A “smart pill” is a drug that increases the cognitive ability of anyone taking it, whether the user is cognitively impaired or normal. The Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu Giurgea is often credited with first proposing, in the 1960s, that smart pills should be developed to increase the intelligence of the general population (see Giurgea, 1984). He is quoted as saying, “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain” (Gazzaniga, 2005, p. 71). In their best-selling book, Smart Drugs and Nutrients, Dean and Morgenthaler (1990) reviewed a large number of substances that have been used by healthy individuals with the goal of increasing cognitive ability. These include synthetic and natural products that affect neurotransmitter levels, neurogenesis, and blood flow to the brain. Although many of these substances have their adherents, none have become widely used. Caffeine and nicotine may be exceptions to this generalization, as one motivation among many for their use is cognitive enhancement (Julien, 2001).
I have no particularly compelling story for why this might be a correlation and not causation. It could be placebo, but I wasn’t expecting that. It could be selection effect (days on which I bothered to use the annoying LED set are better days) but then I’d expect the off-days to be below-average and compared to the 2 years of trendline before, there doesn’t seem like much of a fall.

To judge from recent reports in the popular media, healthy people have also begun to use MPH and AMPs for cognitive enhancement. Major daily newspapers such as The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal; magazines including Time, The Economist, The New Yorker, and Vogue; and broadcast news organizations including the BBC, CNN, and NPR have reported a trend toward growing use of prescription stimulants by healthy people for the purpose of enhancing school or work performance.
The use of cognitive enhancers by healthy individuals sparked debate about ethics and safety. Cognitive enhancement by pharmaceutical means was considered a form of illicit drug use in some places, even while other cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine and nicotine, were freely available. The conflict therein raised the possibility for further acceptance of smart drugs in the future. However, the long-term effects of smart drugs on otherwise healthy brains were unknown, delaying safety assessments.

Ginsenoside Rg1, a molecule found in the plant genus panax (ginseng), is being increasingly researched as an effect nootropic. Its cognitive benefits including increasing learning ability and memory acquisition, and accelerating neural development. It targets mainly the NMDA receptors and nitric oxide synthase, which both play important roles in personal and emotional intelligence. The authors of the study cited above, say that their research findings thus far have boosted their confidence in a "bright future of cognitive drug development."
The therapeutic effect of AMP and MPH in ADHD is consistent with the finding of abnormalities in the catecholamine system in individuals with ADHD (e.g., Volkow et al., 2007). Both AMP and MPH exert their effects on cognition primarily by increasing levels of catecholamines in prefrontal cortex and the cortical and subcortical regions projecting to it, and this mechanism is responsible for improving cognition and behavior in ADHD (Pliszka, 2005; Wilens, 2006).

“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.
Of course, there are drugs out there with more transformative powers. “I think it’s very clear that some do work,” says Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist based at Stanford University. In fact, there’s one category of smart drugs which has received more attention from scientists and biohackers – those looking to alter their own biology and abilities – than any other. These are the stimulants.
The information learned in the tasks reviewed so far was explicit, declarative, and consistent within each experiment. In contrast, probabilistic and procedural learning tasks require the subject to gradually extract a regularity in the associations among stimuli from multiple presentations in which the correct associations are only presented some of the time, with incorrect associations also presented. Findings are mixed in these tasks. Breitenstein and colleagues (2004, 2006) showed subjects drawings of common objects accompanied by nonsense word sounds in training sessions that extended over multiple days. They found faster learning of the to-be-learned, higher probability pairings between sessions (consistent with enhanced retention over longer delays). Breitenstein et al. (2004) found that this enhancement remained a year later. Schlösser et al. (2009) tested subjects’ probabilistic learning ability in the context of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, comparing performance and brain activation with MPH and placebo. MPH did not affect learning performance as measured by accuracy. Although subjects were overall faster in responding on MPH, this difference was independent of the difficulty of the learning task, and the authors accordingly attributed it to response processes rather than learning.

