When I spoke with Jesse Lawler, who hosts the podcast Smart Drugs Smarts, about breakthroughs in brain health and neuroscience, he was unsurprised to hear of my disappointing experience. Many nootropics are supposed to take time to build up in the body before users begin to feel their impact. But even then, says Barry Gordon, a neurology professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, positive results wouldn’t necessarily constitute evidence of a pharmacological benefit.
Noopept is a nootropic that belongs to the ampakine family. It is known for promoting learning, boosting mood, and improving logical thinking. It has been popular as a study drug for a long time but has recently become a popular supplement for improving vision. Users report seeing colors more brightly and feeling as if their vision is more vivid after taking noopept.
Amphetamines have a long track record as smart drugs, from the workaholic mathematician Paul Erdös, who relied on them to get through 19-hour maths binges, to the writer Graham Greene, who used them to write two books at once. More recently, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts in magazines about their widespread use in certain industries, such as journalism, the arts and finance.
Nootrobox co-founder Geoffrey Woo declines a caffeinated drink in favour of a capsule of his newest product when I meet him in a San Francisco coffee shop. The entire industry has a “wild west” aura about it, he tells me, and Nootrobox wants to fix it by pushing for “smarter regulation” so safe and effective drugs that are currently unclassified can be brought into the fold. Predictably, both companies stress the higher goal of pushing forward human cognition. “I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created,” says Nootroo founder Eric Matzner.

But notice that most of the cost imbalance is coming from the estimate of the benefit of IQ - if it quadrupled to a defensible $8000, that would be close to the experiment cost! So in a way, what this VoI calculation tells us is that what is most valuable right now is not that iodine might possibly increase IQ, but getting a better grip on how much any IQ intervention is worth.
MPH was developed more recently and marketed primarily for ADHD, although it is sometimes prescribed off label or used nonmedically to increase alertness, energy, or concentration in conditions other than ADHD. Both MPH and AMP are on the list of substances banned from sports competitions by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Docherty, 2008). Both also have the potential for abuse and dependence, which detracts from their usefulness and is the reason for their classification as Schedule II controlled substances. Although the risk of developing dependence on these drugs is believed to be low for individuals taking them for ADHD, the Schedule II classification indicates that these drugs have a high potential for abuse and that abuse may lead to severe dependence.
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Nootrobox co-founder Geoffrey Woo declines a caffeinated drink in favour of a capsule of his newest product when I meet him in a San Francisco coffee shop. The entire industry has a “wild west” aura about it, he tells me, and Nootrobox wants to fix it by pushing for “smarter regulation” so safe and effective drugs that are currently unclassified can be brought into the fold. Predictably, both companies stress the higher goal of pushing forward human cognition. “I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created,” says Nootroo founder Eric Matzner.
It may also be necessary to ask not just whether a drug enhances cognition, but in whom. Researchers at the University of Sussex have found that nicotine improved performance on memory tests in young adults who carried one variant of a particular gene but not in those with a different version. In addition, there are already hints that the smarter you are, the less smart drugs will do for you. One study found that modafinil improved performance in a group of students whose mean IQ was 106, but not in a group with an average of 115.
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.

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.

