How exactly – and if – nootropics work varies widely. Some may work, for example, by strengthening certain brain pathways for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is involved in motivation, Barbour says. Others aim to boost blood flow – and therefore funnel nutrients – to the brain to support cell growth and regeneration. Others protect brain cells and connections from inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in conditions like Alzheimer's, Barbour explains. Still others boost metabolism or pack in vitamins that may help protect the brain and the rest of the nervous system, explains Dr. Anna Hohler, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
Participants (n=205) [young adults aged 18-30 years] were recruited between July 2010 and January 2011, and were randomized to receive either a daily 150 µg (0.15mg) iodine supplement or daily placebo supplement for 32 weeks…After adjusting for baseline cognitive test score, examiner, age, sex, income, and ethnicity, iodine supplementation did not significantly predict 32 week cognitive test scores for Block Design (p=0.385), Digit Span Backward (p=0.474), Matrix Reasoning (p=0.885), Symbol Search (p=0.844), Visual Puzzles (p=0.675), Coding (p=0.858), and Letter-Number Sequencing (p=0.408).
The stimulant now most popular in news articles as a legitimate “smart drug” is Modafinil, which came to market as an anti-narcolepsy drug, but gained a following within the military, doctors on long shifts, and college students pulling all-nighters who needed a drug to improve alertness without the “wired” feeling associated with caffeine. Modafinil is a relatively new smart drug, having gained widespread use only in the past 15 years. More research is needed before scientists understand this drug’s function within the brain – but the increase in alertness it provides is uncontested.
The search to find more effective drugs to increase mental ability and intelligence capacity with neither toxicity nor serious side effects continues. But there are limitations. Although the ingredients may be separately known to have cognition-enhancing effects, randomized controlled trials of the combined effects of cognitive enhancement compounds are sparse.
The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.
These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”
Smart pills have revolutionized the diagnosis of gastrointestinal disorders and could replace conventional diagnostic techniques such as endoscopy. Traditionally, an endoscopy probe is inserted into a patient’s esophagus, and subsequently the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract, for diagnostic purposes. There is a risk of perforation or tearing of the esophageal lining, and the patient faces discomfort during and after the procedure. A smart pill or wireless capsule endoscopy (WCE), however, can easily be swallowed and maneuvered to capture images, and requires minimal patient preparation, such as sedation. The built-in sensors allow the measurement of all fluids and gases in the gut, giving the physician a multidimensional picture of the human body.
Nootropics are a specific group of smart drugs. But nootropics aren’t the only drugs out there that promise you some extra productivity. More students and office workers are using drugs to increase their productivity than ever before . But unlike with nootropics, many have side-effects. And that is precisely what is different between nootropics and other enhancing drugs, nootropics have little to no negative side-effects.
Next, if these theorized safe and effective pills don't just get you through a test or the day's daily brain task but also make you smarter, whatever smarter means, then what? Where's the boundary between genius and madness? If Einstein had taken such drugs, would he have created a better theory of gravity? Or would he have become delusional, chasing quantum ghosts with no practical application, or worse yet, string theory. (Please use "string theory" in your subject line for easy sorting of hate mail.)
This tendency is exacerbated by general inefficiencies in the nootropics market - they are manufactured for vastly less than they sell for, although the margins aren’t as high as they are in other supplement markets, and not nearly as comical as illegal recreational drugs. (Global Price Fixing: Our Customers are the Enemy (Connor 2001) briefly covers the vitamin cartel that operated for most of the 20th century, forcing food-grade vitamins prices up to well over 100x the manufacturing cost.) For example, the notorious Timothy Ferriss (of The Four-hour Work Week) advises imitators to find a niche market with very high margins which they can insert themselves into as middlemen and reap the profits; one of his first businesses specialized in… nootropics & bodybuilding. Or, when Smart Powders - usually one of the cheapest suppliers - was dumping its piracetam in a fire sale of half-off after the FDA warning, its owner mentioned on forums that the piracetam was still profitable (and that he didn’t really care because selling to bodybuilders was so lucrative); this was because while SP was selling 2kg of piracetam for ~$90, Chinese suppliers were offering piracetam on AliBaba for $30 a kilogram or a third of that in bulk. (Of course, you need to order in quantities like 30kg - this is more or less the only problem the middlemen retailers solve.) It goes without saying that premixed pills or products are even more expensive than the powders.
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.
