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A rough translation for the word “nootropic” comes from the Greek for “to bend or shape the mind.” And already, there are dozens of over-the-counter (OTC) products—many of which are sold widely online or in stores—that claim to boost creativity, memory, decision-making or other high-level brain functions. Some of the most popular supplements are a mixture of food-derived vitamins, lipids, phytochemicals and antioxidants that studies have linked to healthy brain function. One popular pick on Amazon, for example, is an encapsulated cocktail of omega-3s, B vitamins and plant-derived compounds that its maker claims can improve memory, concentration and focus.
With the right lifestyle and the right stack of supplements and nootropics, you can enjoy enhanced mental clarity, easier flow, and better vision. The best nootropics for your needs will depend on how much you want to spend, how often you want to take them, and what you want to take them for. Nutritional supplements should be taken daily, for the cumulative effect, but Smart drugs such as noopept and modafinil are usually taken on an as-needed basis, for those times when you are aiming for hyperfocus, better clarity, and better recall, or the ability to process a huge amount of incoming visual information quickly and accurately and to pick up on details that you might otherwise miss.

These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”
The question of how much nonmedical use of stimulants occurs on college campuses is only partly answered by the proportion of students using the drugs in this way. The other part of the answer is how frequently they are used by those students. Three studies addressed this issue. Low and Gendaszek (2002) found a high past-year rate of 35.3%, but only 10% and 8% of this population used monthly and weekly, respectively. White et al. (2006) found a larger percentage used frequently: 15.5% using two to three times per week and 33.9% using two to three times per month. Teter et al. (2006) found that most nonmedical users take prescription stimulants sporadically, with well over half using five or fewer times and nearly 40% using only once or twice in their lives. DeSantis et al. (2008) offered qualitative evidence on the issue, reporting that students often turned to stimulants at exam time only, particularly when under pressure to study for multiple exams at the same time. Thus, there appears to be wide variation in the regularity of stimulant use, with the most common pattern appearing to be infrequent use.
Blinding stymied me for a few months since the nasty taste was unmistakable and I couldn’t think of any gums with a similar flavor to serve as placebo. (The nasty taste does not seem to be due to the nicotine despite what one might expect; Vaniver plausibly suggested the bad taste might be intended to prevent over-consumption, but nothing in the Habitrol ingredient list seemed to be noted for its bad taste, and a number of ingredients were sweetening sugars of various sorts. So I couldn’t simply flavor some gum.)
Take quarter at midnight, another quarter at 2 AM. Night runs reasonably well once I remember to eat a lot of food (I finish a big editing task I had put off for weeks), but the apathy kicks in early around 4 AM so I gave up and watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, finishing around 6 AM. I then read until it’s time to go to a big shotgun club function, which occupies the rest of the morning and afternoon; I had nothing to do much of the time and napped very poorly on occasion. By the time we got back at 4 PM, the apathy was completely gone and I started some modafinil research with gusto (interrupted by going to see Puss in Boots). That night: Zeo recorded 8:30 of sleep, gap of about 1:50 in the recording, figure 10:10 total sleep; following night, 8:33; third night, 8:47; fourth, 8:20 (▇▁▁▁).
The choline-based class of smart drugs play important cognitive roles in memory, attention, and mood regulation. Acetylcholine (ACh) is one of the brain’s primary neurotransmitters, and also vital in the proper functioning of the peripheral nervous system. Studies with rats have shown that certain forms of learning and neural plasticity seem to be impossible in acetylcholine-depleted areas of the brain. This is particularly worth mentioning because (as noted above under the Racetams section), the Racetam class of smart drugs tends to deplete cholines from the brain, so one of the classic “supplement stacks” – chemical supplements that are used together – are Piracetam and Choline Bitartrate. Cholines can also be found in normal food sources, like egg yolks and soybeans.
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.
This would be a very time-consuming experiment. Any attempt to combine this with other experiments by ANOVA would probably push the end-date out by months, and one would start to be seriously concerned that changes caused by aging or environmental factors would contaminate the results. A 5-year experiment with 7-month intervals will probably eat up 5+ hours to prepare <12,000 pills (active & placebo); each switch and test of mental functioning will probably eat up another hour for 32 hours. (And what test maintains validity with no practice effects over 5 years? Dual n-back would be unusable because of improvements to WM over that period.) Add in an hour for analysis & writeup, that suggests >38 hours of work, and 38 \times 7.25 = 275.5. 12,000 pills is roughly $12.80 per thousand or $154; 120 potassium iodide pills is ~$9, so \frac{365.25}{120} \times 9 \times 5 = 137.
Evidence in support of the neuroprotective effects of flavonoids has increased significantly in recent years, although to date much of this evidence has emerged from animal rather than human studies. Nonetheless, with a view to making recommendations for future good practice, we review 15 existing human dietary intervention studies that have examined the effects of particular types of flavonoid on cognitive performance. The studies employed a total of 55 different cognitive tests covering a broad range of cognitive domains. Most studies incorporated at least one measure of executive function/working memory, with nine reporting significant improvements in performance as a function of flavonoid supplementation compared to a control group. However, some domains were overlooked completely (e.g. implicit memory, prospective memory), and for the most part there was little consistency in terms of the particular cognitive tests used making across study comparisons difficult. Furthermore, there was some confusion concerning what aspects of cognitive function particular tests were actually measuring. Overall, while initial results are encouraging, future studies need to pay careful attention when selecting cognitive measures, especially in terms of ensuring that tasks are actually sensitive enough to detect treatment effects.
However, when I didn’t stack it with Choline, I would get what users call “racetam headaches.” Choline, as Patel explains, is not a true nootropic, but it’s still a pro-cognitive compound that many take with other nootropics in a stack. It’s an essential nutrient that humans need for functions like memory and muscle control, but we can’t produce it, and many Americans don’t get enough of it. The headaches I got weren’t terribly painful, but they were uncomfortable enough that I stopped taking Piracetam on its own. Even without the headache, though, I didn’t really like the level of focus Piracetam gave me. I didn’t feel present when I used it, even when I tried to mix in caffeine and L-theanine. And while it seemed like I could focus and do my work faster, I was making more small mistakes in my writing, like skipping words. Essentially, it felt like my brain was moving faster than I could.
Kratom (Erowid, Reddit) is a tree leaf from Southeast Asia; it’s addictive to some degree (like caffeine and nicotine), and so it is regulated/banned in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Bhutan among others - but not the USA. (One might think that kratom’s common use there indicates how very addictive it must be, except it literally grows on trees so it can’t be too hard to get.) Kratom is not particularly well-studied (and what has been studied is not necessarily relevant - I’m not addicted to any opiates!), and it suffers the usual herbal problem of being an endlessly variable food product and not a specific chemical with the fun risks of perhaps being poisonous, but in my reading it doesn’t seem to be particularly dangerous or have serious side-effects.
Nevertheless, a drug that improved your memory could be said to have made you smarter. We tend to view rote memory, the ability to memorize facts and repeat them, as a dumber kind of intelligence than creativity, strategy, or interpersonal skills. "But it is also true that certain abilities that we view as intelligence turn out to be in fact a very good memory being put to work," Farah says.
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).
^ Sattler, Sebastian; Mehlkop, Guido; Graeff, Peter; Sauer, Carsten (February 1, 2014). "Evaluating the drivers of and obstacles to the willingness to use cognitive enhancement drugs: the influence of drug characteristics, social environment, and personal characteristics". Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. 9 (1): 8. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-9-8. ISSN 1747-597X. PMC 3928621. PMID 24484640.
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