Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
“One of my favorites is 1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine,” says Dr. Mark Moyad, director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan. He says this chemical boosts many aspects of cognition by improving alertness. It’s also associated with some memory benefits. “Of course,” Moyad says, “1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine goes by another name—caffeine.”
Even the best of today’s nootropics only just barely scratch the surface. You might say that we are in the “Nokia 1100” phase of taking nootropics, and as better tools and more data come along, the leading thinkers in the space see a powerful future. For example, they are already beginning to look past biochemistry to the epigenome. Not only is the epigenome the code that runs much of your native biochemistry, we now know that experiences in life can be recorded in your epigenome and then passed onto future generations. There is every reason to believe that you are currently running epigenetic code that you inherited from your great-grandmother’s life experiences. And there is every reason to believe that the epigenome can be hacked – that the nootropics of the future can not only support and enhance our biochemistry, but can permanently change the epigenetic code that drives that biochemistry and that we pass onto our children. This is why many healthy individuals use nootropics. They have great benefits and can promote brain function and reduce oxidative stress. They can also improve sleep quality.
One item always of interest to me is sleep; a stimulant is no good if it damages my sleep (unless that’s what it is supposed to do, like modafinil) - anecdotes and research suggest that it does. Over the past few days, my Zeo sleep scores continued to look normal. But that was while not taking nicotine much later than 5 PM. In lieu of a different ml measurer to test my theory that my syringe is misleading me, I decide to more directly test nicotine’s effect on sleep by taking 2ml at 10:30 PM, and go to bed at 12:20; I get a decent ZQ of 94 and I fall asleep in 16 minutes, a bit below my weekly average of 19 minutes. The next day, I take 1ml directly before going to sleep at 12:20; the ZQ is 95 and time to sleep is 14 minutes.
Nootropics are becoming increasingly popular as a tool for improving memory, information recall, and focus. Though research has not yet determined the mechanism for how nootropics work, it is clear that they provide significant cognitive benefits. Additionally, through a variety of hypothesized biological mechanisms, these compounds are thought to have the potential to improve vision.
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.
Sounds too good to be true? Welcome to the world of ‘Nootropics’ popularly known as ‘Smart Drugs’ that can help boost your brain’s power. Do you recall the scene from the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s character uses a smart drug that makes him brilliant? Yes! The effect of Nootropics on your brain is such that the results come as a no-brainer.
The prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain is the zone that produces such representations, and it is the focus of Arnsten’s work. “The way the prefrontal cortex creates these representations is by having pyramidal cells – they’re actually shaped like little pyramids – exciting each other. They keep each other firing, even when there’s no information coming in from the environment to stimulate the circuits,” she explains.
Organizations, and even entire countries, are struggling with “always working” cultures. Germany and France have adopted rules to stop employees from reading and responding to email after work hours. Several companies have explored banning after-hours email; when one Italian company banned all email for one week, stress levels dropped among employees. This is not a great surprise: A Gallup study found that among those who frequently check email after working hours, about half report having a lot of stress.
The miniaturization of electronic components has been crucial to smart pill design. As cloud computing and wireless communication platforms are integrated into the health care system, the use of smart pills for monitoring vital signs and medication compliance is likely to increase. In the long term, smart pills are expected to be an integral component of remote patient monitoring and telemedicine. As the call for noninvasive point-of-care testing increases, smart pills will become mainstream devices.
“Cavin’s enthusiasm and drive to help those who need it is unparalleled! He delivers the information in an easy to read manner, no PhD required from the reader. 🙂 Having lived through such trauma himself he has real empathy for other survivors and it shows in the writing. This is a great read for anyone who wants to increase the health of their brain, injury or otherwise! Read it!!!”
The therapeutic effect of AMP and MPH in ADHD is consistent with the finding of abnormalities in the catecholamine system in individuals with ADHD (e.g., Volkow et al., 2007). Both AMP and MPH exert their effects on cognition primarily by increasing levels of catecholamines in prefrontal cortex and the cortical and subcortical regions projecting to it, and this mechanism is responsible for improving cognition and behavior in ADHD (Pliszka, 2005; Wilens, 2006).
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 term “smart pills” refers to miniature electronic devices that are shaped and designed in the mold of pharmaceutical capsules but perform highly advanced functions such as sensing, imaging and drug delivery. They may include biosensors or image, pH or chemical sensors. Once they are swallowed, they travel along the gastrointestinal tract to capture information that is otherwise difficult to obtain, and then are easily eliminated from the system. Their classification as ingestible sensors makes them distinct from implantable or wearable sensors.
An entirely different set of questions concerns cognitive enhancement in younger students, including elementary school and even preschool children. Some children can function adequately in school without stimulants but perform better with them; medicating such children could be considered a form of cognitive enhancement. How often does this occur? What are the roles and motives of parents, teachers, and pediatricians in these cases? These questions have been discussed elsewhere and deserve continued attention (Diller, 1996; Singh & Keller, 2010).
Legal issues aside, this wouldn’t be very difficult to achieve. Many companies already have in-house doctors who give regular health check-ups — including drug tests — which could be employed to control and regulate usage. Organizations could integrate these drugs into already existing wellness programs, alongside healthy eating, exercise, and good sleep.
