The goal of this article has been to synthesize what is known about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement and what is known about the cognitive effects of these drugs. We have eschewed discussion of ethical issues in favor of simply trying to get the facts straight. Although ethical issues cannot be decided on the basis of facts alone, neither can they be decided without relevant facts. Personal and societal values will dictate whether success through sheer effort is as good as success with pharmacologic help, whether the freedom to alter one’s own brain chemistry is more important than the right to compete on a level playing field at school and work, and how much risk of dependence is too much risk. Yet these positions cannot be translated into ethical decisions in the real world without considerable empirical knowledge. Do the drugs actually improve cognition? Under what circumstances and for whom? Who will be using them and for what purposes? What are the mental and physical health risks for frequent cognitive-enhancement users? For occasional users?
The resurgent popularity of nootropics—an umbrella term for supplements that purport to boost creativity, memory, and cognitive ability—has more than a little to do with the recent Silicon Valley-induced obsession with disrupting literally everything, up to and including our own brains. But most of the appeal of smart drugs lies in the simplicity of their age-old premise: Take the right pill and you can become a better, smarter, as-yet-unrealized version of yourself—a person that you know exists, if only the less capable you could get out of your own way.
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.
Feeling behind, I resolved to take some armodafinil the next morning, which I did - but in my hurry I failed to recall that 200mg armodafinil was probably too much to take during the day, with its long half life. As a result, I felt irritated and not that great during the day (possibly aggravated by some caffeine - I wish some studies would be done on the possible interaction of modafinil and caffeine so I knew if I was imagining it or not). Certainly not what I had been hoping for. I went to bed after midnight (half an hour later than usual), and suffered severe insomnia. The time wasn’t entirely wasted as I wrote a short story and figured out how to make nicotine gum placebos during the hours in the dark, but I could have done without the experience. All metrics omitted because it was a day usage.
The Trail Making Test is a paper-and-pencil neuropsychological test with two parts, one of which requires shifting between stimulus categories. Part A simply requires the subject to connect circled numbers in ascending order. Part B requires the subject to connect circled numbers and letters in an interleaved ascending order (1, A, 2, B, 3, C….), a task that places heavier demands on cognitive control. Silber et al. (2006) analyzed the effect of d-AMP on Trails A and B and failed to find an effect.
Omega-3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA – two Cochrane Collaboration reviews on the use of supplemental omega-3 fatty acids for ADHD and learning disorders conclude that there is limited evidence of treatment benefits for either disorder. Two other systematic reviews noted no cognition-enhancing effects in the general population or middle-aged and older adults.
Flaxseed oil is, ounce for ounce, about as expensive as fish oil, and also must be refrigerated and goes bad within months anyway. Flax seeds on the other hand, do not go bad within months, and cost dollars per pound. Various resources I found online estimated that the ALA component of human-edible flaxseed to be around 20% So Amazon’s 6lbs for $14 is ~1.2lbs of ALA, compared to 16fl-oz of fish oil weighing ~1lb and costing ~$17, while also keeping better and being a calorically useful part of my diet. The flaxseeds can be ground in an ordinary food processor or coffee grinder. It’s not a hugely impressive cost-savings, but I think it’s worth trying when I run out of fish oil.
The truth is, taking a smart pill will not allow you to access information that you have not already learned. If you speak English, a smart drug cannot embed the Spanish dictionary into your brain. In other words, they won't make you smarter or more intelligent. We need to throttle back our expectations and explore reality. What advantage can smart drugs provide? Brain enhancing substances have excellent health and cognitive benefits that are worth exploring.
Googling, you sometimes see correlational studies like Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men and Women Is Associated with Better Cognitive Test Performance; in this one, the correlated performance increase from eating chocolate was generally fairly modest (say, <10%), and the maximum effects were at 10g/day of what was probably milk chocolate, which generally has 10-40% chocolate liquor in it, suggesting any experiment use 1-4g. More interesting is the blind RCT experiment Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort11, which found improvements at ~1g; the most dramatic improvement of the 4 tasks (on the Threes correct) saw a difference of 2 to 6 at the end of the hour of testing, while several of the other tests converged by the end or saw the controls winning (Sevens correct). Crews et al 2008 found no cognitive benefit, and an fMRI experiment found the change in brain oxygen levels it wanted but no improvement to reaction times.
…It is without activity in man! Certainly not for the lack of trying, as some of the dosage trials that are tucked away in the literature (as abstracted in the Qualitative Comments given above) are pretty heavy duty. Actually, I truly doubt that all of the experimenters used exactly that phrase, No effects, but it is patently obvious that no effects were found. It happened to be the phrase I had used in my own notes.
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!
