By the end of 2009, at least 25 studies reported surveys of college students’ rates of nonmedical stimulant use. Of the studies using relatively smaller samples, prevalence was, in chronological order, 16.6% (lifetime; Babcock & Byrne, 2000), 35.3% (past year; Low & Gendaszek, 2002), 13.7% (lifetime; Hall, Irwin, Bowman, Frankenberger, & Jewett, 2005), 9.2% (lifetime; Carroll, McLaughlin, & Blake, 2006), and 55% (lifetime, fraternity students only; DeSantis, Noar, & Web, 2009). Of the studies using samples of more than a thousand students, somewhat lower rates of nonmedical stimulant use were found, although the range extends into the same high rates as the small studies: 2.5% (past year, Ritalin only; Teter, McCabe, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2003), 5.4% (past year; McCabe & Boyd, 2005), 4.1% (past year; McCabe, Knight, Teter, & Wechsler, 2005), 11.2% (past year; Shillington, Reed, Lange, Clapp, & Henry, 2006), 5.9% (past year; Teter, McCabe, LaGrange, Cranford, & Boyd, 2006), 16.2% (lifetime; White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop, 2006), 1.7% (past month; Kaloyanides, McCabe, Cranford, & Teter, 2007), 10.8% (past year; Arria, O’Grady, Caldeira, Vincent, & Wish, 2008); 5.3% (MPH only, lifetime; Du-Pont, Coleman, Bucher, & Wilford, 2008); 34% (lifetime; DeSantis, Webb, & Noar, 2008), 8.9% (lifetime; Rabiner et al., 2009), and 7.5% (past month; Weyandt et al., 2009).
"Piracetam is not a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical, or dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake. Further, piracetam is not a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract or combination of any such dietary ingredient. [...] Accordingly, these products are drugs, under section 201(g)(1)(C) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(C), because they are not foods and they are intended to affect the structure or any function of the body. Moreover, these products are new drugs as defined by section 201(p) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(p), because they are not generally recognized as safe and effective for use under the conditions prescribed, recommended, or suggested in their labeling."[33]

Piracetam is well studied and is credited by its users with boosting their memory, sharpening their focus, heightening their immune system, even bettering their personalities. But it’s only one of many formulations in the racetam drug family. Newer ones include aniracetam, phenylpiracetam and oxiracetam. All are available online, where their efficacy and safety are debated and reviewed on message boards and in podcasts.
28,61,36,25,61,57,39,56,23,37,24,50,54,32,50,33,16,42,41,40,34,33,31,65,23,36,29,51,46,31,45,52,30, 50,29,36,57,60,34,48,32,41,48,34,51,40,53,73,56,53,53,57,46,50,35,50,60,62,30,60,48,46,52,60,60,48, 47,34,50,51,45,54,70,48,61,43,53,60,44,57,50,50,52,37,55,40,53,48,50,52,44,50,50,38,43,66,40,24,67, 60,71,54,51,60,41,58,20,28,42,53,59,42,31,60,42,58,36,48,53,46,25,53,57,60,35,46,32,26,68,45,20,51, 56,48,25,62,50,54,47,42,55,39,60,44,32,50,34,60,47,70,68,38,47,48,70,51,42,41,35,36,39,23,50,46,44,56,50,39
Racetams, specifically Piracetam, an ingredient popular in over-the-counter nootropics, are synthetic stimulants designed to improve brain function. Patel notes Piracetam is the granddaddy of all racetams, and the term “nootropic” was originally coined to describe its effects. However, despite its popularity and how long it’s been around and in use, researchers don’t know what its mechanism of action is. Patel explained that the the most prominent hypothesis suggests Piracetam enhances neuronal function by increasing membrane fluidity in the brain, but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. And Patel elaborated that most studies on Piracetam aren’t done with the target market for nootropics in mind, the young professional:
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Table 1 shows all of the studies of middle school, secondary school, and college students that we identified. As indicated in the table, the studies are heterogeneous, with varying populations sampled, sample sizes, and year of data collection, and they focused on different subsets of the epidemiological questions addressed here, including prevalence and frequency of use, motivations for use, and method of obtaining the medication.
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.
Another classic approach to the assessment of working memory is the span task, in which a series of items is presented to the subject for repetition, transcription, or recognition. The longest series that can be reproduced accurately is called the forward span and is a measure of working memory capacity. The ability to reproduce the series in reverse order is tested in backward span tasks and is a more stringent test of working memory capacity and perhaps other working memory functions as well. The digit span task from the Wechsler (1981) IQ test was used in four studies of stimulant effects on working memory. One study showed that d-AMP increased digit span (de Wit et al., 2002), and three found no effects of d-AMP or MPH (Oken, Kishiyama, & Salinsky, 1995; Schmedtje, Oman, Letz, & Baker, 1988; Silber, Croft, Papafotiou, & Stough, 2006). A spatial span task, in which subjects must retain and reproduce the order in which boxes in a scattered spatial arrangement change color, was used by Elliott et al. (1997) to assess the effects of MPH on working memory. For subjects in the group receiving placebo first, MPH increased spatial span. However, for the subjects who received MPH first, there was a nonsignificant opposite trend. The group difference in drug effect is not easily explained. The authors noted that the subjects in the first group performed at an overall lower level, and so, this may be another manifestation of the trend for a larger enhancement effect for less able subjects.

