Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants and modafinil. Part of the problem is that getting rats, or indeed students, to do puzzles in laboratories may not be a reliable guide to the drugs’ effects in the wider world. Drugs have complicated effects on individuals living complicated lives. Determining that methylphenidate enhances cognition in rats by acting on their prefrontal cortex doesn’t tell you the potential impact that its effects on mood or motivation may have on human cognition.
Finally, all of the questions raised here in relation to MPH and d-AMP can also be asked about newer drugs and even about nonpharmacological methods of cognitive enhancement. An example of a newer drug with cognitive-enhancing potential is modafinil. Originally marketed as a therapy for narcolepsy, it is widely used off label for other purposes (Vastag, 2004), and a limited literature on its cognitive effects suggests some promise as a cognitive enhancer for normal healthy people (see Minzenberg & Carter, 2008, for a review).
That doesn’t necessarily mean all smart drugs – now and in the future – will be harmless, however. The brain is complicated. In trying to upgrade it, you risk upsetting its intricate balance. “It’s not just about more, it’s about having to be exquisitely and exactly right. And that’s very hard to do,” says Arnstein. “What’s good for one system may be bad for another system,” adds Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “It’s clear from the experimental literature that you can affect memory with pharmacological agents, but the problem is keeping them safe.”
A week later: Golden Sumatran, 3 spoonfuls, a more yellowish powder. (I combined it with some tea dregs to hopefully cut the flavor a bit.) Had a paper to review that night. No (subjectively noticeable) effect on energy or productivity. I tried 4 spoonfuls at noon the next day; nothing except a little mental tension, for lack of a better word. I think that was just the harbinger of what my runny nose that day and the day before was, a head cold that laid me low during the evening.
Most research on these nootropics suggest they have some benefits, sure, but as Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir explain in the journal Nature, nobody knows their long-term effects. And we don’t know how extended use might change your brain chemistry in the long run. Researchers are getting closer to what makes these substances do what they do, but very little is certain right now. If you’re looking to live out your own Limitless fantasy, do your research first, and proceed with caution.
There are some other promising prescription drugs that may have performance-related effects on the brain. But at this point, all of them seem to involve a roll of the dice. You may experience a short-term brain boost, but you could also end up harming your brain (or some other aspect of your health) in the long run. “To date, there is no safe drug that may increase cognition in healthy adults,” Fond says of ADHD drugs, modafinil and other prescription nootropics.
Legal issues aside, this wouldn’t be very difficult to achieve. Many companies already have in-house doctors who give regular health check-ups — including drug tests — which could be employed to control and regulate usage. Organizations could integrate these drugs into already existing wellness programs, alongside healthy eating, exercise, and good sleep.
Probably most significantly, use of the term “drug” has a significant negative connotation in our culture. “Drugs” are bad: So proclaimed Richard Nixon in the War on Drugs, and Nancy “No to Drugs” Reagan decades later, and other leaders continuing to present day. The legitimate demonization of the worst forms of recreational drugs has resulted in a general bias against the elective use of any chemical to alter the body’s processes. Drug enhancement of athletes is considered cheating – despite the fact that many of these physiological shortcuts obviously work. University students and professionals seeking mental enhancements by taking smart drugs are now facing similar scrutiny.
One last note on tolerance; after the first few days of using smart drugs, just like with other drugs, you may not get the same effects as before. You’ve just experienced the honeymoon period. This is where you feel a large effect the first few times, but after that, you can’t replicate it. Be careful not to exceed recommended doses, and try cycling to get the desired effects again.
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.
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]
Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HTP), is another primary neurotransmitter and controls major features of the mental landscape including mood, sleep and appetite. Serotonin is produced within the body by exposure, which is one reason that the folk-remedy of “getting some sun” to fight depression is scientifically credible. Many foods contain natural serotonergic (serotonin-promoting or releasing) compounds, including the well-known chemical L-Tryptophan found in turkey, which can promote sleep after big Thanksgiving dinners.
The prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain is the zone that produces such representations, and it is the focus of Arnsten’s work. “The way the prefrontal cortex creates these representations is by having pyramidal cells – they’re actually shaped like little pyramids – exciting each other. They keep each other firing, even when there’s no information coming in from the environment to stimulate the circuits,” she explains.
