normally even if there is any external or internal brain injury. OptiMind, one of the best nootropic supplements that you can find today contains Alpha Lipoic Acid that can help in enhancing your brain’s capabilities.
When I spoke with Jesse Lawler, who hosts the podcast Smart Drugs Smarts, about breakthroughs in brain health and neuroscience, he was unsurprised to hear of my disappointing experience. Many nootropics are supposed to take time to build up in the body before users begin to feel their impact. But even then, says Barry Gordon, a neurology professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, positive results wouldn’t necessarily constitute evidence of a pharmacological benefit.
It isn’t unlikely to hear someone from Silicon Valley say the following: “I’ve just cycled off a stack of Piracetam and CDP-Choline because I didn’t get the mental acuity I was expecting. I will try a blend of Noopept and Huperzine A for the next two weeks and see if I can increase my output by 10%. We don’t have immortality yet and I would really like to join the three comma club before it’s all over.”
Eugeroics (armodafinil and modafinil) – are classified as "wakefulness promoting" agents; modafinil increased alertness, particularly in sleep deprived individuals, and was noted to facilitate reasoning and problem solving in non-ADHD youth. In a systematic review of small, preliminary studies where the effects of modafinil were examined, when simple psychometric assessments were considered, modafinil intake appeared to enhance executive function. Modafinil does not produce improvements in mood or motivation in sleep deprived or non-sleep deprived individuals.