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?
As professionals and aging baby boomers alike become more interested in enhancing their own brain power (either to achieve more in a workday or to stave off cognitive decline), a huge market has sprung up for nonprescription nootropic supplements. These products don’t convince Sahakian: “As a clinician scientist, I am interested in evidence-based cognitive enhancement,” she says. “Many companies produce supplements, but few, if any, have double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to show that these supplements are cognitive enhancers.” Plus, supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so consumers don’t have that assurance as to exactly what they are getting. Check out these 15 memory exercises proven to keep your brain sharp.
We’d want 53 pairs, but Fitzgerald 2012’s experimental design called for 32 weeks of supplementation for a single pair of before-after tests - so that’d be 1664 weeks or ~54 months or ~4.5 years! We can try to adjust it downwards with shorter blocks allowing more frequent testing; but problematically, iodine is stored in the thyroid and can apparently linger elsewhere - many of the cited studies used intramuscular injections of iodized oil (as opposed to iodized salt or kelp supplements) because this ensured an adequate supply for months or years with no further compliance by the subjects. If the effects are that long-lasting, it may be worthless to try shorter blocks than ~32 weeks.
Barbaresi WJ, Katusic SK, Colligan RC, Weaver AL, Jacobsen SJ. Modifiers of long-term school outcomes for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Does treatment with stimulant medication make a difference? Results from a population-based study. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2007;28:274–287. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e3180cabc28. [PubMed] [CrossRef]
As already mentioned, AMPs and MPH are classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Schedule II substances, which means that buying or selling them is a felony offense. This raises the question of how the drugs are obtained by students for nonmedical use. Several studies addressed this question and yielded reasonably consistent answers.
After I ran out of creatine, I noticed the increased difficulty, and resolved to buy it again at some point; many months later, there was a Smart Powders sale so bought it in my batch order, $12 for 1000g. As before, it made Taekwondo classes a bit easier. I paid closer attention this second time around and noticed that as one would expect, it only helped with muscular fatigue and did nothing for my aerobic issues. (I hate aerobic exercise, so it’s always been a weak point.) I eventually capped it as part of a sulbutiamine-DMAE-creatine-theanine mix. This ran out 1 May 2013. In March 2014, I spent $19 for 1kg of micronized creatine monohydrate to resume creatine use and also to use it as a placebo in a honey-sleep experiment testing Seth Roberts’s claim that a few grams of honey before bedtime would improve sleep quality: my usual flour placebo being unusable because the mechanism might be through simple sugars, which flour would digest into. (I did not do the experiment: it was going to be a fair amount of messy work capping the honey and creatine, and I didn’t believe Roberts’s claims for a second - my only reason to do it would be to prove the claim wrong but he’d just ignore me and no one else cares.) I didn’t try measuring out exact doses but just put a spoonful in my tea each morning (creatine is tasteless). The 1kg lasted from 25 March to 18 September or 178 days, so ~5.6g & $0.11 per day.
Some work has been done on estimating the value of IQ, both as net benefits to the possessor (including all zero-sum or negative-sum aspects) and as net positive externalities to the rest of society. The estimates are substantial: in the thousands of dollars per IQ point. But since increasing IQ post-childhood is almost impossible barring disease or similar deficits, and even increasing childhood IQs is very challenging, much of these estimates are merely correlations or regressions, and the experimental childhood estimates must be weakened considerably for any adult - since so much time and so many opportunities have been lost. A wild guess: $1000 net present value per IQ point. The range for severely deficient children was 10-15 points, so any normal (somewhat deficient) adult gain must be much smaller and consistent with Fitzgerald 2012’s ceiling on possible effect sizes (small).
The magnesium was neither randomized nor blinded and included mostly as a covariate to avoid confounding (the Noopept coefficient & t-value increase somewhat without the Magtein variable), so an OR of 1.9 is likely too high; in any case, this experiment was too small to reliably detect any effect (~26% power, see bootstrap power simulation in the magnesium section) so we can’t say too much.
