Many of the most popular “smart drugs” (Piracetam, Sulbutiamine, Ginkgo Biloba, etc.) have been around for decades or even millenia but are still known only in medical circles or among esoteric practicioners of herbal medicine. Why is this? If these compounds have proven cognitive benefits, why are they not ubiquitous? How come every grade-school child gets fluoride for the development of their teeth (despite fluoride’s being a known neurotoxin) but not, say, Piracetam for the development of their brains? Why does the nightly news slant stories to appeal more to a fear-of-change than the promise of a richer cognitive future?
What if you could simply take a pill that would instantly make you more intelligent? One that would enhance your cognitive capabilities including attention, memory, focus, motivation and other higher executive functions? If you have ever seen the movie Limitless, you have an idea of what this would look like—albeit the exaggerated Hollywood version. The movie may be fictional but the reality may not be too far behind.
Some people aren’t satisfied with a single supplement—the most devoted self-improvers buy a variety of different compounds online and create their own custom regimens, which they call “stacks.” According to Kaleigh Rogers, writing in Vice last year, companies will now take their customers’ genetic data from 23andMe or another source and use it to recommend the right combinations of smart drugs to optimize each individual’s abilities. The problem with this practice is that there’s no evidence the practice works. (And remember, the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements.) Find out the 9 best foods to boost your brain health.
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Despite some positive findings, a lot of studies find no effects of enhancers in healthy subjects. For instance, although some studies suggest moderate enhancing effects in well-rested subjects, modafinil mostly shows enhancing effects in cases of sleep deprivation. A recent study by Martha Farah and colleagues found that Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) had only small effects on cognition but users believed that their performance was enhanced when compared to placebo.
In addition, while the laboratory research reviewed here is of interest concerning the effects of stimulant drugs on specific cognitive processes, it does not tell us about the effects on cognition in the real world. How do these drugs affect academic performance when used by students? How do they affect the total knowledge and understanding that students take with them from a course? How do they affect various aspects of occupational performance? Similar questions have been addressed in relation to students and workers with ADHD (Barbaresi, Katusic, Colligan, Weaver, & Jacobsen, 2007; Halmøy, Fasmer, Gillberg, & Haavik, 2009; see also Advokat, 2010) but have yet to be addressed in the context of cognitive enhancement of normal individuals.
I have a needle phobia, so injections are right out; but from the images I have found, it looks like testosterone enanthate gels using DMSO resemble other gels like Vaseline. This suggests an easy experimental procedure: spoon an appropriate dose of testosterone gel into one opaque jar, spoon some Vaseline gel into another, and pick one randomly to apply while not looking. If one gel evaporates but the other doesn’t, or they have some other difference in behavior, the procedure can be expanded to something like and then half an hour later, take a shower to remove all visible traces of the gel. Testosterone itself has a fairly short half-life of 2-4 hours, but the gel or effects might linger. (Injections apparently operate on a time-scale of weeks; I’m not clear on whether this is because the oil takes that long to be absorbed by surrounding materials or something else.) Experimental design will depend on the specifics of the obtained substance. As a controlled substance (Schedule III in the US), supplies will be hard to obtain; I may have to resort to the Silk Road.
The price is not as good as multivitamins or melatonin. The studies showing effects generally use pretty high dosages, 1-4g daily. I took 4 capsules a day for roughly 4g of omega acids. The jar of 400 is 100 days’ worth, and costs ~$17, or around 17¢ a day. The general health benefits push me over the edge of favoring its indefinite use, but looking to economize. Usually, small amounts of packaged substances are more expensive than bulk unprocessed, so I looked at fish oil fluid products; and unsurprisingly, liquid is more cost-effective than pills (but like with the powders, straight fish oil isn’t very appetizing) in lieu of membership somewhere or some other price-break. I bought 4 bottles (16 fluid ounces each) for $53.31 total (thanks to coupons & sales), and each bottle lasts around a month and a half for perhaps half a year, or ~$100 for a year’s supply. (As it turned out, the 4 bottles lasted from 4 December 2010 to 17 June 2011, or 195 days.) My next batch lasted 19 August 2011-20 February 2012, and cost $58.27. Since I needed to buy empty 00 capsules (for my lithium experiment) and a book (Stanovich 2010, for SIAI work) from Amazon, I bought 4 more bottles of 16fl oz Nature’s Answer (lemon-lime) at $48.44, which I began using 27 February 2012. So call it ~$70 a year.
Since dietary supplements do not require double-blind, placebo-controlled, pharmaceutical-style human studies before going to market, there is little incentive for companies to really prove that something does what they say it does. This means that, in practice, nootropics may not live up to all the grandiose, exuberant promises advertised on the bottle in which they come. The flip side, though? There’s no need to procure a prescription in order to try them out. Good news for aspiring biohackers—and for people who have no aspirations to become biohackers, but still want to be Bradley Cooper in Limitless (me).
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.
Amphetamine – systematic reviews and meta-analyses report that low-dose amphetamine improved cognitive functions (e.g., inhibitory control, episodic memory, working memory, and aspects of attention) in healthy people and in individuals with ADHD. A 2014 systematic review noted that low doses of amphetamine also improved memory consolidation, in turn leading to improved recall of information in non-ADHD youth. It also improves task saliency (motivation to perform a task) and performance on tedious tasks that required a high degree of effort.