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.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Modafinil and other nootropics like Piracetam, according to Patel, is that Modafinil studies show more efficacy in young, healthy people, not just the elderly or those with cognitive deficits. That’s why it’s great for (and often prescribed to) military members who are on an intense tour, or for those who can’t get enough sleep for physiological reasons. One study, by researchers at Imperial College London, and published in Annals of Surgery, even showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
Many people find that they experience increased “brain fog” as they age, some of which could be attributed to early degeneration of synapses and neural pathways. Some drugs have been found to be useful for providing cognitive improvements in these individuals. It’s possible that these supplements could provide value by improving brain plasticity and supporting the regeneration of cells.10
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.”
The evidence? Although everyone can benefit from dietary sources of essential fatty acids, supplementation is especially recommended for people with heart disease. A small study published in 2013 found that DHA may enhance memory and reaction time in healthy young adults. However, a more recent review suggested that there is not enough evidence of any effect from omega 3 supplementation in the general population.
If you want to focus on boosting your brain power, Lebowitz says you should primarily focus on improving your cardiovascular health, which is "the key to good thinking." For example, high blood pressure and cholesterol, which raise the risk of heart disease, can cause arteries to harden, which can decrease blood flow to the brain. The brain relies on blood to function normally.
The methodology would be essentially the same as the vitamin D in the morning experiment: put a multiple of 7 placebos in one container, the same number of actives in another identical container, hide & randomly pick one of them, use container for 7 days then the other for 7 days, look inside them for the label to determine which period was active and which was placebo, refill them, and start again.
Another popular option is nicotine. Scientists are increasingly realising that this drug is a powerful nootropic, with the ability to improve a person’s memory and help them to focus on certain tasks – though it also comes with well-documented obvious risks and side effects. “There are some very famous neuroscientists who chew Nicorette in order to enhance their cognitive functioning. But they used to smoke and that’s their substitute,” says Huberman.
Modafinil is a prescription smart drug most commonly given to narcolepsy patients, as it promotes wakefulness. In addition, users indicate that this smart pill helps them concentrate and boosts their motivation. Owing to Modafinil, the feeling of fatigue is reduced, and people report that their everyday functions improve because they can manage their time and resources better, as a result reaching their goals easier.
As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩
Table 5 lists the results of 16 tasks from 13 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on cognitive control. One of the simplest tasks used to study cognitive control is the go/no-go task. Subjects are instructed to press a button as quickly as possible for one stimulus or class of stimuli (go) and to refrain from pressing for another stimulus or class of stimuli (no go). De Wit et al. (2002) used a version of this task to measure the effects of d-AMP on subjects’ ability to inhibit a response and found enhancement in the form of decreased false alarms (responses to no-go stimuli) and increased speed of correct go responses. They also found that subjects who made the most errors on placebo experienced the greatest enhancement from the drug.
For proper brain function, our CNS (Central Nervous System) requires several amino acids. These derive from protein-rich foods. Consider amino acids to be protein building blocks. Many of them are dietary precursors to vital neurotransmitters in our brain. Epinephrine (adrenaline), serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine assist in enhancing mental performance. A few examples of amino acid nootropics are:
The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.
In most cases, cognitive enhancers have been used to treat people with neurological or mental disorders, but there is a growing number of healthy, "normal" people who use these substances in hopes of getting smarter. Although there are many companies that make "smart" drinks, smart power bars and diet supplements containing certain "smart" chemicals, there is little evidence to suggest that these products really work. Results from different laboratories show mixed results; some labs show positive effects on memory and learning; other labs show no effects. There are very few well-designed studies using normal healthy people.