2ml is supposed to translate to 24mg, which is a big dose. I do not believe any of the commercial patches go much past that. I asked Wedrifid, whose notes inspired my initial interest, and he was taking perhaps 2-4mg, and expressed astonishment that I might be taking 24mg. (2mg is in line with what I am told by another person - that 2mg was so much that they actually felt a little sick. On the other hand, in one study, the subjects could not reliably distinguish between 1mg and placebo24.) 24mg is particularly troubling in that I weigh ~68kg, and nicotine poisoning and the nicotine LD50 start, for me, at around 68mg of nicotine. (I reflected that the entire jar could be a useful murder weapon, although nicotine presumably would be caught in an autopsy’s toxicology screen; I later learned nicotine was an infamous weapon in the 1800s before any test was developed. It doesn’t seem used anymore, but there are still fatal accidents due to dissolved nicotine.) The upper end of the range, 10mg/kg or 680mg for me, is calculated based on experienced smokers. Something is wrong here - I can’t see why I would have nicotine tolerance comparable to a hardened smoker, inasmuch as my maximum prior exposure was second-hand smoke once in a blue moon. More likely is that either the syringe is misleading me or the seller NicVape sold me something more dilute than 12mg/ml. (I am sure that it’s not simply plain water; when I mix the drops with regular water, I can feel the propylene glycol burning as it goes down.) I would rather not accuse an established and apparently well-liked supplier of fraud, nor would I like to simply shrug and say I have a mysterious tolerance and must experiment with doses closer to the LD50, so the most likely problem is a problem with the syringe. The next day I altered the procedure to sucking up 8ml, squirting out enough fluid to move the meniscus down to 7ml, and then ejecting the rest back into the container. The result was another mild clean stimulation comparable to the previous 1ml days. The next step is to try a completely different measuring device, which doesn’t change either.
From the standpoint of absorption, the drinking of tobacco juice and the interaction of the infusion or concoction with the small intestine is a highly effective method of gastrointestinal nicotine administration. The epithelial area of the intestines is incomparably larger than the mucosa of the upper tract including the stomach, and the small intestine represents the area with the greatest capacity for absorption (Levine 1983:81-83). As practiced by most of the sixty-four tribes documented here, intoxicated states are achieved by drinking tobacco juice through the mouth and/or nose…The large intestine, although functionally little equipped for absorption, nevertheless absorbs nicotine that may have passed through the small intestine.
A fundamental aspect of human evolution has been the drive to augment our capabilities. The neocortex is the neural seat of abstract and higher order cognitive processes. As it grew, so did our ability to create. The invention of tools and weapons, writing, the steam engine, and the computer have exponentially increased our capacity to influence and understand the world around us. These advances are being driven by improved higher-order cognitive processing.1Fascinatingly, the practice of modulating our biology through naturally occurring flora predated all of the above discoveries. Indeed, Sumerian clay slabs as old as 5000 BC detail medicinal recipes which include over 250 plants2. The enhancement of human cognition through natural compounds followed, as people discovered plants containing caffeine, theanine, and other cognition-enhancing, or nootropic, agents.
Starting from the studies in my meta-analysis, we can try to estimate an upper bound on how big any effect would be, if it actually existed. One of the most promising null results, Southon et al 1994, turns out to be not very informative: if we punch in the number of kids, we find that they needed a large effect size (d=0.81) before they could see anything:
Another moral concern is that these drugs — especially when used by Ivy League students or anyone in an already privileged position — may widen the gap between those who are advantaged and those who are not. But others have inverted the argument, saying these drugs can help those who are disadvantaged to reduce the gap. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Michael Anderson explains that he uses ADHD (a diagnosis he calls “made up”) as an excuse to prescribe Adderall to the children who really need it — children from impoverished backgrounds suffering from poor academic performance.