Took full pill at 10:21 PM when I started feeling a bit tired. Around 11:30, I noticed my head feeling fuzzy but my reading seemed to still be up to snuff. I would eventually finish the science book around 9 AM the next day, taking some very long breaks to walk the dog, write some poems, write a program, do Mnemosyne review (memory performance: subjectively below average, but not as bad as I would have expected from staying up all night), and some other things. Around 4 AM, I reflected that I felt much as I had during my nightwatch job at the same hour of the day - except I had switched sleep schedules for the job. The tiredness continued to build and my willpower weakened so the morning wasn’t as productive as it could have been - but my actual performance when I could be bothered was still pretty normal. That struck me as kind of interesting that I can feel very tired and not act tired, in line with the anecdotes.
Adaptogens are plant-derived chemicals whose activity helps the body maintain or regain homeostasis (equilibrium between the body’s metabolic processes). Almost without exception, adaptogens are available over-the-counter as dietary supplements, not controlled drugs. Well-known adaptogens include Ginseng, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, St. Johns Wort, and Gotu Kola. Many of these traditional remedies border on being “folk wisdom,” and have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years, and are used to treat everything from anxiety and mild depression to low libido. While these smart drugs work in a many different ways (their commonality is their resultant function within the body, not their chemical makeup), it can generally be said that the cognitive boost users receive is mostly a result of fixing an imbalance in people with poor diets, body toxicity, or other metabolic problems, rather than directly promoting the growth of new brain cells or neural connections.

The above are all reasons to expect that even if I do excellent single-subject design self-experiments, there will still be the old problem of internal validity versus external validity: an experiment may be wrong or erroneous or unlucky in some way (lack of internal validity) or be right but not matter to anyone else (lack of external validity). For example, alcohol makes me sad & depressed; I could run the perfect blind randomized experiment for hundreds of trials and be extremely sure that alcohol makes me less happy, but would that prove that alcohol makes everyone sad or unhappy? Of course not, and as far as I know, for a lot of people alcohol has the opposite effect. So my hypothetical alcohol experiment might have tremendous internal validity (it does prove that I am sadder after inebriating), and zero external validity (someone who has never tried alcohol learns nothing about whether they will be depressed after imbibing). Keep this in mind if you are minded to take the experiments too seriously.