With just 16 predictions, I can’t simply bin the predictions and say yep, that looks good. Instead, we can treat each prediction as equivalent to a bet and see what my winnings (or losses) were; the standard such proper scoring rule is the logarithmic rule which pretty simple: you earn the logarithm of the probability if you were right, and the logarithm of the negation if you were wrong; he who racks up the fewest negative points wins. We feed in a list and get back a number:
For the sake of organizing the review, we have divided the literature according to the general type of cognitive process being studied, with sections devoted to learning and to various kinds of executive function. Executive function is a broad and, some might say, vague concept that encompasses the processes by which individual perceptual, motoric, and mnemonic abilities are coordinated to enable appropriate, flexible task performance, especially in the face of distracting stimuli or alternative competing responses. Two major aspects of executive function are working memory and cognitive control, responsible for the maintenance of information in a short-term active state for guiding task performance and responsible for inhibition of irrelevant information or responses, respectively. A large enough literature exists on the effects of stimulants on these two executive abilities that separate sections are devoted to each. In addition, a final section includes studies of miscellaneous executive abilities including planning, fluency, and reasoning that have also been the subjects of published studies.
With something like creatine, you’d know if it helps you pump out another rep at the gym on a sustainable basis. With nootropics, you can easily trick yourself into believing they help your mindset. The ideal is to do a trial on yourself. Take identical looking nootropic pills and placebo pills for a couple weeks each, then see what the difference is. With only a third party knowing the difference, of course.
“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.
My answer is that this is not a lot of research or very good research (not nearly as good as the research on nicotine, eg.), and assuming it’s true, I don’t value long-term memory that much because LTM is something that is easily assisted or replaced (personal archives, and spaced repetition). For me, my problems tend to be more about akrasia and energy and not getting things done, so even if a stimulant comes with a little cost to long-term memory, it’s still useful for me. I’m going continue to use the caffeine. It’s not so bad in conjunction with tea, is very cheap, and I’m already addicted, so why not? Caffeine is extremely cheap, addictive, has minimal effects on health (and may be beneficial, from the various epidemiological associations with tea/coffee/chocolate & longevity), and costs extra to remove from drinks popular regardless of their caffeine content (coffee and tea again). What would be the point of carefully investigating it? Suppose there was conclusive evidence on the topic, the value of this evidence to me would be roughly $0 or since ignorance is bliss, negative money - because unless the negative effects were drastic (which current studies rule out, although tea has other issues like fluoride or metal contents), I would not change anything about my life. Why? I enjoy my tea too much. My usual tea seller doesn’t even have decaffeinated oolong in general, much less various varieties I might want to drink, apparently because de-caffeinating is so expensive it’s not worthwhile. What am I supposed to do, give up my tea and caffeine just to save on the cost of caffeine? Buy de-caffeinating machines (which I couldn’t even find any prices for, googling)? This also holds true for people who drink coffee or caffeinated soda. (As opposed to a drug like modafinil which is expensive, and so the value of a definitive answer is substantial and would justify some more extensive calculating of cost-benefit.)
Some smart drugs can be found in health food stores; others are imported or are drugs that are intended for other disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. There are many Internet web sites, books, magazines and newspaper articles detailing the supposed effects of smart drugs. There are also plenty of advertisements and mail-order businesses that try to sell "smart drugs" to the public. However, rarely do these businesses or the popular press report results that show the failure of smart drugs to improve memory or learning. Rather, they try to show that their products have miraculous effects on the brain and can improve mental functioning. Wouldn't it be easy to learn something by "popping a pill" or drinking a soda laced with a smart drug? This would be much easier than taking the time to study. Feeling dull? Take your brain in for a mental tune up by popping a pill!
Another empirical question concerns the effects of stimulants on motivation, which can affect academic and occupational performance independent of cognitive ability. Volkow and colleagues (2004) showed that MPH increased participants’ self-rated interest in a relatively dull mathematical task. This is consistent with student reports that prescription stimulants make schoolwork seem more interesting (e.g., DeSantis et al., 2008). To what extent are the motivational effects of prescription stimulants distinct from their cognitive effects, and to what extent might they be more robust to differences in individual traits, dosage, and task? Are the motivational effects of stimulants responsible for their usefulness when taken by normal healthy individuals for cognitive enhancement?
l-Theanine – A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that concurrent caffeine and l-theanine use had synergistic psychoactive effects that promoted alertness, attention, and task switching; these effects were most pronounced during the first hour post-dose. However, the European Food Safety Authority reported that, when L-theanine is used by itself (i.e. without caffeine), there is insufficient information to determine if these effects exist.