Nootropics, also known as ‘brain boosters,’ ‘brain supplements’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’ are made up of a variety of artificial and natural compounds. These compounds help in enhancing the cognitive activities of the brain by regulating or altering the production of neurochemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain. It improves blood flow, stimulates neurogenesis (the process by which neurons are produced in the body by neural stem cells), enhances nerve growth rate, modifies synapses, and improves cell membrane fluidity. Thus, positive changes are created within your body, which helps you to function optimally irrespective of your current lifestyle and individual needs.
…Four subjects correctly stated when they received nicotine, five subjects were unsure, and the remaining two stated incorrectly which treatment they received on each occasion of testing. These numbers are sufficiently close to chance expectation that even the four subjects whose statements corresponded to the treatments received may have been guessing.
Some data suggest that cognitive enhancers do improve some types of learning and memory, but many other data say these substances have no effect. The strongest evidence for these substances is for the improvement of cognitive function in people with brain injury or disease (for example, Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury). Although "popular" books and companies that sell smart drugs will try to convince you that these drugs work, the evidence for any significant effects of these substances in normal people is weak. There are also important side-effects that must be considered. Many of these substances affect neurotransmitter systems in the central nervous system. The effects of these chemicals on neurological function and behavior is unknown. Moreover, the long-term safety of these substances has not been adequately tested. Also, some substances will interact with other substances. A substance such as the herb ma-huang may be dangerous if a person stops taking it suddenly; it can also cause heart attacks, stroke, and sudden death. Finally, it is important to remember that products labeled as "natural" do not make them "safe."
In sum, the evidence concerning stimulant effects of working memory is mixed, with some findings of enhancement and some null results, although no findings of overall performance impairment. A few studies showed greater enhancement for less able participants, including two studies reporting overall null results. When significant effects have been found, their sizes vary from small to large, as shown in Table 4. Taken together, these results suggest that stimulants probably do enhance working memory, at least for some individuals in some task contexts, although the effects are not so large or reliable as to be observable in all or even most working memory studies.
AMP and MPH increase catecholamine activity in different ways. MPH primarily inhibits the reuptake of dopamine by pre-synaptic neurons, thus leaving more dopamine in the synapse and available for interacting with the receptors of the postsynaptic neuron. AMP also affects reuptake, as well as increasing the rate at which neurotransmitter is released from presynaptic neurons (Wilens, 2006). These effects are manifest in the attention systems of the brain, as already mentioned, and in a variety of other systems that depend on catecholaminergic transmission as well, giving rise to other physical and psychological effects. Physical effects include activation of the sympathetic nervous system (i.e., a fight-or-flight response), producing increased heart rate and blood pressure. Psychological effects are mediated by activation of the nucleus accumbens, ventral striatum, and other parts of the brain’s reward system, producing feelings of pleasure and the potential for dependence.
Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)
The beneficial effects as well as the potentially serious side effects of these drugs can be understood in terms of their effects on the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine (Wilens, 2006). These neurotransmitters play an important role in cognition, affecting the cortical and subcortical systems that enable people to focus and flexibly deploy attention (Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). In addition, the brain’s reward centers are innervated by dopamine neurons, accounting for the pleasurable feelings engendered by these stimulants (Robbins & Everett, 1996).
Perceptual–motor congruency was the basis of a study by Fitzpatrick et al. (1988) in which subjects had to press buttons to indicate the location of a target stimulus in a display. In the simple condition, the left-to-right positions of the buttons are used to indicate the left-to-right positions of the stimuli, a natural mapping that requires little cognitive control. In the rotation condition, the mapping between buttons and stimulus positions is shifted to the right by one and wrapped around, such that the left-most button is used to indicate the right-most position. Cognitive control is needed to resist responding with the other, more natural mapping. MPH was found to speed responses in this task, and the speeding was disproportionate for the rotation condition, consistent with enhancement of cognitive control.
Today piracetam is a favourite with students and young professionals looking for a way to boost their performance, though decades after Giurgea’s discovery, there still isn’t much evidence that it can improve the mental abilities of healthy people. It’s a prescription drug in the UK, though it’s not approved for medical use by the US Food and Drug Administration and can’t be sold as a dietary supplement either.
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.
Noopept shows a much greater affinity for certain receptor sites in the brain than racetams, allowing doses as small as 10-30mg to provide increased focus, improved logical thinking function, enhanced short and long-term memory functions, and increased learning ability including improved recall. In addition, users have reported a subtle psychostimulatory effect.
I have no particularly compelling story for why this might be a correlation and not causation. It could be placebo, but I wasn’t expecting that. It could be selection effect (days on which I bothered to use the annoying LED set are better days) but then I’d expect the off-days to be below-average and compared to the 2 years of trendline before, there doesn’t seem like much of a fall.