Another classic approach to the assessment of working memory is the span task, in which a series of items is presented to the subject for repetition, transcription, or recognition. The longest series that can be reproduced accurately is called the forward span and is a measure of working memory capacity. The ability to reproduce the series in reverse order is tested in backward span tasks and is a more stringent test of working memory capacity and perhaps other working memory functions as well. The digit span task from the Wechsler (1981) IQ test was used in four studies of stimulant effects on working memory. One study showed that d-AMP increased digit span (de Wit et al., 2002), and three found no effects of d-AMP or MPH (Oken, Kishiyama, & Salinsky, 1995; Schmedtje, Oman, Letz, & Baker, 1988; Silber, Croft, Papafotiou, & Stough, 2006). A spatial span task, in which subjects must retain and reproduce the order in which boxes in a scattered spatial arrangement change color, was used by Elliott et al. (1997) to assess the effects of MPH on working memory. For subjects in the group receiving placebo first, MPH increased spatial span. However, for the subjects who received MPH first, there was a nonsignificant opposite trend. The group difference in drug effect is not easily explained. The authors noted that the subjects in the first group performed at an overall lower level, and so, this may be another manifestation of the trend for a larger enhancement effect for less able subjects.
Fish oil (Examine.com, buyer’s guide) provides benefits relating to general mood (eg. inflammation & anxiety; see later on anxiety) and anti-schizophrenia; it is one of the better supplements one can take. (The known risks are a higher rate of prostate cancer and internal bleeding, but are outweighed by the cardiac benefits - assuming those benefits exist, anyway, which may not be true.) The benefits of omega acids are well-researched.
But like any other supplement, there are some safety concerns negative studies like Fish oil fails to hold off heart arrhythmia or other reports cast doubt on a protective effect against dementia or Fish Oil Use in Pregnancy Didn’t Make Babies Smart (WSJ) (an early promise but one that faded a bit later) or …Supplementation with DHA compared with placebo did not slow the rate of cognitive and functional decline in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer disease..
The search to find more effective drugs to increase mental ability and intelligence capacity with neither toxicity nor serious side effects continues. But there are limitations. Although the ingredients may be separately known to have cognition-enhancing effects, randomized controlled trials of the combined effects of cognitive enhancement compounds are sparse.
Given the size of the literature just reviewed, it is surprising that so many basic questions remain open. Although d-AMP and MPH appear to enhance retention of recently learned information and, in at least some individuals, also enhance working memory and cognitive control, there remains great uncertainty regarding the size and robustness of these effects and their dependence on dosage, individual differences, and specifics of the task.
Table 4 lists the results of 27 tasks from 23 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on working memory. The oldest and most commonly used type of working memory task in this literature is the Sternberg short-term memory scanning paradigm (Sternberg, 1966), in which subjects hold a set of items (typically letters or numbers) in working memory and are then presented with probe items, to which they must respond “yes” (in the set) or “no” (not in the set). The size of the set, and hence the working memory demand, is sometimes varied, and the set itself may be varied from trial to trial to maximize working memory demands or may remain fixed over a block of trials. Taken together, the studies that have used a version of this task to test the effects of MPH and d-AMP on working memory have found mixed and somewhat ambiguous results. No pattern is apparent concerning the specific version of the task or the specific drug. Four studies found no effect (Callaway, 1983; Kennedy, Odenheimer, Baltzley, Dunlap, & Wood, 1990; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007; Tipper et al., 2005), three found faster responses with the drugs (Fitzpatrick, Klorman, Brumaghim, & Keefover, 1988; Ward et al., 1997; D. E. Wilson et al., 1971), and one found higher accuracy in some testing sessions at some dosages, but no main effect of drug (Makris et al., 2007). The meaningfulness of the increased speed of responding is uncertain, given that it could reflect speeding of general response processes rather than working memory–related processes. Aspects of the results of two studies suggest that the effects are likely due to processes other than working memory: D. E. Wilson et al. (1971) reported comparable speeding in a simple task without working memory demands, and Tipper et al. (2005) reported comparable speeding across set sizes.
But how to blind myself? I used my pill maker to make 9 OO pills of piracetam mix, and then 9 OO pills of piracetam mix+the Adderall, then I put them in a baggy. The idea is that I can blind myself as to what pill I am taking that day since at the end of the day, I can just look in the baggy and see whether a placebo or Adderall pill is missing: the big capsules are transparent so I can see whether there is a crushed-up blue Adderall in the end or not. If there are fewer Adderall than placebo, I took an Adderall, and vice-versa. Now, since I am checking at the end of each day, I also need to remove or add the opposite pill to maintain the ratio and make it easy to check the next day; more importantly I need to replace or remove a pill, because otherwise the odds will be skewed and I will know how they are skewed. (Imagine I started with 4 Adderalls and 4 placebos, and then 3 days in a row I draw placebos but I don’t add or remove any pills; the next day, because most of the placebos have been used up, there’s only a small chance I will get a placebo…)
One of the most popular legal stimulants in the world, nicotine is often conflated with the harmful effects of tobacco; considered on its own, it has performance & possibly health benefits. Nicotine is widely available at moderate prices as long-acting nicotine patches, gums, lozenges, and suspended in water for vaping. While intended for smoking cessation, there is no reason one cannot use a nicotine patch or nicotine gum for its stimulant effects.
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.

