If you could take a drug to boost your brainpower, would you? This question, faced by Bradley Cooper’s character in the big-budget movie Limitless, is now facing students who are frantically revising for exams. Although they are nowhere near the strength of the drug shown in the film, mind-enhancing drugs are already on the pharmacy shelves, and many people are finding the promise of sharper thinking through chemistry highly seductive.
Federal law classifies most nootropics as dietary supplements, which means that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate manufacturers’ statements about their benefits (as the giant “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” disclaimer on the label indicates). And the types of claims that the feds do allow supplement companies to make are often vague and/or supported by less-than-compelling scientific evidence. “If you find a study that says that an ingredient caused neurons to fire on rat brain cells in a petri dish,” says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “you can probably get away with saying that it ‘enhances memory’ or ‘promotes brain health.’”
Related to the famous -racetams but reportedly better (and much less bulky), Noopept is one of the many obscure Russian nootropics. (Further reading: Google Scholar, Examine.com, Reddit, Longecity, Bluelight.ru.) Its advantages seem to be that it’s far more compact than piracetam and doesn’t taste awful so it’s easier to store and consume; doesn’t have the cloud hanging over it that piracetam does due to the FDA letters, so it’s easy to purchase through normal channels; is cheap on a per-dose basis; and it has fans claiming it is better than piracetam.
These pills don’t work. The reality is that MOST of these products don’t work effectively. Maybe we’re cynical, but if you simply review the published studies on memory pills, you can quickly eliminate many of the products that don’t have “the right stuff.” The active ingredients in brain and memory health pills are expensive and most companies sell a watered down version that is not effective for memory and focus. The more brands we reviewed, the more we realized that many of these marketers are slapping slick labels on low-grade ingredients.
At this point I began to get bored with it and the lack of apparent effects, so I began a pilot trial: I’d use the LED set for 10 minutes every few days before 2PM, record, and in a few months look for a correlation with my daily self-ratings of mood/productivity (for 2.5 years I’ve asked myself at the end of each day whether I did more, the usual, or less work done that day than average, so 2=below-average, 3=average, 4=above-average; it’s ad hoc, but in some factor analyses I’ve been playing with, it seems to load on a lot of other variables I’ve measured, so I think it’s meaningful).
The above are all reasons to expect that even if I do excellent single-subject design self-experiments, there will still be the old problem of internal validity versus external validity: an experiment may be wrong or erroneous or unlucky in some way (lack of internal validity) or be right but not matter to anyone else (lack of external validity). For example, alcohol makes me sad & depressed; I could run the perfect blind randomized experiment for hundreds of trials and be extremely sure that alcohol makes me less happy, but would that prove that alcohol makes everyone sad or unhappy? Of course not, and as far as I know, for a lot of people alcohol has the opposite effect. So my hypothetical alcohol experiment might have tremendous internal validity (it does prove that I am sadder after inebriating), and zero external validity (someone who has never tried alcohol learns nothing about whether they will be depressed after imbibing). Keep this in mind if you are minded to take the experiments too seriously.
Take at 10 AM; seem a bit more active but that could just be the pressure of the holiday season combined with my nice clean desk. I do the chores without too much issue and make progress on other things, but nothing major; I survive going to The Sitter without too much tiredness, so ultimately I decide to give the palm to it being active, but only with 60% confidence. I check the next day, and it was placebo. Oops.
The idea of a digital pill that records when it has been consumed is a sound one, but as the FDA notes, there is no evidence to say it actually increases the likelihood patients that have a history of inconsistent consumption will follow their prescribed course of treatment. There is also a very strange irony in schizophrenia being the first condition this technology is being used to target.
So, I thought I might as well experiment since I have it. I put the 23 remaining pills into gel capsules with brown rice as filling, made ~30 placebo capsules, and will use the one-bag blinding/randomization method. I don’t want to spend the time it would take to n-back every day, so I will simply look for an effect on my daily mood/productivity self-rating; hopefully Noopept will add a little on average above and beyond my existing practices like caffeine+piracetam (yes, Noopept may be as good as piracetam, but since I still have a ton of piracetam from my 3kg order, I am primarily interested in whether Noopept adds onto piracetam rather than replaces). 10mg doses seem to be on the low side for Noopept users, weakening the effect, but on the other hand, if I were to take 2 capsules at a time, then I’d halve the sample size; it’s not clear what is the optimal tradeoff between dose and n for statistical power.
My worry about the MP variable is that, plausible or not, it does seem relatively weak against manipulation; other variables I could look at, like arbtt window-tracking of how I spend my computer time, # or size of edits to my files, or spaced repetition performance, would be harder to manipulate. If it’s all due to MP, then if I remove the MP and LLLT variables, and summarize all the other variables with factor analysis into 2 or 3 variables, then I should see no increases in them when I put LLLT back in and look for a correlation between the factors & LLLT with a multivariate regression.
In avoiding experimenting with more Russian Noopept pills and using instead the easily-purchased powder form of Noopept, there are two opposing considerations: Russian Noopept is reportedly the best, so we might expect anything I buy online to be weaker or impure or inferior somehow and the effect size smaller than in the pilot experiment; but by buying my own supply & using powder I can double or triple the dose to 20mg or 30mg (to compensate for the original under-dosing of 10mg) and so the effect size larger than in the pilot experiment.
These pills don’t work. The reality is that MOST of these products don’t work effectively. Maybe we’re cynical, but if you simply review the published studies on memory pills, you can quickly eliminate many of the products that don’t have “the right stuff.” The active ingredients in brain and memory health pills are expensive and most companies sell a watered down version that is not effective for memory and focus. The more brands we reviewed, the more we realized that many of these marketers are slapping slick labels on low-grade ingredients.