The Stroop task tests the ability to inhibit the overlearned process of reading by presenting color names in colored ink and instructing subjects to either read the word (low need for cognitive control because this is the habitual response to printed words) or name the ink color (high need for cognitive control). Barch and Carter (2005) administered this task to normal control subjects on placebo and d-AMP and found speeding of responses with the drug. However, the speeding was roughly equivalent for the conditions with low and high cognitive control demands, suggesting that the observed facilitation may not have been specific to cognitive control.


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.

How should the mixed results just summarized be interpreted vis-á-vis the cognitive-enhancing potential of prescription stimulants? One possibility is that d-AMP and MPH enhance cognition, including the retention of just-acquired information and some or all forms of executive function, but that the enhancement effect is small. If this were the case, then many of the published studies were underpowered for detecting enhancement, with most samples sizes under 50. It follows that the observed effects would be inconsistent, a mix of positive and null findings.
I posted a link to the survey on my Google+ account, and inserted the link at the top of all gwern.net pages; 51 people completed all 11 binary choices (most of them coming from North America & Europe), which seems adequate since the 11 questions are all asking the same question, and 561 responses to one question is quite a few. A few different statistical tests seem applicable: a chi-squared test whether there’s a difference between all the answers, a two-sample test on the averages, and most meaningfully, summing up the responses as a single pair of numbers and doing a binomial test:
We included studies of the effects of these drugs on cognitive processes including learning, memory, and a variety of executive functions, including working memory and cognitive control. These studies are listed in Table 2, along with each study’s sample size, gender, age and tasks administered. Given our focus on cognition enhancement, we excluded studies whose measures were confined to perceptual or motor abilities. Studies of attention are included when the term attention refers to an executive function but not when it refers to the kind of perceptual process taxed by, for example, visual search or dichotic listening or when it refers to a simple vigilance task. Vigilance may affect cognitive performance, especially under conditions of fatigue or boredom, but a more vigilant person is not generally thought of as a smarter person, and therefore, vigilance is outside of the focus of the present review. The search and selection process is summarized in Figure 2.