I take my piracetam in the form of capped pills consisting (in descending order) of piracetam, choline bitartrate, anhydrous caffeine, and l-tyrosine. On 8 December 2012, I happened to run out of them and couldn’t fetch more from my stock until 27 December. This forms a sort of (non-randomized, non-blind) short natural experiment: did my daily 1-5 mood/productivity ratings fall during 8-27 December compared to November 2012 & January 2013? The graphed data28 suggests to me a decline:
With so many different ones to choose from, choosing the best nootropics for you can be overwhelming at times. As usual, a decision this important will require research. Study up on the top nootropics which catch your eye the most. The nootropics you take will depend on what you want the enhancement for. The ingredients within each nootropic determine its specific function. For example, some nootropics contain ginkgo biloba, which can help memory, thinking speed, and increase attention span. Check the nootropic ingredients as you determine what end results you want to see. Some nootropics supplements can increase brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. An increase in dopamine levels can be very useful for memory, alertness, reward and more. Many healthy adults, as well as college students take nootropics. This really supports the central nervous system and the brain.
With subtle effects, we need a lot of data, so we want at least half a year (6 blocks) or better yet, a year (12 blocks); this requires 180 actives and 180 placebos. This is easily covered by $11 for Doctor’s Best Best Lithium Orotate (5mg), 200-Count (more precisely, Lithium 5mg (from 125mg of lithium orotate)) and $14 for 1000x1g empty capsules (purchased February 2012). For convenience I settled on 168 lithium & 168 placebos (7 pill-machine batches, 14 batches total); I can use them in 24 paired blocks of 7-days/1-week each (48 total blocks/48 weeks). The lithium expiration date is October 2014, so that is not a problem
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If you want to try a nootropic in supplement form, check the label to weed out products you may be allergic to and vet the company as best you can by scouring its website and research basis, and talking to other customers, Kerl recommends. "Find one that isn't just giving you some temporary mental boost or some quick fix – that’s not what a nootropic is intended to do," Cyr says.
A television advertisement goes: "It's time to let Focus Factor be your memory-fog lifter." But is this supplement up to task? Focus Factor wastes no time, whether paid airtime or free online presence: it claims to be America's #1 selling brain health supplement with more than 4 million bottles sold and millions across the country actively caring for their brain health. It deems itself instrumental in helping anyone stay focused and on top of his game at home, work, or school. Learn More...
One idea I’ve been musing about is the connections between IQ, Conscientiousness, and testosterone. IQ and Conscientiousness do not correlate to a remarkable degree - even though one would expect IQ to at least somewhat enable a long-term perspective, self-discipline, metacognition, etc! There are indications in studies of gifted youth that they have lower testosterone levels. The studies I’ve read on testosterone indicate no improvements to raw ability. So, could there be a self-sabotaging aspect to human intelligence whereby greater intelligence depends on lack of testosterone, but this same lack also holds back Conscientiousness (despite one’s expectation that intelligence would produce greater self-discipline and planning), undermining the utility of greater intelligence? Could cases of high IQ types who suddenly stop slacking and accomplish great things sometimes be due to changes in testosterone? Studies on the correlations between IQ, testosterone, Conscientiousness, and various measures of accomplishment are confusing and don’t always support this theory, but it’s an idea to keep in mind.
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.

The blood half-life is 12-36 hours; hence two or three days ought to be enough to build up and wash out. A week-long block is reasonable since that gives 5 days for effects to manifest, although month-long blocks would not be a bad choice either. (I prefer blocks which fit in round periods because it makes self-experiments easier to run if the blocks fit in normal time-cycles like day/week/month. The most useless self-experiment is the one abandoned halfway.)
And in his followup work, An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance (discussion). Kurzban seems to have successfully refuted the blood-glucose theory, with few dissenters from commenting researchers. The more recent opinion seems to be that the sugar interventions serve more as a reward-signal indicating more effort is a good idea, not refueling the engine of the brain (which would seem to fit well with research on procrastination).↩
Use of prescription stimulants by normal healthy individuals to enhance cognition is said to be on the rise. Who is using these medications for cognitive enhancement, and how prevalent is this practice? Do prescription stimulants in fact enhance cognition for normal healthy people? We review the epidemiological and cognitive neuroscience literatures in search of answers to these questions. Epidemiological issues addressed include the prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use, user demographics, methods by which users obtain prescription stimulants, and motivations for use. Cognitive neuroscience issues addressed include the effects of prescription stimulants on learning and executive function, as well as the task and individual variables associated with these effects. Little is known about the prevalence of prescription stimulant use for cognitive enhancement outside of student populations. Among college students, estimates of use vary widely but, taken together, suggest that the practice is commonplace. The cognitive effects of stimulants on normal healthy people cannot yet be characterized definitively, despite the volume of research that has been carried out on these issues. Published evidence suggests that declarative memory can be improved by stimulants, with some evidence consistent with enhanced consolidation of memories. Effects on the executive functions of working memory and cognitive control are less reliable but have been found for at least some individuals on some tasks. In closing, we enumerate the many outstanding questions that remain to be addressed by future research and also identify obstacles facing this research.
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Looking at the prices, the overwhelming expense is for modafinil. It’s a powerful stimulant - possibly the single most effective ingredient in the list - but dang expensive. Worse, there’s anecdotal evidence that one can develop tolerance to modafinil, so we might be wasting a great deal of money on it. (And for me, modafinil isn’t even very useful in the daytime: I can’t even notice it.) If we drop it, the cost drops by a full $800 from $1761 to $961 (almost halving) and to $0.96 per day. A remarkable difference, and if one were genetically insensitive to modafinil, one would definitely want to remove it.
P.S. Even though Thrive Natural’s Super Brain Renew is the best brain and memory supplement we have found, we would still love to hear about other Brain and Memory Supplements that you have tried! If you have had a great experience with a memory supplement that we did not cover in this article, let us know! E-mail me at : [email protected] We’ll check it out for you and if it looks good, we’ll post it on our site!
Many laboratory tasks have been developed to study working memory, each of which taxes to varying degrees aspects such as the overall capacity of working memory, its persistence over time, and its resistance to interference either from task-irrelevant stimuli or among the items to be retained in working memory (i.e., cross-talk). Tasks also vary in the types of information to be retained in working memory, for example, verbal or spatial information. The question of which of these task differences correspond to differences between distinct working memory systems and which correspond to different ways of using a single underlying system is a matter of debate (e.g., D’Esposito, Postle, & Rypma, 2000; Owen, 2000). For the present purpose, we ignore this question and simply ask, Do MPH and d-AMP affect performance in the wide array of tasks that have been taken to operationalize working memory? If the literature does not yield a unanimous answer to this question, then what factors might be critical in determining whether stimulant effects are manifest?
The truth is, taking a smart pill will not allow you to access information that you have not already learned. If you speak English, a smart drug cannot embed the Spanish dictionary into your brain. In other words, they won't make you smarter or more intelligent. We need to throttle back our expectations and explore reality. What advantage can smart drugs provide? Brain enhancing substances have excellent health and cognitive benefits that are worth exploring.