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.
There is no official data on their usage, but nootropics as well as other smart drugs appear popular in the Silicon Valley. “I would say that most tech companies will have at least one person on something,” says Noehr. It is a hotbed of interest because it is a mentally competitive environment, says Jesse Lawler, a LA based software developer and nootropics enthusiast who produces the podcast Smart Drug Smarts. “They really see this as translating into dollars.” But Silicon Valley types also do care about safely enhancing their most prized asset – their brains – which can give nootropics an added appeal, he says.
A synthetic derivative of Piracetam, aniracetam is believed to be the second most widely used nootropic in the Racetam family, popular for its stimulatory effects because it enters the bloodstream quickly. Initially developed for memory and learning, many anecdotal reports also claim that it increases creativity. However, clinical studies show no effect on the cognitive functioning of healthy adult mice.
I decided to try out day-time usage on 2 consecutive days, taking the 100mg at noon or 1 PM. On both days, I thought I did feel more energetic but nothing extraordinary (maybe not even as strong as the nicotine), and I had trouble falling asleep on Halloween, thinking about the meta-ethics essay I had been writing diligently on both days. Not a good use compared to staying up a night.
There are some other promising prescription drugs that may have performance-related effects on the brain. But at this point, all of them seem to involve a roll of the dice. You may experience a short-term brain boost, but you could also end up harming your brain (or some other aspect of your health) in the long run. “To date, there is no safe drug that may increase cognition in healthy adults,” Fond says of ADHD drugs, modafinil and other prescription nootropics.
In addition, large national surveys, including the NSDUH, have generally classified prescription stimulants with other stimulants including street drugs such as methamphetamine. For example, since 1975, the National Institute on Drug Abuse–sponsored Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey has gathered data on drug use by young people in the United States (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2009a, 2009b). Originally, MTF grouped prescription stimulants under a broader class of stimulants so that respondents were asked specifically about MPH only after they had indicated use of some drug in the category of AMPs. As rates of MPH prescriptions increased and anecdotal reports of nonmedical use grew, the 2001 version of the survey was changed to include a separate standalone question about MPH use. This resulted in more than a doubling of estimated annual use among 12th graders, from 2.4% to 5.1%. More recent data from the MTF suggests Ritalin use has declined (3.4% in 2008). However, this may still underestimate use of MPH, as the question refers specifically to Ritalin and does not include other brand names such as Concerta (an extended release formulation of MPH).
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.
Iluminal is an example of an over-the-counter serotonergic drug used by people looking for performance enhancement, memory improvements, and mood-brightening. Also noteworthy, a wide class of prescription anti-depression drugs are based on serotonin reuptake inhibitors that slow the absorption of serotonin by the presynaptic cell, increasing the effect of the neurotransmitter on the receptor neuron – essentially facilitating the free flow of serotonin throughout the brain.
Noopept is a Russian stimulant sometimes suggested for nootropics use as it may be more effective than piracetam or other -racetams, and its smaller doses make it more convenient & possibly safer. Following up on a pilot study, I ran a well-powered blind randomized self-experiment between September 2013 and August 2014 using doses of 12-60mg Noopept & pairs of 3-day blocks to investigate the impact of Noopept on self-ratings of daily functioning in addition to my existing supplementation regimen involving small-to-moderate doses of piracetam. A linear regression, which included other concurrent experiments as covariates & used multiple imputation for missing data, indicates a small benefit to the lower dose levels and harm from the highest 60mg dose level, but no dose nor Noopept as a whole was statistically-significant. It seems Noopept’s effects are too subtle to easily notice if they exist, but if one uses it, one should probably avoid 60mg+.
Gibson and Green (2002), talking about a possible link between glucose and cognition, wrote that research in the area …is based on the assumption that, since glucose is the major source of fuel for the brain, alterations in plasma levels of glucose will result in alterations in brain levels of glucose, and thus neuronal function. However, the strength of this notion lies in its common-sense plausibility, not in scientific evidence… (p. 185).
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.)
One idea I’ve been musing about is the connections between IQ, Conscientiousness, and testosterone. IQ and Conscientiousness do not correlate to a remarkable degree - even though one would expect IQ to at least somewhat enable a long-term perspective, self-discipline, metacognition, etc! There are indications in studies of gifted youth that they have lower testosterone levels. The studies I’ve read on testosterone indicate no improvements to raw ability. So, could there be a self-sabotaging aspect to human intelligence whereby greater intelligence depends on lack of testosterone, but this same lack also holds back Conscientiousness (despite one’s expectation that intelligence would produce greater self-discipline and planning), undermining the utility of greater intelligence? Could cases of high IQ types who suddenly stop slacking and accomplish great things sometimes be due to changes in testosterone? Studies on the correlations between IQ, testosterone, Conscientiousness, and various measures of accomplishment are confusing and don’t always support this theory, but it’s an idea to keep in mind.