Null results are generally less likely to be published. Consistent with the operation of such a bias in the present literature, the null results found in our survey were invariably included in articles reporting the results of multiple tasks or multiple measures of a single task; published single-task studies with exclusively behavioral measures all found enhancement. This suggests that some single-task studies with null results have gone unreported. The present mixed results are consistent with those of other recent reviews that included data from normal subjects, using more limited sets of tasks or medications (Advokat, 2010; Chamberlain et al., 2010; Repantis, Schlattmann, Laisney, & Heuser, 2010).
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).
Dosage is apparently 5-10mg a day. (Prices can be better elsewhere; selegiline is popular for treating dogs with senile dementia, where those 60x5mg will cost $2 rather than $3531. One needs a veterinarian’s prescription to purchase from pet-oriented online pharmacies, though.) I ordered it & modafinil from Nubrain.com at $35 for 60x5mg; Nubrain delayed and eventually canceled my order - and my enthusiasm. Between that and realizing how much of a premium I was paying for Nubrain’s deprenyl, I’m tabling deprenyl along with nicotine & modafinil for now. Which is too bad, because I had even ordered 20g of PEA from Smart Powders to try out with the deprenyl. (My later attempt to order some off the Silk Road also failed when the seller canceled the order.)
Specifically, the film is completely unintelligible if you had not read the book. The best I can say for it is that it delivers the action and events one expects in the right order and with basic competence, but its artistic merits are few. It seems generally devoid of the imagination and visual flights of fancy that animated movies 1 and 3 especially (although Mike Darwin disagrees), copping out on standard imagery like a Star Wars-style force field over Hogwarts Castle, or luminescent white fog when Harry was dead and in his head; I was deeply disappointed to not see any sights that struck me as novel and new. (For example, the aforementioned dead scene could have been done in so many interesting ways, like why not show Harry & Dumbledore in a bustling King’s Cross shot in bright sharp detail, but with not a single person in sight and all the luggage and equipment animatedly moving purposefully on their own?) The ending in particular boggles me. I actually turned to the person next to me and asked them whether that really was the climax and Voldemort was dead, his death was so little dwelt upon or laden with significance (despite a musical score that beat you over the head about everything else). In the book, I remember it feeling like a climactic scene, with everyone watching and little speeches explaining why Voldemort was about to be defeated, and a suitable victory celebration; I read in the paper the next day a quote from the director or screenwriter who said one scene was cut because Voldemort would not talk but simply try to efficiently kill Harry. (This is presumably the explanation for the incredible anti-climax. Hopefully.) I was dumbfounded by the depths of dishonesty or delusion or disregard: Voldemort not only does that in Deathly Hallows multiple times, he does it every time he deals with Harry, exactly as the classic villains (he is numbered among) always do! How was it possible for this man to read the books many times, as he must have, and still say such a thing?↩
Caveats aside, if you do want to try a nootropic, consider starting with something simple and pretty much risk-free, like aromatherapy with lemon essential oil or frankincense, which can help activate your brain, Barbour says. You could also sip on "golden milk," a sweet and anti-inflammatory beverage made with turmeric, or rosemary-infused water, she adds.
The evidence? A 2012 study in Greece found it can boost cognitive function in adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a type of disorder marked by forgetfulness and problems with language, judgement, or planning that are more severe than average “senior moments,” but are not serious enough to be diagnosed as dementia. In some people, MCI will progress into dementia.
Powders are good for experimenting with (easy to vary doses and mix), but not so good for regular taking. I use OO gel capsules with a Capsule Machine: it’s hard to beat $20, it works, it’s not that messy after practice, and it’s not too bad to do 100 pills. However, I once did 3kg of piracetam + my other powders, and doing that nearly burned me out on ever using capsules again. If you’re going to do that much, something more automated is a serious question! (What actually wound up infuriating me the most was when capsules would stick in either the bottom or top try - requiring you to very gingerly pull and twist them out, lest the two halves slip and spill powder - or when the two halves wouldn’t lock and you had to join them by hand. In contrast: loading the gel caps could be done automatically without looking, after some experience.)
In addition, while the laboratory research reviewed here is of interest concerning the effects of stimulant drugs on specific cognitive processes, it does not tell us about the effects on cognition in the real world. How do these drugs affect academic performance when used by students? How do they affect the total knowledge and understanding that students take with them from a course? How do they affect various aspects of occupational performance? Similar questions have been addressed in relation to students and workers with ADHD (Barbaresi, Katusic, Colligan, Weaver, & Jacobsen, 2007; Halmøy, Fasmer, Gillberg, & Haavik, 2009; see also Advokat, 2010) but have yet to be addressed in the context of cognitive enhancement of normal individuals.
This continued up to 1 AM, at which point I decided not to take a second armodafinil (why spend a second pill to gain what would likely be an unproductive set of 8 hours?) and finish up the experiment with some n-backing. My 5 rounds: 60/38/62/44/5023. This was surprising. Compare those scores with scores from several previous days: 39/42/44/40/20/28/36. I had estimated before the n-backing that my scores would be in the low-end of my usual performance (20-30%) since I had not slept for the past 41 hours, and instead, the lowest score was 38%. If one did not know the context, one might think I had discovered a good nootropic! Interesting evidence that armodafinil preserves at least one kind of mental performance.

