In the nearer future, Lynch points to nicotinic receptor agents – molecules that act on the neurotransmitter receptors affected by nicotine – as ones to watch when looking out for potential new cognitive enhancers. Sarter agrees: a class of agents known as α4β2* nicotinic receptor agonists, he says, seem to act on mechanisms that control attention. Among the currently known candidates, he believes they come closest “to fulfilling the criteria for true cognition enhancers.”
Flow diagram of epidemiology literature search completed July 1, 2010. Search terms were nonmedical use, nonmedical use, misuse, or illicit use, and prescription stimulants, dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, Ritalin, or Adderall. Stages of subsequent review used the information contained in the titles, abstracts, and articles to determine whether articles reported studies of the extent of nonmedical prescription stimulant use by students and related questions addressed in the present article including students’ motives and frequency of use.
A large review published in 2011 found that the drug aids with the type of memory that allows us to explicitly remember past events (called long-term conscious memory), as opposed to the type that helps us remember how to do things like riding a bicycle without thinking about it (known as procedural or implicit memory.) The evidence is mixed on its effect on other types of executive function, such as planning or ability on fluency tests, which measure a person’s ability to generate sets of data—for example, words that begin with the same letter. 
For the sake of organizing the review, we have divided the literature according to the general type of cognitive process being studied, with sections devoted to learning and to various kinds of executive function. Executive function is a broad and, some might say, vague concept that encompasses the processes by which individual perceptual, motoric, and mnemonic abilities are coordinated to enable appropriate, flexible task performance, especially in the face of distracting stimuli or alternative competing responses. Two major aspects of executive function are working memory and cognitive control, responsible for the maintenance of information in a short-term active state for guiding task performance and responsible for inhibition of irrelevant information or responses, respectively. A large enough literature exists on the effects of stimulants on these two executive abilities that separate sections are devoted to each. In addition, a final section includes studies of miscellaneous executive abilities including planning, fluency, and reasoning that have also been the subjects of published studies.
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.
One might suggest just going to the gym or doing other activities which may increase endogenous testosterone secretion. This would be unsatisfying to me as it introduces confounds: the exercise may be doing all the work in any observed effect, and certainly can’t be blinded. And blinding is especially important because the 2011 review discusses how some studies report that the famed influence of testosterone on aggression (eg. Wedrifid’s anecdote above) is a placebo effect caused by the folk wisdom that testosterone causes aggression & rage!
Natural and herbal nootropics are by far the safest and best smart drugs to ingest. For this reason, they’re worth covering first. Our recommendation is always to stick with natural brain fog cures. Herbal remedies for enhancing mental cognition are often side-effect free. These substances are superior for both long-term safety and effectiveness. They are also well-studied and have deep roots in traditional medicine.
As with other nootropics, the way it works is still partially a mystery, but most research points to it acting as a weak dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Put simply, it increases your dopamine levels the same way cocaine does, but in a much less extreme fashion. The enhanced reward system it creates in the brain, however, makes it what Patel considers to be the most potent cognitive enhancer available; and he notes that some people go from sloth to superman within an hour or two of taking it.

Two variants of the Towers of London task were used by Elliott et al. (1997) to study the effects of MPH on planning. The object of this task is for subjects to move game pieces from one position to another while adhering to rules that constrain the ways in which they can move the pieces, thus requiring subjects to plan their moves several steps ahead. Neither version of the task revealed overall effects of the drug, but one version showed impairment for the group that received the drug first, and the other version showed enhancement for the group that received the placebo first.


None of that has kept entrepreneurs and their customers from experimenting and buying into the business of magic pills, however. In 2015 alone, the nootropics business raked in over $1 billion dollars, and web sites like the nootropics subreddit, the Bluelight forums, and Bulletproof Exec are popular and packed with people looking for easy ways to boost their mental performance. Still, this bizarre, Philip K. Dick-esque world of smart drugs is a tough pill to swallow. To dive into the topic and explain, I spoke to Kamal Patel, Director of evidence-based medical database Examine.com, and even tried a few commercially-available nootropics myself.
Only two of the eight experiments reviewed in this section found that stimulants enhanced performance, on a nonverbal fluency task in one case and in Raven’s Progressive Matrices in the other. The small number of studies of any given type makes it difficult to draw general conclusions about the underlying executive function systems that might be influenced.
I almost resigned myself to buying patches to cut (and let the nicotine evaporate) and hope they would still stick on well enough afterwards to be indistinguishable from a fresh patch, when late one sleepless night I realized that a piece of nicotine gum hanging around on my desktop for a week proved useless when I tried it, and that was the answer: if nicotine evaporates from patches, then it must evaporate from gum as well, and if gum does evaporate, then to make a perfect placebo all I had to do was cut some gum into proper sizes and let the pieces sit out for a while. (A while later, I lost a piece of gum overnight and consumed the full 4mg to no subjective effect.) Google searches led to nothing indicating I might be fooling myself, and suggested that evaporation started within minutes in patches and a patch was useless within a day. Just a day is pushing it (who knows how much is left in a useless patch?), so I decided to build in a very large safety factor and let the gum sit for around a month rather than a single day.
“I cannot overstate how grateful I am to Cavin for having published this book (and launched his podcast) before I needed it. I am 3.5 months out from a concussion and struggling to recover that final 25% or so of my brain and function. I fully believe that diet and lifestyle can help heal many of our ills, and this book gives me a path forward right now. Gavin’s story is inspiring, and his book is well-researched and clearly written. I am a food geek and so innately understand a lot of his advice — I’m not intimidated by the thought of drastically changing my diet because I know well how to shop and cook for myself — but I so appreciate how his gentle approach and stories about his own struggles with a new diet might help people who would find it all daunting. I am in week 2 of following his advice (and also Dr. Titus Chiu’s BrainSave plan). It’s not an instantaneous miracle cure, but I do feel better in several ways that just might be related to this diet.”