The peculiar tired-sharp feeling was there as usual, and the DNB scores continue to suggest this is not an illusion, as they remain in the same 30-50% band as my normal performance. I did not notice the previous aboulia feeling; instead, around noon, I was filled with a nervous energy and a disturbingly rapid pulse which meditation & deep breathing did little to help with, and which didn’t go away for an hour or so. Fortunately, this was primarily at church, so while I felt irritable, I didn’t actually interact with anyone or snap at them, and was able to keep a lid on it. I have no idea what that was about. I wondered if it might’ve been a serotonin storm since amphetamines are some of the drugs that can trigger storms but the Adderall had been at 10:50 AM the previous day, or >25 hours (the half-lives of the ingredients being around 13 hours). An hour or two previously I had taken my usual caffeine-piracetam pill with my morning tea - could that have interacted with the armodafinil and the residual Adderall? Or was it caffeine+modafinil? Speculation, perhaps. A house-mate was ill for a few hours the previous day, so maybe the truth is as prosaic as me catching whatever he had.
A television advertisement goes: "It's time to let Focus Factor be your memory-fog lifter." But is this supplement up to task? Focus Factor wastes no time, whether paid airtime or free online presence: it claims to be America's #1 selling brain health supplement with more than 4 million bottles sold and millions across the country actively caring for their brain health. It deems itself instrumental in helping anyone stay focused and on top of his game at home, work, or school. Learn More...
Adderall is a mix of 4 amphetamine salts (FDA adverse events), and not much better than the others (but perhaps less addictive); as such, like caffeine or methamphetamine, it is not strictly a nootropic but a cognitive enhancer and can be tricky to use right (for how one should use stimulants, see How To Take Ritalin Correctly). I ordered 10x10mg Adderall IR off Silk Road (Wikipedia). On the 4th day after confirmation from seller, the package arrived. It was a harmless looking little padded mailer. Adderall as promised: 10 blue pills with markings, in a double ziplock baggy (reasonable, it’s not cocaine or anything). They matched pretty much exactly the descriptions of the generic I had found online. (Surprisingly, apparently both the brand name and the generic are manufactured by the same pharmacorp.)
Stimulants are the smart drugs most familiar to people, starting with widely-used psychostimulants caffeine and nicotine, and the more ill-reputed subclass of amphetamines. Stimulant drugs generally function as smart drugs in the sense that they promote general wakefulness and put the brain and body “on alert” in a ready-to-go state. Basically, any drug whose effects reduce drowsiness will increase the functional IQ, so long as the user isn’t so over-stimulated they’re shaking or driven to distraction.
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.
For proper brain function, our CNS (Central Nervous System) requires several amino acids. These derive from protein-rich foods. Consider amino acids to be protein building blocks. Many of them are dietary precursors to vital neurotransmitters in our brain. Epinephrine (adrenaline), serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine assist in enhancing mental performance. A few examples of amino acid nootropics are:
Still, the scientific backing and ingredient sourcing of nootropics on the market varies widely, and even those based in some research won't necessarily immediately, always or ever translate to better grades or an ability to finally crank out that novel. Nor are supplements of any kind risk-free, says Jocelyn Kerl, a pharmacist in Madison, Wisconsin.
Armodafinil is sort of a purified modafinil which Cephalon sells under the brand-name Nuvigil (and Sun under Waklert20). Armodafinil acts much the same way (see the ADS Drug Profile) but the modafinil variant filtered out are the faster-acting molecules21. Hence, it is supposed to last longer. as studies like Pharmacodynamic effects on alertness of single doses of armodafinil in healthy subjects during a nocturnal period of acute sleep loss seem to bear out; anecdotally, it’s also more powerful, with Cephalon offering pills with doses as low as 50mg. (To be technical, modafinil is racemic: it comes in two forms which are rotations, mirror-images of each other. The rotation usually doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters tremendously - for example, one form of thalidomide stops morning sickness, and the other rotation causes hideous birth defects.)
I noticed on SR something I had never seen before, an offer for 150mgx10 of Waklert for ฿13.47 (then, ฿1 = $3.14). I searched and it seemed Sun was somehow manufacturing armodafinil! Interesting. Maybe not cost-effective, but I tried out of curiosity. They look and are packaged the same as the Modalert, but at a higher price-point: 150 rather than 81 rupees. Not entirely sure how to use them: assuming quality is the same, 150mg Waklert is still 100mg less armodafinil than the 250mg Nuvigil pills.
(I was more than a little nonplussed when the mushroom seller included a little pamphlet educating one about how papaya leaves can cure cancer, and how I’m shortening my life by decades by not eating many raw fruits & vegetables. There were some studies cited, but usually for points disconnected from any actual curing or longevity-inducing results.)
^ EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies; European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy (2011). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to L-theanine from Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze (tea) and improvement of cognitive function (ID 1104, 1222, 1600, 1601, 1707, 1935, 2004, 2005), alleviation of psychological stress (ID 1598, 1601), maintenance of normal sleep (ID 1222, 1737, 2004) and reduction of menstrual discomfort (ID 1599) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006". EFSA Journal. 9 (6): 2238. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2238.
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