Like caffeine, nicotine tolerates rapidly and addiction can develop, after which the apparent performance boosts may only represent a return to baseline after withdrawal; so nicotine as a stimulant should be used judiciously, perhaps roughly as frequent as modafinil. Another problem is that nicotine has a half-life of merely 1-2 hours, making regular dosing a requirement. There is also some elevated heart-rate/blood-pressure often associated with nicotine, which may be a concern. (Possible alternatives to nicotine include cytisine, 2’-methylnicotine, GTS-21, galantamine, Varenicline, WAY-317,538, EVP-6124, and Wellbutrin, but none have emerged as clearly superior.)

Taking the tryptophan is fairly difficult. The powder as supplied by Bulk Nutrition is extraordinarily dry and fine; it seems to be positively hydrophobic. The first time I tried to swallow a teaspoon, I nearly coughed it out - the power had seemed to explode in my mouth and go down my lungs. Thenceforth I made sure to have a mouth of water first. After a while, I took a different tack: I mixed in as much Hericium as would fit in the container. The mushroom powder is wetter and chunkier than the tryptophan, and seems to reduce the problem. Combining the mix with chunks of melatonin inside a pill works even better.
The principal metric would be mood, however defined. Zeo’s web interface & data export includes a field for Day Feel, which is a rating 1-5 of general mood & quality of day. I can record a similar metric at the end of each day. 1-5 might be a little crude even with a year of data, so a more sophisticated measure might be in order. The first mood study is paywalled so I’m not sure what they used, but Shiotsuki 2008 used State-Trait of Anxiety Inventory (STAI) and Profiles of Mood States Test (POMS). The full POMS sounds too long to use daily, but the Brief POMS might work. In the original 1987 paper A brief POMS measure of distress for cancer patients, patients answering this questionnaire had a mean total mean of 10.43 (standard deviation 8.87). Is this the best way to measure mood? I’ve asked Seth Roberts; he suggested using a 0-100 scale, but personally, there’s no way I can assess my mood on 0-100. My mood is sufficiently stable (to me) that 0-5 is asking a bit much, even.
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 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.

Nootroo and Nootrobox are two San Francisco nootropics startups that launched last year. Their founders come from the tech scene and their products are squarely aimed at the tech crowd seeking the convenience of not having to build their own combinations. Each claims big-name Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors among their users, though neither will name them.
Took full pill at 10:21 PM when I started feeling a bit tired. Around 11:30, I noticed my head feeling fuzzy but my reading seemed to still be up to snuff. I would eventually finish the science book around 9 AM the next day, taking some very long breaks to walk the dog, write some poems, write a program, do Mnemosyne review (memory performance: subjectively below average, but not as bad as I would have expected from staying up all night), and some other things. Around 4 AM, I reflected that I felt much as I had during my nightwatch job at the same hour of the day - except I had switched sleep schedules for the job. The tiredness continued to build and my willpower weakened so the morning wasn’t as productive as it could have been - but my actual performance when I could be bothered was still pretty normal. That struck me as kind of interesting that I can feel very tired and not act tired, in line with the anecdotes.
As shown in Table 6, two of these are fluency tasks, which require the generation of as large a set of unique responses as possible that meet the criteria given in the instructions. Fluency tasks are often considered tests of executive function because they require flexibility and the avoidance of perseveration and because they are often impaired along with other executive functions after prefrontal damage. In verbal fluency, subjects are asked to generate as many words that begin with a specific letter as possible. Neither Fleming et al. (1995), who administered d-AMP, nor Elliott et al. (1997), who administered MPH, found enhancement of verbal fluency. However, Elliott et al. found enhancement on a more complex nonverbal fluency task, the sequence generation task. Subjects were able to touch four squares in more unique orders with MPH than with placebo.
The choline-based class of smart drugs play important cognitive roles in memory, attention, and mood regulation. Acetylcholine (ACh) is one of the brain’s primary neurotransmitters, and also vital in the proper functioning of the peripheral nervous system. Studies with rats have shown that certain forms of learning and neural plasticity seem to be impossible in acetylcholine-depleted areas of the brain. This is particularly worth mentioning because (as noted above under the Racetams section), the Racetam class of smart drugs tends to deplete cholines from the brain, so one of the classic “supplement stacks” – chemical supplements that are used together – are Piracetam and Choline Bitartrate. Cholines can also be found in normal food sources, like egg yolks and soybeans.
However, history has shown that genies don’t stay in bottles. All ethics aside, there is ample proof that use of smart drugs can profoundly improve human cognition, and where there is an advantage to be gained – even where risks are involved – some people will leap at the chance to capitalize. At Smart Drug Smarts, we anticipate the social tide will continue to turn in favor of elective neural enhancers, and that the beneficial effects to users who choose to make the most of their brains will inevitably outweigh the costs.
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
Piracetam is a reliable supplement for improving creativity. It is an entry level racetam due to its lack of severe side effects and relative subtlety. Piracetam’s effects take hold over time through continual use. There is less instant gratification compared to other brain enhancers. Additionally, this nootropic can enhance holistic thinking, verbal memory, and mental energy levels.

Racetams, such as piracetam, oxiracetam, and aniracetam, which are often marketed as cognitive enhancers and sold over-the-counter. Racetams are often referred to as nootropics, but this property is not well established.[31] The racetams have poorly understood mechanisms, although piracetam and aniracetam are known to act as positive allosteric modulators of AMPA receptors and appear to modulate cholinergic systems.[32]