My general impression is positive; it does seem to help with endurance and extended the effect of piracetam+choline, but is not as effective as that combo. At $20 for 30g (bought from Smart Powders), I’m not sure it’s worthwhile, but I think at $10-15 it would probably be worthwhile. Sulbutiamine seems to affect my sleep negatively, like caffeine. I bought 2 or 3 canisters for my third batch of pills along with the theanine. For a few nights in a row, I slept terribly and stayed awake thinking until the wee hours of the morning; eventually I realized it was because I was taking the theanine pills along with the sleep-mix pills, and the only ingredient that was a stimulant in the batch was - sulbutiamine. I cut out the theanine pills at night, and my sleep went back to normal. (While very annoying, this, like the creatine & taekwondo example, does tend to prove to me that sulbutiamine was doing something and it is not pure placebo effect.)


MPH was developed more recently and marketed primarily for ADHD, although it is sometimes prescribed off label or used nonmedically to increase alertness, energy, or concentration in conditions other than ADHD. Both MPH and AMP are on the list of substances banned from sports competitions by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Docherty, 2008). Both also have the potential for abuse and dependence, which detracts from their usefulness and is the reason for their classification as Schedule II controlled substances. Although the risk of developing dependence on these drugs is believed to be low for individuals taking them for ADHD, the Schedule II classification indicates that these drugs have a high potential for abuse and that abuse may lead to severe dependence.
I was contacted by the Longecity user lostfalco, and read through some of his writings on the topic. I had never heard of LLLT before, but the mitochondria mechanism didn’t sound impossible (although I wondered whether it made sense at a quantity level14151617), and there was at least some research backing it; more importantly, lostfalco had discovered that devices for LLLT could be obtained as cheap as $15. (Clearly no one will be getting rich off LLLT or affiliate revenue any time soon.) Nor could I think of any way the LLLT could be easily harmful: there were no drugs involved, physical contact was unnecessary, power output was too low to directly damage through heating, and if it had no LLLT-style effect but some sort of circadian effect through hitting photoreceptors, using it in the morning wouldn’t seem to interfere with sleep.

There is no clear answer to this question. Many of the smart drugs have decades of medical research and widespread use behind them, as well as only minor, manageable, or nonexistent side effects, but are still used primarily as a crutch for people already experiencing cognitive decline, rather than as a booster-rocket for people with healthy brains. Unfortunately, there is a bias in Western medicine in favor of prescribing drugs once something bad has already begun, rather than for up-front prevention. There’s also the principle of “leave well enough alone” – in this case, extended to mean, don’t add unnecessary or unnatural drugs to the human body in place of a normal diet. [Smart Drug Smarts would argue that the average human diet has strayed so far from what is physiologically “normal” that leaving well enough alone is already a failed proposition.]
In sum, the evidence concerning stimulant effects of working memory is mixed, with some findings of enhancement and some null results, although no findings of overall performance impairment. A few studies showed greater enhancement for less able participants, including two studies reporting overall null results. When significant effects have been found, their sizes vary from small to large, as shown in Table 4. Taken together, these results suggest that stimulants probably do enhance working memory, at least for some individuals in some task contexts, although the effects are not so large or reliable as to be observable in all or even most working memory studies.
I almost resigned myself to buying patches to cut (and let the nicotine evaporate) and hope they would still stick on well enough afterwards to be indistinguishable from a fresh patch, when late one sleepless night I realized that a piece of nicotine gum hanging around on my desktop for a week proved useless when I tried it, and that was the answer: if nicotine evaporates from patches, then it must evaporate from gum as well, and if gum does evaporate, then to make a perfect placebo all I had to do was cut some gum into proper sizes and let the pieces sit out for a while. (A while later, I lost a piece of gum overnight and consumed the full 4mg to no subjective effect.) Google searches led to nothing indicating I might be fooling myself, and suggested that evaporation started within minutes in patches and a patch was useless within a day. Just a day is pushing it (who knows how much is left in a useless patch?), so I decided to build in a very large safety factor and let the gum sit for around a month rather than a single day.
Because executive functions tend to work in concert with one another, these three categories are somewhat overlapping. For example, tasks that require working memory also require a degree of cognitive control to prevent current stimuli from interfering with the contents of working memory, and tasks that require planning, fluency, and reasoning require working memory to hold the task goals in mind. The assignment of studies to sections was based on best fit, according to the aspects of executive function most heavily taxed by the task, rather than exclusive category membership. Within each section, studies are further grouped according to the type of task and specific type of learning, working memory, cognitive control, or other executive function being assessed.
“As a neuro-optometrist who cares for many brain-injured patients experiencing visual challenges that negatively impact the progress of many of their other therapies, Cavin’s book is a god-send! The very basic concept of good nutrition among all the conflicting advertisements and various “new” food plans and diets can be enough to put anyone into a brain fog much less a brain injured survivor! Cavin’s book is straightforward and written from not only personal experience but the validation of so many well-respected contemporary health care researchers and practitioners! I will certainly be recommending this book as a “Survival/Recovery 101” resource for all my patients including those without brain injuries because we all need optimum health and well-being and it starts with proper nourishment! Kudos to Cavin Balaster!”