Cocoa flavanols (CF) positively influence physiological processes in ways which suggest that their consumption may improve aspects of cognitive function. This study investigated the acute cognitive and subjective effects of CF consumption during sustained mental demand. In this randomized, controlled, double-blinded, balanced, three period crossover trial 30 healthy adults consumed drinks containing 520 mg, 994 mg CF and a matched control, with a 3-day washout between drinks. Assessments included the state anxiety inventory and repeated 10-min cycles of a Cognitive Demand Battery comprising of two serial subtraction tasks (Serial Threes and Serial Sevens), a Rapid Visual Information Processing (RVIP) task and a mental fatigue scale, over the course of 1 h. Consumption of both 520 mg and 994 mg CF significantly improved Serial Threes performance. The 994 mg CF beverage significantly speeded RVIP responses but also resulted in more errors during Serial Sevens. Increases in self-reported mental fatigue were significantly attenuated by the consumption of the 520 mg CF beverage only. This is the first report of acute cognitive improvements following CF consumption in healthy adults. While the mechanisms underlying the effects are unknown they may be related to known effects of CF on endothelial function and blood flow.
As mentioned earlier, cognitive control is needed not only for inhibiting actions, but also for shifting from one kind of action or mental set to another. The WCST taxes cognitive control by requiring the subject to shift from sorting cards by one dimension (e.g., shape) to another (e.g., color); failures of cognitive control in this task are manifest as perseverative errors in which subjects continue sorting by the previously successful dimension. Three studies included the WCST in their investigations of the effects of d-AMP on cognition (Fleming et al., 1995; Mattay et al., 1996, 2003), and none revealed overall effects of facilitation. However, Mattay et al. (2003) subdivided their subjects according to COMT genotype and found differences in both placebo performance and effects of the drug. Subjects who were homozygous for the val allele (associated with lower prefrontal dopamine activity) made more perseverative errors on placebo than other subjects and improved significantly with d-AMP. Subjects who were homozygous for the met allele performed best on placebo and made more errors on d-AMP.
Christopher Wanjek is the Bad Medicine columnist for Live Science and a health and science writer based near Washington, D.C. He is the author of two health books, "Food at Work" (2005) and "Bad Medicine" (2003), and a comical science novel, "Hey Einstein" (2012). For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he occasionally opines with a great deal of healthy skepticism. His "Food at Work" book and project, commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, concerns workers health, safety and productivity. Christopher has presented this book in more than 20 countries and has inspired the passage of laws to support worker meal programs in numerous countries. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University. He has two Twitter handles, @wanjek (for science) and @lostlenowriter (for jokes).
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.
Vinpocetine walks a line between herbal and pharmaceutical product. It’s a synthetic derivative of a chemical from the periwinkle plant, and due to its synthetic nature we feel it’s more appropriate as a ‘smart drug’. Plus, it’s illegal in the UK. Vinpocetine is purported to improve cognitive function by improving blood flow to the brain, which is why it's used in some 'study drugs' or 'smart pills'.
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Although piracetam has a history of “relatively few side effects,” it has fallen far short of its initial promise for treating any of the illnesses associated with cognitive decline, according to Lon Schneider, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “We don’t use it at all and never have.”
We’ve talk about how caffeine affects the body in great detail, but the basic idea is that it can improve your motivation and focus by increasing catecholamine signaling. Its effects can be dampened over time, however, as you start to build a caffeine tolerance. Research on L-theanine, a common amino acid, suggests it promotes neuronal health and can decrease the incidence of cold and flu symptoms by strengthening the immune system. And one study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, found that L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses—which is why it’s often taken with caffeine. In fact, in a 2014 systematic review of 11 different studies, published in the journal Nutrition Review, researchers found that use of caffeine in combination with L-theanine promoted alertness, task switching, and attention. The reviewers note the effects are most pronounced during the first two hours post-dose, and they also point out that caffeine is the major player here, since larger caffeine doses were found to have more of an effect than larger doses of L-theanine.
In our list of synthetic smart drugs, Noopept may be the genius pill to rule them all. Up to 1000 times stronger than Piracetam, Noopept may not be suitable for everyone. This nootropic substance requires much smaller doses for enhanced cognitive function. There are plenty of synthetic alternatives to Adderall and prescription ADHD medications. Noopept may be worth a look if you want something powerful over the counter.
AMP was first investigated as an asthma medication in the 1920s, but its psychological effects were soon noticed. These included increased feelings of energy, positive mood, and prolonged physical endurance and mental concentration. These effects have been exploited in a variety of medical and nonmedical applications in the years since they were discovered, including to treat depression, to enhance alertness in military personnel, and to provide a competitive edge in athletic competition (Rasmussen, 2008). Today, AMP remains a widely used and effective treatment for ADHD (Wilens, 2006).
