Low-tech methods of cognitive enhancement include many components of what has traditionally been viewed as a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and stress management. These low-tech methods nevertheless belong in a discussion of brain enhancement because, in addition to benefiting cognitive performance, their effects on brain function have been demonstrated (Almeida et al., 2002; Boonstra, Stins, Daffertshofer, & Beek, 2007; Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008; Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008; Van Dongen, Maislin, Mullington, & Dinges, 2003).
If you could take a pill that would help you study and get better grades, would you? Off-label use of “smart drugs” – pharmaceuticals meant to treat disorders like ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s – are becoming increasingly popular among college students hoping to get ahead, by helping them to stay focused and alert for longer periods of time. But is this cheating? Should their use as cognitive enhancers be approved by the FDA, the medical community, and society at large? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
the rise of IP scofflaw countries which enable the manufacture of known drugs: India does not respect the modafinil patents, enabling the cheap generics we all use, and Chinese piracetam manufacturers don’t give a damn about the FDA’s chilling-effect moves in the US. If there were no Indian or Chinese manufacturers, where would we get our modafinil? Buy them from pharmacies at $10 a pill or worse? It might be worthwhile, but think of the chilling effect on new users.
It’s basic economics: the price of a good must be greater than cost of producing said good, but only under perfect competition will price = cost. Otherwise, the price is simply whatever maximizes profit for the seller. (Bottled water doesn’t really cost $2 to produce.) This can lead to apparently counter-intuitive consequences involving price discrimination & market segmentation - such as damaged goods which are the premium product which has been deliberately degraded and sold for less (some Intel CPUs, some headphones etc.). The most famous examples were railroads; one notable passage by French engineer-economist Jules Dupuit describes the motivation for the conditions in 1849:
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.”
In paired-associates learning, subjects are presented with pairs of stimuli and must learn to recall the second item of the pair when presented with the first. For these tasks, as with tasks involving memory for individual items, there is a trend for stimulants to enhance performance with longer delays. For immediate measures of learning, no effects of d-AMP or MPH were observed by Brumaghim and Klorman (1998); Fleming et al. (1995); Hurst, Radlow, and Weidner (1968); or Strauss et al. (1984). However, when Hurst et al.’s subjects were tested a week later, they recalled more if their initial learning had been carried out with d-AMP than with placebo. Weitzner (1965) assessed paired-associates learning with an immediate cued-recall test and found facilitation when the associate word was semantically related to the cue, provided it was not also related to other cue words. Finally, Burns, House, French, and Miller (1967) found a borderline-significant impairment of performance with d-AMP on a nonverbal associative learning task.
In terms of legal status, Adrafinil is legal in the United States but is unregulated. You need to purchase this supplement online, as it is not a prescription drug at this time. Modafinil on the other hand, is heavily regulated throughout the United States. It is being used as a narcolepsy drug, but isn’t available over the counter. You will need to obtain a prescription from your doctor, which is why many turn to Adrafinil use instead.
Take at 10 AM; seem a bit more active but that could just be the pressure of the holiday season combined with my nice clean desk. I do the chores without too much issue and make progress on other things, but nothing major; I survive going to The Sitter without too much tiredness, so ultimately I decide to give the palm to it being active, but only with 60% confidence. I check the next day, and it was placebo. Oops.
Does little alone, but absolutely necessary in conjunction with piracetam. (Bought from Smart Powders.) When turning my 3kg of piracetam into pills, I decided to avoid the fishy-smelling choline and go with 500g of DMAE (Examine.com); it seemed to work well when I used it before with oxiracetam & piracetam, since I had no piracetam headaches, and be considerably less bulky.
There is a similar substance which can be purchased legally almost anywhere in the world called adrafinil. This is a prodrug for modafinil. You can take it, and then the body will metabolize it into modafinil, providing similar beneficial effects. Unfortunately, it takes longer for adrafinil to kick in—about an hour—rather than a matter of minutes. In addition, there are more potential side-effects to taking the prodrug as compared to the actual drug.
A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.
NGF may sound intriguing, but the price is a dealbreaker: at suggested doses of 1-100μg (NGF dosing in humans for benefits is, shall we say, not an exact science), and a cost from sketchy suppliers of $1210/100μg/$470/500μg/$750/1000μg/$1000/1000μg/$1030/1000μg/$235/20μg. (Levi-Montalcini was presumably able to divert some of her lab’s production.) A year’s supply then would be comically expensive: at the lowest doses of 1-10μg using the cheapest sellers (for something one is dumping into one’s eyes?), it could cost anywhere up to $10,000.
Those who have taken them swear they do work – though not in the way you might think. Back in 2015, a review of the evidence found that their impact on intelligence is “modest”. But most people don’t take them to improve their mental abilities. Instead, they take them to improve their mental energy and motivation to work. (Both drugs also come with serious risks and side effects – more on those later).