Noopept was developed in Russia in the 90s, and is alleged to improve learning. This drug modifies acetylcholine and AMPA receptors, increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain. This is believed to account for reports of its efficacy as a 'study drug'. Noopept in the UK is illegal, as the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act made it an offence to sell this drug in the UK - selling it could even lead to 7 years in prison. To enhance its nootropic effects, some users have been known to snort Noopept.
l-theanine (Examine.com) is occasionally mentioned on Reddit or Imminst or LessWrong32 but is rarely a top-level post or article; this is probably because theanine was discovered a very long time ago (>61 years ago), and it’s a pretty straightforward substance. It’s a weak relaxant/anxiolytic (Google Scholar) which is possibly responsible for a few of the health benefits of tea, and which works synergistically with caffeine (and is probably why caffeine delivered through coffee feels different from the same amount consumed in tea - in one study, separate caffeine and theanine were a mixed bag, but the combination beat placebo on all measurements). The half-life in humans seems to be pretty short, with van der Pijl 2010 putting it ~60 minutes. This suggests to me that regular tea consumption over a day is best, or at least that one should lower caffeine use - combining caffeine and theanine into a single-dose pill has the problem of caffeine’s half-life being much longer so the caffeine will be acting after the theanine has been largely eliminated. The problem with getting it via tea is that teas can vary widely in their theanine levels and the variations don’t seem to be consistent either, nor is it clear how to estimate them. (If you take a large dose in theanine like 400mg in water, you can taste the sweetness, but it’s subtle enough I doubt anyone can actually distinguish the theanine levels of tea; incidentally, r-theanine - the useless racemic other version - anecdotally tastes weaker and less sweet than l-theanine.)
MPH was developed more recently and marketed primarily for ADHD, although it is sometimes prescribed off label or used nonmedically to increase alertness, energy, or concentration in conditions other than ADHD. Both MPH and AMP are on the list of substances banned from sports competitions by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Docherty, 2008). Both also have the potential for abuse and dependence, which detracts from their usefulness and is the reason for their classification as Schedule II controlled substances. Although the risk of developing dependence on these drugs is believed to be low for individuals taking them for ADHD, the Schedule II classification indicates that these drugs have a high potential for abuse and that abuse may lead to severe dependence.
This doesn’t fit the U-curve so well: while 60mg is substantially negative as one would extrapolate from 30mg being ~0, 48mg is actually better than 15mg. But we bought the estimates of 48mg/60mg at a steep price - we ignore the influence of magnesium which we know influences the data a great deal. And the higher doses were added towards the end, so may be influenced by the magnesium starting/stopping. Another fix for the missingness is to impute the missing data. In this case, we might argue that the placebo days of the magnesium experiment were identical to taking no magnesium at all and so we can classify each NA as a placebo day, and rerun the desired analysis:
Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes. Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals. The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.

All of the coefficients are positive, as one would hope, and one specific factor (MR7) squeaks in at d=0.34 (p=0.05). The graph is much less impressive than the graph for just MP, suggesting that the correlation may be spread out over a lot of factors, the current dataset isn’t doing a good job of capturing the effect compared to the MP self-rating, or it really was a placebo effect:

He recommends a 10mg dose, but sublingually. He mentions COLURACETAM’s taste is more akin to that of PRAMIRACETAM than OXIRACETAM, in that it tastes absolutely vile (not a surprise), so it is impossible to double-blind a sublingual administration - even if I knew of an inactive equally-vile-tasting substitute, I’m not sure I would subject myself to it. To compensate for ingesting the coluracetam, it would make sense to double the dose to 20mg (turning the 2g into <100 doses). Whether the effects persist over multiple days is not clear; I’ll assume it does not until someone says it does, since this makes things much easier.

I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.
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