The research literature, while copious, is messy and varied: methodologies and devices vary substantially, sample sizes are tiny, the study designs vary from paper to paper, metrics are sometimes comically limited (one study measured speed of finishing a RAPM IQ test but not scores), blinding is rare and unclear how successful, etc. Relevant papers include Chung et al 2012, Rojas & Gonzalez-Lima 2013, & Gonzalez-Lima & Barrett 2014. Another Longecity user ran a self-experiment, with some design advice from me, where he performed a few cognitive tests over several periods of LLLT usage (the blocks turned out to be ABBA), using his father and towels to try to blind himself as to condition. I analyzed his data, and his scores did seem to improve, but his scores improved so much in the last part of the self-experiment I found myself dubious as to what was going on - possibly a failure of randomness given too few blocks and an temporal exogenous factor in the last quarter which was responsible for the improvement.
Recent developments include biosensor-equipped smart pills that sense the appropriate environment and location to release pharmacological agents. Medimetrics (Eindhoven, Netherlands) has developed a pill called IntelliCap with drug reservoir, pH and temperature sensors that release drugs to a defined region of the gastrointestinal tract. This device is CE marked and is in early stages of clinical trials for FDA approval. Recently, Google announced its intent to invest and innovate in this space.
Popular among computer programmers, oxiracetam, another racetam, has been shown to be effective in recovery from neurological trauma and improvement to long-term memory. It is believed to effective in improving attention span, memory, learning capacity, focus, sensory perception, and logical thinking. It also acts as a stimulant, increasing mental energy, alertness, and motivation.
Many of these supplements include exotic-sounding ingredients. Ginseng root and an herb called bacopa are two that have shown some promising memory and attention benefits, says Dr. Guillaume Fond, a psychiatrist with France’s Aix-Marseille University Medical School who has studied smart drugs and cognitive enhancement. “However, data are still lacking to definitely confirm their efficacy,” he adds.

Finally, all of the questions raised here in relation to MPH and d-AMP can also be asked about newer drugs and even about nonpharmacological methods of cognitive enhancement. An example of a newer drug with cognitive-enhancing potential is modafinil. Originally marketed as a therapy for narcolepsy, it is widely used off label for other purposes (Vastag, 2004), and a limited literature on its cognitive effects suggests some promise as a cognitive enhancer for normal healthy people (see Minzenberg & Carter, 2008, for a review).


However, when I didn’t stack it with Choline, I would get what users call “racetam headaches.” Choline, as Patel explains, is not a true nootropic, but it’s still a pro-cognitive compound that many take with other nootropics in a stack. It’s an essential nutrient that humans need for functions like memory and muscle control, but we can’t produce it, and many Americans don’t get enough of it. The headaches I got weren’t terribly painful, but they were uncomfortable enough that I stopped taking Piracetam on its own. Even without the headache, though, I didn’t really like the level of focus Piracetam gave me. I didn’t feel present when I used it, even when I tried to mix in caffeine and L-theanine. And while it seemed like I could focus and do my work faster, I was making more small mistakes in my writing, like skipping words. Essentially, it felt like my brain was moving faster than I could.
It is known that American college students have embraced cognitive enhancement, and some information exists about the demographics of the students most likely to practice cognitive enhancement with prescription stimulants. Outside of this narrow segment of the population, very little is known. What happens when students graduate and enter the world of work? Do they continue using prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement in their first jobs and beyond? How might the answer to this question depend on occupation? For those who stay on campus to pursue graduate or professional education, what happens to patterns of use? To what extent do college graduates who did not use stimulants as students begin to use them for cognitive enhancement later in their careers? To what extent do workers without college degrees use stimulants to enhance job performance? How do the answers to these questions differ for countries outside of North America, where the studies of Table 1 were carried out?
In the United States, people consume more coffee than fizzy drink, tea and juice combined. Alas, no one has ever estimated its impact on economic growth – but plenty of studies have found myriad other benefits. Somewhat embarrassingly, caffeine has been proven to be better than the caffeine-based commercial supplement that Woo’s company came up with, which is currently marketed at $17.95 for 60 pills.
"They're not regulated by the FDA like other drugs, so safety testing isn't required," Kerl says. What's more, you can't always be sure that what's on the ingredient label is actually in the product. Keep in mind, too, that those that contain water-soluble vitamins like B and C, she adds, aren't going to help you if you're already getting enough of those vitamins through diet. "If your body is getting more than you need, you're just going to pee out the excess," she says. "You're paying a lot of money for these supplements; maybe just have orange juice."