The surveys just reviewed indicate that many healthy, normal students use prescription stimulants to enhance their cognitive performance, based in part on the belief that stimulants enhance cognitive abilities such as attention and memorization. Of course, it is possible that these users are mistaken. One possibility is that the perceived cognitive benefits are placebo effects. Another is that the drugs alter students’ perceptions of the amount or quality of work accomplished, rather than affecting the work itself (Hurst, Weidner, & Radlow, 1967). A third possibility is that stimulants enhance energy, wakefulness, or motivation, which improves the quality and quantity of work that students can produce with a given, unchanged, level of cognitive ability. To determine whether these drugs enhance cognition in normal individuals, their effects on cognitive task performance must be assessed in relation to placebo in a masked study design.
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Null results are generally less likely to be published. Consistent with the operation of such a bias in the present literature, the null results found in our survey were invariably included in articles reporting the results of multiple tasks or multiple measures of a single task; published single-task studies with exclusively behavioral measures all found enhancement. This suggests that some single-task studies with null results have gone unreported. The present mixed results are consistent with those of other recent reviews that included data from normal subjects, using more limited sets of tasks or medications (Advokat, 2010; Chamberlain et al., 2010; Repantis, Schlattmann, Laisney, & Heuser, 2010).
Some data suggest that cognitive enhancers do improve some types of learning and memory, but many other data say these substances have no effect. The strongest evidence for these substances is for the improvement of cognitive function in people with brain injury or disease (for example, Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury). Although "popular" books and companies that sell smart drugs will try to convince you that these drugs work, the evidence for any significant effects of these substances in normal people is weak. There are also important side-effects that must be considered. Many of these substances affect neurotransmitter systems in the central nervous system. The effects of these chemicals on neurological function and behavior is unknown. Moreover, the long-term safety of these substances has not been adequately tested. Also, some substances will interact with other substances. A substance such as the herb ma-huang may be dangerous if a person stops taking it suddenly; it can also cause heart attacks, stroke, and sudden death. Finally, it is important to remember that products labeled as "natural" do not make them "safe."
We can read off the results from the table or graph: the nicotine days average 1.1% higher, for an effect size of 0.24; however, the 95% credible interval (equivalent of confidence interval) goes all the way from 0.93 to -0.44, so we cannot exclude 0 effect and certainly not claim confidence the effect size must be >0.1. Specifically, the analysis gives a 66% chance that the effect size is >0.1. (One might wonder if any increase is due purely to a training effect - getting better at DNB. Probably not25.)
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.)
White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop (2006) 2002 Large university undergraduates and graduates (N = 1,025) 16.2% (lifetime) 68.9%: improve attention; 65.2:% partying; 54.3%: improve study habits; 20%: improve grades; 9.1%: reduce hyperactivity 15.5%: 2–3 times per week; 33.9%: 2–3 times per month; 50.6%: 2–3 times per year 58%: easy or somewhat easy to obtain; write-in comments indicated many obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions
Potassium citrate powder is neither expensive nor cheap: I purchased 453g for $21. The powder is crystalline white, dissolves instantly in water, and largely tasteless (sort of saline & slightly unpleasant). The powder is 37% potassium by weight (the formula is C6H5K3O7) so 453g is actually 167g of potassium, so 80-160 days’ worth depending on dose.
In terms of legal status, Adrafinil is legal in the United States but is unregulated. You need to purchase this supplement online, as it is not a prescription drug at this time. Modafinil on the other hand, is heavily regulated throughout the United States. It is being used as a narcolepsy drug, but isn’t available over the counter. You will need to obtain a prescription from your doctor, which is why many turn to Adrafinil use instead.
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.)
AMP and MPH increase catecholamine activity in different ways. MPH primarily inhibits the reuptake of dopamine by pre-synaptic neurons, thus leaving more dopamine in the synapse and available for interacting with the receptors of the postsynaptic neuron. AMP also affects reuptake, as well as increasing the rate at which neurotransmitter is released from presynaptic neurons (Wilens, 2006). These effects are manifest in the attention systems of the brain, as already mentioned, and in a variety of other systems that depend on catecholaminergic transmission as well, giving rise to other physical and psychological effects. Physical effects include activation of the sympathetic nervous system (i.e., a fight-or-flight response), producing increased heart rate and blood pressure. Psychological effects are mediated by activation of the nucleus accumbens, ventral striatum, and other parts of the brain’s reward system, producing feelings of pleasure and the potential for dependence.
Natural-sourced ingredients can also help to enhance your brain. Superfood, herbal or Amino A ingredient cognitive enhancers are more natural and are largely directly derived from food or plants. Panax ginseng, matcha tea and choline (found in foods like broccoli) are included under this umbrella. There are dozens of different natural ingredients /herbs purported to help cognition, many of which have been used medicinally for hundreds of years.
I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 9 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.