Companies already know a great deal about how their employees live their lives. With the help of wearable technologies and health screenings, companies can now analyze the relation between bodily activities — exercise, sleep, nutrition, etc. — and work performance. With the justification that healthy employees perform better, some companies have made exercise mandatory by using sanctions against those who refuse to perform. And according to The Kaiser Family Foundation, of the large U.S. companies that offer health screenings, nearly half of them use financial incentives to persuade employees to participate.
The ethics of cognitive enhancement have been extensively debated in the academic literature (e.g., Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009; Farah et al., 2004; Greely et al., 2008; Mehlman, 2004; Sahakian & Morein-Zamir, 2007). We do not attempt to review this aspect of the problem here. Rather, we attempt to provide a firmer empirical basis for these discussions. Despite the widespread interest in the topic and its growing public health implications, there remains much researchers do not know about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement.
The easiest way to use 2mg was to use half a gum; I tried not chewing it but just holding it in my cheek. The first night I tried, this seemed to work well for motivation; I knocked off a few long-standing to-do items. Subsequently, I began using it for writing, where it has been similarly useful. One difficult night, I wound up using the other half (for a total of 4mg over ~5 hours), and it worked but gave me a fairly mild headache and a faint sensation of nausea; these may have been due to forgetting to eat dinner, but this still indicates 3mg should probably be my personal ceiling until and unless tolerance to lower doses sets in.
Fatty acids are well-studied natural smart drugs that support many cognitive abilities. They play an essential role in providing structural support to cell membranes. Fatty acids also contribute to the growth and repair of neurons. Both functions are crucial for maintaining peak mental acuity as you age. Among the most prestigious fatty acids known to support cognitive health are:
Taken together, the available results are mixed, with slightly more null results than overall positive findings of enhancement and evidence of impairment in one reversal learning task. As the effect sizes listed in Table 5 show, the effects when found are generally substantial. When drug effects were assessed as a function of placebo performance, genotype, or self-reported impulsivity, enhancement was found to be greatest for participants who performed most poorly on placebo, had a COMT genotype associated with poorer executive function, or reported being impulsive in their everyday lives. In sum, the effects of stimulants on cognitive control are not robust, but MPH and d-AMP appear to enhance cognitive control in some tasks for some people, especially those less likely to perform well on cognitive control tasks.
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:
Natural nootropic supplements derive from various nutritional studies. Research shows the health benefits of isolated vitamins, nutrients, and herbs. By increasing your intake of certain herbal substances, you can enhance brain function. Below is a list of the top categories of natural and herbal nootropics. These supplements are mainstays in many of today’s best smart pills.
Because executive functions tend to work in concert with one another, these three categories are somewhat overlapping. For example, tasks that require working memory also require a degree of cognitive control to prevent current stimuli from interfering with the contents of working memory, and tasks that require planning, fluency, and reasoning require working memory to hold the task goals in mind. The assignment of studies to sections was based on best fit, according to the aspects of executive function most heavily taxed by the task, rather than exclusive category membership. Within each section, studies are further grouped according to the type of task and specific type of learning, working memory, cognitive control, or other executive function being assessed.
The research literature, while copious, is messy and varied: methodologies and devices vary substantially, sample sizes are tiny, the study designs vary from paper to paper, metrics are sometimes comically limited (one study measured speed of finishing a RAPM IQ test but not scores), blinding is rare and unclear how successful, etc. Relevant papers include Chung et al 2012, Rojas & Gonzalez-Lima 2013, & Gonzalez-Lima & Barrett 2014. Another Longecity user ran a self-experiment, with some design advice from me, where he performed a few cognitive tests over several periods of LLLT usage (the blocks turned out to be ABBA), using his father and towels to try to blind himself as to condition. I analyzed his data, and his scores did seem to improve, but his scores improved so much in the last part of the self-experiment I found myself dubious as to what was going on - possibly a failure of randomness given too few blocks and an temporal exogenous factor in the last quarter which was responsible for the improvement.
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.
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.
I can’t try either of the products myself – I am pregnant and my doctor doesn’t recommend it – but my husband agrees to. He describes the effect of the Nootrobox product as like having a cup of coffee but not feeling as jittery. “I had a very productive day, but I don’t know if that was why,” he says. His Nootroo experience ends after one capsule. He gets a headache, which he is convinced is related, and refuses to take more. “It is just not a beginner friendly cocktail,” offers Noehr.
Nootropics. You might have heard of them. The “limitless pill” that keeps Billionaires rich. The ‘smart drugs’ that students are taking to help boost their hyperfocus. The cognitive enhancers that give corporate executives an advantage. All very exciting. But as always, the media are way behind the curve. Yes, for the past few decades, cognitive enhancers were largely sketchy substances that people used to grasp at a short term edge at the expense of their health and well being. But the days of taking prescription pills to pull an all-nighter are so 2010. The better, safer path isn’t with these stimulants but with nootropics. Nootropics consist of dietary supplements and substances which enhance your cognition, in particular when it comes to motivation, creativity, memory, and other executive functions. They play an important role in supporting memory and promoting optimal brain function.