“I have a bachelors degree in Nutrition Science. Cavin’s Balaster’s How to Feed a Brain is one the best written health nutrition books that I have ever read. It is evident that through his personal journey with a TBI and many years of research Cavin has gained a great depth of understanding on the biomechanics of nutrition has how it relates to the structure of the brain and nervous system, as well as how all of the body systems intercommunicate with one another. He then takes this complicated knowledge and breaks it down into a concise and comprehensive book. If you or your loved one is suffering from ANY neurological disorder or TBI please read this book.”
I ultimately mixed it in with the 3kg of piracetam and included it in that batch of pills. I mixed it very thoroughly, one ingredient at a time, so I’m not very worried about hot spots. But if you are, one clever way to get accurate caffeine measurements is to measure out a large quantity & dissolve it since it’s easier to measure water than powder, and dissolving guarantees even distribution. This can be important because caffeine is, like nicotine, an alkaloid poison which - the dose makes the poison - can kill in high doses, and concentrated powder makes it easy to take too much, as one inept Englishman discovered the hard way. (This dissolving trick is applicable to anything else that dissolves nicely.)
Of all the smart drugs in the world, Modafinil is most often touted as the best. It’s a powerful cognitive enhancer, great for boosting alertness, and has very few, mild side effects that most healthy users will never experience. And no, you can’t have any. Sorry. Modafinil is a prescription medication used to treat disorders like narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and for those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.
The acid is also known to restore the vitamin C and E levels in the body. Alpha Lipoic Acid’s potent antioxidant property protects brain cells from damage during an injury. This helps in making sure that your brain functions normally even if there is any external or internal brain injury. OptiMind, one of the best nootropic supplements that you can find today contains Alpha Lipoic Acid that can help in enhancing your brain’s capabilities.
Four of the studies focused on middle and high school students, with varied results. Boyd, McCabe, Cranford, and Young (2006) found a 2.3% lifetime prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use in their sample, and McCabe, Teter, and Boyd (2004) found a 4.1% lifetime prevalence in public school students from a single American public school district. Poulin (2001) found an 8.5% past-year prevalence in public school students from four provinces in the Atlantic region of Canada. A more recent study of the same provinces found a 6.6% and 8.7% past-year prevalence for MPH and AMP use, respectively (Poulin, 2007).
The evidence? Ritalin is FDA-approved to treat ADHD. It has also been shown to help patients with traumatic brain injury concentrate for longer periods, but does not improve memory in those patients, according to a 2016 meta-analysis of several trials. A study published in 2012 found that low doses of methylphenidate improved cognitive performance, including working memory, in healthy adult volunteers, but high doses impaired cognitive performance and a person’s ability to focus. (Since the brains of teens have been found to be more sensitive to the drug’s effect, it’s possible that methylphenidate in lower doses could have adverse effects on working memory and cognitive functions.)
For instance, they point to the U.S. Army's use of stimulants for soldiers to stave off sleep and to stay sharp. But the Army cares little about the long-term health effects of soldiers, who come home scarred physically or mentally, if they come home at all. It's a risk-benefit decision for the Army, and in a life-or-death situation, stimulants help.
“Love this book! Still reading and can’t wait to see what else I learn…and I am not brain injured! Cavin has already helped me to take steps to address my food sensitivity…seems to be helping and I am only on day 5! He has also helped me to help a family member who has suffered a stroke. Thank you Cavin, for sharing all your knowledge and hard work with us! This book is for anyone that wants to understand and implement good nutrition with all the latest research to back it up. Highly recommend!”
Table 4 lists the results of 27 tasks from 23 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on working memory. The oldest and most commonly used type of working memory task in this literature is the Sternberg short-term memory scanning paradigm (Sternberg, 1966), in which subjects hold a set of items (typically letters or numbers) in working memory and are then presented with probe items, to which they must respond “yes” (in the set) or “no” (not in the set). The size of the set, and hence the working memory demand, is sometimes varied, and the set itself may be varied from trial to trial to maximize working memory demands or may remain fixed over a block of trials. Taken together, the studies that have used a version of this task to test the effects of MPH and d-AMP on working memory have found mixed and somewhat ambiguous results. No pattern is apparent concerning the specific version of the task or the specific drug. Four studies found no effect (Callaway, 1983; Kennedy, Odenheimer, Baltzley, Dunlap, & Wood, 1990; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007; Tipper et al., 2005), three found faster responses with the drugs (Fitzpatrick, Klorman, Brumaghim, & Keefover, 1988; Ward et al., 1997; D. E. Wilson et al., 1971), and one found higher accuracy in some testing sessions at some dosages, but no main effect of drug (Makris et al., 2007). The meaningfulness of the increased speed of responding is uncertain, given that it could reflect speeding of general response processes rather than working memory–related processes. Aspects of the results of two studies suggest that the effects are likely due to processes other than working memory: D. E. Wilson et al. (1971) reported comparable speeding in a simple task without working memory demands, and Tipper et al. (2005) reported comparable speeding across set sizes.