Deficiencies in B vitamins can cause memory problems, mood disorders, and cognitive impairment. B vitamins will not make you smarter on their own. Still, they support a wide array of cognitive functions. Most of the B complex assists in some fashion with brain activity. Vitamin B12 (Methylcobalamin) is the most critical B vitamin for mental health.

Interesting. On days ranked 2 (below-average mood/productivity), nicotine seems to have boosted scores; on days ranked 3, nicotine hurts scores; there aren’t enough 4’s to tell, but even ’5 days seem to see a boost from nicotine, which is not predicted by the theory. But I don’t think much of a conclusion can be drawn: not enough data to make out any simple relationship. Some modeling suggests no relationship in this data either (although also no difference in standard deviations, leading me to wonder if I screwed up the data recording - not all of the DNB scores seem to match the input data in the previous analysis). So although the 2 days in the graph are striking, the theory may not be right.


…Four subjects correctly stated when they received nicotine, five subjects were unsure, and the remaining two stated incorrectly which treatment they received on each occasion of testing. These numbers are sufficiently close to chance expectation that even the four subjects whose statements corresponded to the treatments received may have been guessing.
Nature magazine conducted a poll asking its readers about their cognitive-enhancement practices and their attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. Hundreds of college faculty and other professionals responded, and approximately one fifth reported using drugs for cognitive enhancement, with Ritalin being the most frequently named (Maher, 2008). However, the nature of the sample—readers choosing to answer a poll on cognitive enhancement—is not representative of the academic or general population, making the results of the poll difficult to interpret. By analogy, a poll on Vermont vacations, asking whether people vacation in Vermont, what they think about Vermont, and what they do if and when they visit, would undoubtedly not yield an accurate estimate of the fraction of the population that takes its vacations in Vermont.
With subtle effects, we need a lot of data, so we want at least half a year (6 blocks) or better yet, a year (12 blocks); this requires 180 actives and 180 placebos. This is easily covered by $11 for Doctor’s Best Best Lithium Orotate (5mg), 200-Count (more precisely, Lithium 5mg (from 125mg of lithium orotate)) and $14 for 1000x1g empty capsules (purchased February 2012). For convenience I settled on 168 lithium & 168 placebos (7 pill-machine batches, 14 batches total); I can use them in 24 paired blocks of 7-days/1-week each (48 total blocks/48 weeks). The lithium expiration date is October 2014, so that is not a problem

Scientists found that the drug can disrupt the way memories are stored. This ability could be invaluable in treating trauma victims to prevent associated stress disorders. The research has also triggered suggestions that licensing these memory-blocking drugs may lead to healthy people using them to erase memories of awkward conversations, embarrassing blunders and any feelings for that devious ex-girlfriend.
But, thanks to the efforts of a number of remarkable scientists, researchers and plain-old neurohackers, we are beginning to put together a “whole systems” model of how all the different parts of the human brain work together and how they mesh with the complex regulatory structures of the body. It’s going to take a lot more data and collaboration to dial this model in, but already we are empowered to design stacks that can meaningfully deliver on the promise of nootropics “to enhance the quality of subjective experience and promote cognitive health, while having extremely low toxicity and possessing very few side effects.” It’s a type of brain hacking that is intended to produce noticeable cognitive benefits.
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