We started hearing the buzz when Daytime TV Doctors, started touting these new pills that improve concentration, memory recall, focus, mental clarity and energy. And though we love the good Doctor and his purple gloves, we don’t love the droves of hucksters who prey on his loyal viewers trying to make a quick buck, often selling low-grade versions of his medical discoveries.
While these two compounds may not be as exciting as a super pill that instantly unlocks the full potential of your brain, they currently have the most science to back them up. And, as Patel explains, they’re both relatively safe for healthy individuals of most ages. Patel explains that a combination of caffeine and L-theanine is the most basic supplement stack (or combined dose) because the L-theanine can help blunt the anxiety and “shakiness” that can come with ingesting too much caffeine.
There are a number of treatments for the last. I already use melatonin. I sort of have light therapy from a full-spectrum fluorescent desk lamp. But I get very little sunlight; the surprising thing would be if I didn’t have a vitamin D deficiency. And vitamin D deficiencies have been linked with all sorts of interesting things like near-sightedness, with time outdoors inversely correlating with myopia and not reading or near-work time. (It has been claimed that caffeine interferes with vitamin D absorption and so people like me especially need to take vitamin D, on top of the deficits caused by our vampiric habits, but I don’t think this is true34.) Unfortunately, there’s not very good evidence that vitamin D supplementation helps with mood/SAD/depression: there’s ~6 small RCTs with some findings of benefits, with their respective meta-analysis turning in a positive but currently non-statistically-significant result. Better confirmed is reducing all-cause mortality in elderly people (see, in order of increasing comprehensiveness: Evidence Syntheses 2013, Chung et al 2009, Autier & Gandini 2007, Bolland et al 2014).
There is much to be appreciated in a brain supplement like BrainPill (never mind the confusion that may stem from the generic-sounding name) that combines tried-and-tested ingredients in a single one-a-day formulation. The consistency in claims and what users see in real life is an exemplary one, which convinces us to rate this powerhouse as the second on this review list. Feeding one’s brain with nootropics and related supplements entails due diligence in research and seeking the highest quality, and we think BrainPill is up to task. Learn More...
The data from 2-back and 3-back tasks are more complex. Three studies examined performance in these more challenging tasks and found no effect of d-AMP on average performance (Mattay et al., 2000, 2003; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007). However, in at least two of the studies, the overall null result reflected a mixture of reliably enhancing and impairing effects. Mattay et al. (2000) examined the performance of subjects with better and worse working memory capacity separately and found that subjects whose performance on placebo was low performed better on d-AMP, whereas subjects whose performance on placebo was high were unaffected by d-AMP on the 2-back and impaired on the 3-back tasks. Mattay et al. (2003) replicated this general pattern of data with subjects divided according to genotype. The specific gene of interest codes for the production of Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), an enzyme that breaks down dopamine and norepinephrine. A common polymorphism determines the activity of the enzyme, with a substitution of methionine for valine at Codon 158 resulting in a less active form of COMT. The met allele is thus associated with less breakdown of dopamine and hence higher levels of synaptic dopamine than the val allele. Mattay et al. (2003) found that subjects who were homozygous for the val allele were able to perform the n-back faster with d-AMP; those homozygous for met were not helped by the drug and became significantly less accurate in the 3-back condition with d-AMP. In the case of the third study finding no overall effect, analyses of individual differences were not reported (Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007).
“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.
Medication can be ineffective if the drug payload is not delivered at its intended place and time. Since an oral medication travels through a broad pH spectrum, the pill encapsulation could dissolve at the wrong time. However, a smart pill with environmental sensors, a feedback algorithm and a drug release mechanism can give rise to smart drug delivery systems. This can ensure optimal drug delivery and prevent accidental overdose.
Second, users are concerned with the possibility of withdrawal if they stop taking the nootropics. They worry that if they stop taking nootropics they won’t be as smart as when they were taking nootropics, and will need to continue taking them to function. Some users report feeling a slight brain fog when discontinuing nootropics, but that isn’t a sign of regression.
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.