In contrast to the types of memory discussed in the previous section, which are long-lasting and formed as a result of learning, working memory is a temporary store of information. Working memory has been studied extensively by cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists because of its role in executive function. It has been likened to an internal scratch pad; by holding information in working memory, one keeps it available to consult and manipulate in the service of performing tasks as diverse as parsing a sentence and planning a route through the environment. Presumably for this reason, working memory ability correlates with measures of general intelligence (Friedman et al., 2006). The possibility of enhancing working memory ability is therefore of potential real-world interest.
As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩
This continued up to 1 AM, at which point I decided not to take a second armodafinil (why spend a second pill to gain what would likely be an unproductive set of 8 hours?) and finish up the experiment with some n-backing. My 5 rounds: 60/38/62/44/5023. This was surprising. Compare those scores with scores from several previous days: 39/42/44/40/20/28/36. I had estimated before the n-backing that my scores would be in the low-end of my usual performance (20-30%) since I had not slept for the past 41 hours, and instead, the lowest score was 38%. If one did not know the context, one might think I had discovered a good nootropic! Interesting evidence that armodafinil preserves at least one kind of mental performance.
Another important epidemiological question about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement concerns the risk of dependence. MPH and d-AMP both have high potential for abuse and addiction related to their effects on brain systems involved in motivation. On the basis of their reanalysis of NSDUH data sets from 2000 to 2002, Kroutil and colleagues (2006) estimated that almost one in 20 nonmedical users of prescription ADHD medications meets criteria for dependence or abuse. This sobering estimate is based on a survey of all nonmedical users. The immediate and long-term risks to individuals seeking cognitive enhancement remain unknown.
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.)
After trying out 2 6lb packs between 12 September & 25 November 2012, and 20 March & 20 August 2013, I have given up on flaxseed meal. They did not seem to go bad in the refrigerator or freezer, and tasted OK, but I had difficulty working them into my usual recipes: it doesn’t combine well with hot or cold oatmeal, and when I tried using flaxseed meal in soups I learned flaxseed is a thickener which can give soup the consistency of snot. It’s easier to use fish oil on a daily basis.
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.
A study mentioned in Neuropsychopharmacology as of August 2002, revealed that Bacopa Monnieri decreases the rate of forgetting newly acquired information, memory consolidations, and verbal learning rate. It also helps in enhancing the nerve impulse transmission, which leads to increased alertness. It is also known to relieve the effects of anxiety and depression. All these benefits happen as Bacopa Monnieri dosage helps in activating choline acetyltransferase and inhibiting acetylcholinesterase which enhances the levels of acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that is also associated in improving memory and attention.
As far as anxiety goes, psychiatrist Emily Deans has an overview of why the Kiecolt-Glaser et al 2011 study is nice; she also discusses why fish oil seems like a good idea from an evolutionary perspective. There was also a weaker earlier 2005 study also using healthy young people, which showed reduced anger/anxiety/depression plus slightly faster reactions. The anti-stress/anxiolytic may be related to the possible cardiovascular benefits (Carter et al 2013).
Cognitive control is a broad concept that refers to guidance of cognitive processes in situations where the most natural, automatic, or available action is not necessarily the correct one. Such situations typically evoke a strong inclination to respond but require people to resist responding, or they evoke a strong inclination to carry out one type of action but require a different type of action. The sources of these inclinations that must be overridden are various and include overlearning (e.g., the overlearned tendency to read printed words in the Stroop task), priming by recent practice (e.g., the tendency to respond in the go/no-go task when the majority of the trials are go trials, or the tendency to continue sorting cards according to the previously correct dimension in the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test [WCST]; Grant & Berg, 1948) and perceptual salience (e.g., the tendency to respond to the numerous flanker stimuli as opposed to the single target stimulus in the flanker task). For the sake of inclusiveness, we also consider the results of studies of reward processing in this section, in which the response tendency to be overridden comes from the desire to have the reward immediately.
The abuse of drugs is something that can lead to large negative outcomes. If you take Ritalin (Methylphenidate) or Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) but don’t have ADHD, you may experience more focus. But what many people don’t know is that the drug is very similar to amphetamines. And the use of Ritalin is associated with serious adverse events of drug dependence, overdose and suicide attempts . Taking a drug for another reason than originally intended is stupid, irresponsible and very dangerous.
But how, exactly, does he do it? Sure, Cruz typically eats well, exercises regularly and tries to get sufficient sleep, and he's no stranger to coffee. But he has another tool in his toolkit that he finds makes a noticeable difference in his ability to efficiently and effectively conquer all manner of tasks: Alpha Brain, a supplement marketed to improve memory, focus and mental quickness.
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l-Theanine – A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that concurrent caffeine and l-theanine use had synergistic psychoactive effects that promoted alertness, attention, and task switching; these effects were most pronounced during the first hour post-dose. However, the European Food Safety Authority reported that, when L-theanine is used by itself (i.e. without caffeine), there is insufficient information to determine if these effects exist.