The advantage of adrafinil is that it is legal & over-the-counter in the USA, so one removes the small legal risk of ordering & possessing modafinil without a prescription, and the retailers may be more reliable because they are not operating in a niche of dubious legality. Based on comments from others, the liver problem may have been overblown, and modafinil vendors post-2012 seem to have become more unstable, so I may give adrafinil (from another source than Antiaging Central) a shot when my modafinil/armodafinil run out.
If you want to make sure that whatever you’re taking is safe, search for nootropics that have been backed by clinical trials and that have been around long enough for any potential warning signs about that specific nootropic to begin surfacing. There are supplements and nootropics that have been tested in a clinical setting, so there are options out there.
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.
It’s not clear that there is much of an effect at all. This makes it hard to design a self-experiment - how big an effect on, say, dual n-back should I be expecting? Do I need an arduous long trial or an easy short one? This would principally determine the value of information too; chocolate seems like a net benefit even if it does not affect the mind, but it’s also fairly costly, especially if one likes (as I do) dark chocolate. Given the mixed research, I don’t think cocoa powder is worth investigating further as a nootropic.
Some of the newest substances being used as ‘smart drugs’ are medically prescribed for other conditions. For example, methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So is Adderall, a combination drug containing two forms of amphetamine. These are among a suite of pharmaceuticals now being used by healthy people, particularly university students, to enhance their capabilities for learning or working.
Clarke and Sokoloff (1998) remarked that although [a] common view equates concentrated mental effort with mental work…there appears to be no increased energy utilization by the brain during such processes (p. 664), and …the areas that participate in the processes of such reasoning represent too small a fraction of the brain for changes in their functional and metabolic activities to be reflected in the energy metabolism of the brain… (p. 675).
“Cavin’s personal experience and humble writing to help educate, not only people who have suffered brain injuries, but anyone interested in the best nutritional advice for optimum brain function is a great introduction to proper nutrition filled with many recommendations of how you can make a changes to your diet immediately. This book provides amazing personal insight related to Cavin’s recovery accompanied with well cited peer reviewed sources throughout the entire book detailing the most recent findings around functional neurology!
The use of cognitive enhancers by healthy individuals sparked debate about ethics and safety. Cognitive enhancement by pharmaceutical means was considered a form of illicit drug use in some places, even while other cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine and nicotine, were freely available. The conflict therein raised the possibility for further acceptance of smart drugs in the future. However, the long-term effects of smart drugs on otherwise healthy brains were unknown, delaying safety assessments.
An expert in legal and ethical issues surrounding health care technology, Associate Professor Eric Swirsky suggested that both groups have valid arguments, but that neither group is asking the right questions. Prof Swirsky is the clinical associate professor of biomedical and health information sciences in the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences.
That first night, I had severe trouble sleeping, falling asleep in 30 minutes rather than my usual 19.6±11.9, waking up 12 times (5.9±3.4), and spending ~90 minutes awake (18.1±16.2), and naturally I felt unrested the next day; I initially assumed it was because I had left a fan on (moving air keeps me awake) but the new potassium is also a possible culprit. When I asked, Kevin said:
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.
Another popular option is nicotine. Scientists are increasingly realising that this drug is a powerful nootropic, with the ability to improve a person’s memory and help them to focus on certain tasks – though it also comes with well-documented obvious risks and side effects. “There are some very famous neuroscientists who chew Nicorette in order to enhance their cognitive functioning. But they used to smoke and that’s their substitute,” says Huberman.
None of that has kept entrepreneurs and their customers from experimenting and buying into the business of magic pills, however. In 2015 alone, the nootropics business raked in over $1 billion dollars, and web sites like the nootropics subreddit, the Bluelight forums, and Bulletproof Exec are popular and packed with people looking for easy ways to boost their mental performance. Still, this bizarre, Philip K. Dick-esque world of smart drugs is a tough pill to swallow. To dive into the topic and explain, I spoke to Kamal Patel, Director of evidence-based medical database Examine.com, and even tried a few commercially-available nootropics myself.
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people. It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks. At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.