The majority of nonmedical users reported obtaining prescription stimulants from a peer with a prescription (Barrett et al., 2005; Carroll et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; DuPont et al., 2008; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; Novak et al., 2007; Rabiner et al., 2009; White et al., 2006). Consistent with nonmedical user reports, McCabe, Teter, and Boyd (2006) found 54% of prescribed college students had been approached to divert (sell, exchange, or give) their medication. Studies of secondary school students supported a similar conclusion (McCabe et al., 2004; Poulin, 2001, 2007). In Poulin’s (2007) sample, 26% of students with prescribed stimulants reported giving or selling some of their medication to other students in the past month. She also found that the number of students in a class with medically prescribed stimulants was predictive of the prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use in the class (Poulin, 2001). In McCabe et al.’s (2004) middle and high school sample, 23% of students with prescriptions reported being asked to sell or trade or give away their pills over their lifetime.
Do note that this isn’t an extensive list by any means, there are plenty more ‘smart drugs’ out there purported to help focus and concentration. Most (if not all) are restricted under the Psychoactive Substances Act, meaning they’re largely illegal to sell. We strongly recommend against using these products off-label, as they can be dangerous both due to side effects and their lack of regulation on the grey/black market.
If you’re concerned with using either supplement, speak to your doctor. Others will replace these supplements with something like Phenylpiracetam or Pramiracetam. Both of these racetams provide increased energy levels, yielding less side-effects. If you do plan on taking Modafinil or Adrafinil, it’s best to use them on occasion or cycle your doses.
I took the first pill at 12:48 pm. 1:18, still nothing really - head is a little foggy if anything. later noticed a steady sort of mental energy lasting for hours (got a good deal of reading and programming done) until my midnight walk, when I still felt alert, and had trouble sleeping. (Zeo reported a ZQ of 100, but a full 18 minutes awake, 2 or 3 times the usual amount.)
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.)
Fortunately for me, the FDA decided Smart Powder’s advertising was too explicit and ordered its piracetam sales stopped; I was equivocal at the previous price point, but then I saw that between the bulk discount and the fire-sale coupon, 3kg was only $99.99 (shipping was amortized over that, the choline, caffeine, and tryptophan). So I ordered in September 2010. As well, I had decided to cap my own pills, eliminating the inconvenience and bad taste. 3kg goes a very long way so I am nowhere close to running out of my pills; there is nothing to report since, as the pills are simply part of my daily routine.
The soft gels are very small; one needs to be a bit careful - Vitamin D is fat-soluble and overdose starts in the range of 70,000 IU35, so it would take at least 14 pills, and it’s unclear where problems start with chronic use. Vitamin D, like many supplements, follows a U-shaped response curve (see also Melamed et al 2008 and Durup et al 2012) - too much can be quite as bad as too little. Too little, though, is likely very bad. The previously cited studies with high acute doses worked out to <1,000 IU a day, so they may reassure us about the risks of a large acute dose but not tell us much about smaller chronic doses; the mortality increases due to too-high blood levels begin at ~140nmol/l and reading anecdotes online suggest that 5k IU daily doses tend to put people well below that (around 70-100nmol/l). I probably should get a blood test to be sure, but I have something of a needle phobia.
I do recommend a few things, like modafinil or melatonin, to many adults, albeit with misgivings about any attempt to generalize like that. (It’s also often a good idea to get powders, see the appendix.) Some of those people are helped; some have told me that they tried and the suggestion did little or nothing. I view nootropics as akin to a biological lottery; one good discovery pays for all. I forge on in the hopes of further striking gold in my particular biology. Your mileage will vary. All you have to do, all you can do is to just try it. Most of my experiences were in my 20s as a right-handed 5’11 white male weighing 190-220lbs, fitness varying over time from not-so-fit to fairly fit. In rough order of personal effectiveness weighted by costs+side-effects, I rank them as follows:
Panax ginseng – A review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "there is a lack of convincing evidence to show a cognitive enhancing effect of Panax ginseng in healthy participants and no high quality evidence about its efficacy in patients with dementia." According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "[a]lthough Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb."