Most research on these nootropics suggest they have some benefits, sure, but as Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir explain in the journal Nature, nobody knows their long-term effects. And we don’t know how extended use might change your brain chemistry in the long run. Researchers are getting closer to what makes these substances do what they do, but very little is certain right now. If you’re looking to live out your own Limitless fantasy, do your research first, and proceed with caution.
So is there a future in smart drugs? Some scientists are more optimistic than others. Gary Lynch, a professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine argues that recent advances in neuroscience have opened the way for the smart design of drugs, configured for specific biological targets in the brain. “Memory enhancement is not very far off,” he says, although the prospects for other kinds of mental enhancement are “very difficult to know… To me, there’s an inevitability to the thing, but a timeline is difficult.”
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.
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.
One symptom of Alzheimer's disease is a reduced brain level of the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It is thought that an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease might be to increase brain levels of acetylcholine. Another possible treatment would be to slow the death of neurons that contain acetylcholine. Two drugs, Tacrine and Donepezil, are both inhibitors of the enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) that breaks down acetylcholine. These drugs are approved in the US for treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
Similar to the way in which some athletes used anabolic steroids (muscle-building hormones) to artificially enhance their physique, some students turned to smart drugs, particularly Ritalin and Adderall, to heighten their intellectual abilities. A 2005 study reported that, at some universities in the United States, as many as 7 percent of respondents had used smart drugs at least once in their lifetime and 2.1 percent had used smart drugs in the past month. Modafinil was used increasingly by persons who sought to recover quickly from jet lag and who were under heavy work demands. Military personnel were given the same drug when sent on missions with extended flight times.
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.
As it happens, these are areas I am distinctly lacking in. When I first began reading about testosterone I had no particular reason to think it might be an issue for me, but it increasingly sounded plausible, an aunt independently suggested I might be deficient, a biological uncle turned out to be severely deficient with levels around 90 ng/dl (where the normal range for 20-49yo males is 249-839), and finally my blood test in August 2013 revealed that my actual level was 305 ng/dl; inasmuch as I was 25 and not 49, this is a tad low.
Took random pill at 2:02 PM. Went to lunch half an hour afterwards, talked until 4 - more outgoing than my usual self. I continued to be pretty energetic despite not taking my caffeine+piracetam pills, and though it’s now 12:30 AM and I listened to TAM YouTube videos all day while reading, I feel pretty energetic and am reviewing Mnemosyne cards. I am pretty confident the pill today was Adderall. Hard to believe placebo effect could do this much for this long or that normal variation would account for this. I’d say 90% confidence it was Adderall. I do some more Mnemosyne, typing practice, and reading in a Montaigne book, and finally get tired and go to bed around 1:30 AM or so. I check the baggie when I wake up the next morning, and sure enough, it had been an Adderall pill. That makes me 1 for 2.
(As I was doing this, I reflected how modafinil is such a pure example of the money-time tradeoff. It’s not that you pay someone else to do something for you, which necessarily they will do in a way different from you; nor is it that you have exchanged money to free yourself of a burden of some future time-investment; nor have you paid money for a speculative return of time later in life like with many medical expenses or supplements. Rather, you have paid for 8 hours today of your own time.)
Using the 21mg patches, I cut them into quarters. What I would do is I would cut out 1 quarter, and then seal the two edges with scotch tape, and put the Pac-Man back into its sleeve. Then the next time I would cut another quarter, seal the new edge, and so on. I thought that 5.25mg might be too much since I initially found 4mg gum to be too much, but it’s delivered over a long time and it wound up feeling much more like 1mg gum used regularly. I don’t know if the tape worked, but I did not notice any loss of potency. I didn’t like them as much as the gum because I would sometimes forget to take off a patch at the end of the day and it would interfere with sleep, and because the onset is much slower and I find I need stimulants more for getting started than for ongoing stimulation so it is better to have gum which can be taken precisely when needed and start acting quickly. (One case where the patches were definitely better than the gum was long car trips where slow onset is fine, since you’re most alert at the start.) When I finally ran out of patches in June 2016 (using them sparingly), I ordered gum instead.
First half at 6 AM; second half at noon. Wrote a short essay I’d been putting off and napped for 1:40 from 9 AM to 10:40. This approach seems to work a little better as far as the aboulia goes. (I also bother to smell my urine this time around - there’s a definite off smell to it.) Nights: 10:02; 8:50; 10:40; 7:38 (2 bad nights of nasal infections); 8:28; 8:20; 8:43 (▆▃█▁▂▂▃).
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.)
How exactly – and if – nootropics work varies widely. Some may work, for example, by strengthening certain brain pathways for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is involved in motivation, Barbour says. Others aim to boost blood flow – and therefore funnel nutrients – to the brain to support cell growth and regeneration. Others protect brain cells and connections from inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in conditions like Alzheimer's, Barbour explains. Still others boost metabolism or pack in vitamins that may help protect the brain and the rest of the nervous system, explains Dr. Anna Hohler, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
The main area of the brain effected by smart pills is the prefrontal cortex, where representations of our goals for the future are created. Namely, the prefrontal cortex consists of pyramidal cells that keep each other firing. However in some instances they can become disconnected due to chemical imbalances, or due to being tired, stressed, and overworked.
Other drugs, like cocaine, are used by bankers to manage their 18-hour workdays . Unlike nootropics, dependency is very likely and not only mentally but also physically. Bankers and other professionals who take drugs to improve their productivity will become dependent. Almost always, the negative consequences outweigh any positive outcomes from using drugs.
Bacopa is a supplement herb often used for memory or stress adaptation. Its chronic effects reportedly take many weeks to manifest, with no important acute effects. Out of curiosity, I bought 2 bottles of Bacognize Bacopa pills and ran a non-randomized non-blinded ABABA quasi-self-experiment from June 2014 to September 2015, measuring effects on my memory performance, sleep, and daily self-ratings of mood/productivity. Because of the very slow onset, small effective sample size, definite temporal trends probably unrelated to Bacopa, and noise in the variables, the results were as expected, ambiguous, and do not strongly support any correlation between Bacopa and memory/sleep/self-rating (+/-/- respectively).
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."