Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes. Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals. The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.
Adaptogens are plant-derived chemicals whose activity helps the body maintain or regain homeostasis (equilibrium between the body’s metabolic processes). Almost without exception, adaptogens are available over-the-counter as dietary supplements, not controlled drugs. Well-known adaptogens include Ginseng, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, St. Johns Wort, and Gotu Kola. Many of these traditional remedies border on being “folk wisdom,” and have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years, and are used to treat everything from anxiety and mild depression to low libido. While these smart drugs work in a many different ways (their commonality is their resultant function within the body, not their chemical makeup), it can generally be said that the cognitive boost users receive is mostly a result of fixing an imbalance in people with poor diets, body toxicity, or other metabolic problems, rather than directly promoting the growth of new brain cells or neural connections.
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.
While the commentary makes effective arguments — that this isn't cheating, because cheating is based on what the rules are; that this is fair, because hiring a tutor isn't outlawed for being unfair to those who can't afford it; that this isn't unnatural, because humans with computers and antibiotics have been shaping what is natural for millennia; that this isn't drug abuse anymore than taking multivitamins is — the authors seem divorced from reality in the examples they provide of effective stimulant use today.
More photos from this reportage are featured in Quartz’s new book The Objects that Power the Global Economy. You may not have seen these objects before, but they’ve already changed the way you live. Each chapter examines an object that is driving radical change in the global economy. This is from the chapter on the drug modafinil, which explores modifying the mind for a more productive life.
These are the most popular nootropics available at the moment. Most of them are the tried-and-tested and the benefits you derive from them are notable (e.g. Guarana). Others are still being researched and there haven’t been many human studies on these components (e.g. Piracetam). As always, it’s about what works for you and everyone has a unique way of responding to different nootropics.
Nor am I sure how important the results are - partway through, I haven’t noticed anything bad, at least, from taking Noopept. And any effect is going to be subtle: people seem to think that 10mg is too small for an ingested rather than sublingual dose and I should be taking twice as much, and Noopept’s claimed to be a chronic gradual sort of thing, with less of an acute effect. If the effect size is positive, regardless of statistical-significance, I’ll probably think about doing a bigger real self-experiment (more days blocked into weeks or months & 20mg dose)
Fortunately, there are some performance-enhancing habits that have held up under rigorous scientific scrutiny. They are free, and easy to pronounce. Unfortunately, they are also the habits you were perhaps hoping to forego by using nootropics instead. “Of all the things that are supposed to be ‘good for the brain,’” says Stanford neurology professor Sharon Sha, “there is more evidence for exercise than anything else.” Next time you’re facing a long day, you could take a pill and see what happens.
One of the most common strategies to beat this is cycling. Users who cycle their nootropics take them for a predetermined period, (usually around five days) before taking a two-day break from using them. Once the two days are up, they resume the cycle. By taking a break, nootropic users reduce the tolerance for nootropics and lessen the risk of regression and tolerance symptoms.
“Who doesn’t want to maximize their cognitive ability? Who doesn’t want to maximize their muscle mass?” asks Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System and has been an adviser to pharmaceutical and supplement manufacturers as well as the Food and Drug Administration. He attributes the demand to an increasingly knowledge-based society that values mental quickness and agility above all else.
Brain-imaging studies are consistent with the existence of small effects that are not reliably captured by the behavioral paradigms of the literature reviewed here. Typically with executive function tasks, reduced activation of task-relevant areas is associated with better performance and is interpreted as an indication of higher neural efficiency (e.g., Haier, Siegel, Tang, Abel, & Buchsbaum, 1992). Several imaging studies showed effects of stimulants on task-related activation while failing to find effects on cognitive performance. Although changes in brain activation do not necessarily imply functional cognitive changes, they are certainly suggestive and may well be more sensitive than behavioral measures. Evidence of this comes from a study of COMT variation and executive function. Egan and colleagues (2001) found a genetic effect on executive function in an fMRI study with sample sizes as small as 11 but did not find behavioral effects in these samples. The genetic effect on behavior was demonstrated in a separate study with over a hundred participants. In sum, d-AMP and MPH measurably affect the activation of task-relevant brain regions when participants’ task performance does not differ. This is consistent with the hypothesis (although by no means positive proof) that stimulants exert a true cognitive-enhancing effect that is simply too small to be detected in many studies.
The use of cognition-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals in the absence of a medical indication spans numerous controversial issues, including the ethics and fairness of their use, concerns over adverse effects, and the diversion of prescription drugs for nonmedical uses, among others. Nonetheless, the international sales of cognition-enhancing supplements exceeded US$1 billion in 2015 when global demand for these compounds grew.