Qualia Mind, meanwhile, combines more than two dozen ingredients that may support brain and nervous system function – and even empathy, the company claims – including vitamins B, C and D, artichoke stem and leaf extract, taurine and a concentrated caffeine powder. A 2014 review of research on vitamin C, for one, suggests it may help protect against cognitive decline, while most of the research on artichoke extract seems to point to its benefits to other organs like the liver and heart. A small company-lead pilot study on the product found users experienced improvements in reasoning, memory, verbal ability and concentration five days after beginning Qualia Mind.
Power times prior times benefit minus cost of experimentation: (0.20 \times 0.30 \times 540) - 41 = -9. So the VoI is negative: because my default is that fish oil works and I am taking it, weak information that it doesn’t work isn’t enough. If the power calculation were giving us 40% reliable information, then the chance of learning I should drop fish oil is improved enough to make the experiment worthwhile (going from 20% to 40% switches the value from -$9 to +$23.8).

The chemicals he takes, dubbed nootropics from the Greek “noos” for “mind”, are intended to safely improve cognitive functioning. They must not be harmful, have significant side-effects or be addictive. That means well-known “smart drugs” such as the prescription-only stimulants Adderall and Ritalin, popular with swotting university students, are out. What’s left under the nootropic umbrella is a dizzying array of over-the-counter supplements, prescription drugs and unclassified research chemicals, some of which are being trialled in older people with fading cognition.


1 PM; overall this was a pretty productive day, but I can’t say it was very productive. I would almost say even odds, but for some reason I feel a little more inclined towards modafinil. Say 55%. That night’s sleep was vile: the Zeo says it took me 40 minutes to fall asleep, I only slept 7:37 total, and I woke up 7 times. I’m comfortable taking this as evidence of modafinil (half-life 10 hours, 1 PM to midnight is only 1 full halving), bumping my prediction to 75%. I check, and sure enough - modafinil.

Given the size of the literature just reviewed, it is surprising that so many basic questions remain open. Although d-AMP and MPH appear to enhance retention of recently learned information and, in at least some individuals, also enhance working memory and cognitive control, there remains great uncertainty regarding the size and robustness of these effects and their dependence on dosage, individual differences, and specifics of the task.


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.


First off, overwhelming evidence suggests that smart drugs actually work. A meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Oxford showed that Modafinil has significant cognitive benefits for those who do not suffer from sleep deprivation. The drug improves their ability to plan and make decisions and has a positive effect on learning and creativity. Another study, by researchers at Imperial College London, showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
First off, overwhelming evidence suggests that smart drugs actually work. A meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Oxford showed that Modafinil has significant cognitive benefits for those who do not suffer from sleep deprivation. The drug improves their ability to plan and make decisions and has a positive effect on learning and creativity. Another study, by researchers at Imperial College London, showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
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. 
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.
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.
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Over the last few months, as part of a new research project, I have talked with five people who regularly use drugs at work. They are all successful in their jobs, financially secure, in stable relationships, and generally content with their lives. None of them have plans to stop using the drugs, and so far they have kept the secret from their employers. But as their colleagues become more likely to start using the same drugs (people talk, after all), will they continue to do so?
The one indisputable finding from the literature so far is that many people are seeking cognitive enhancement. Beyond that, the literature yields only partial and tentative answers to the questions just raised. Given the potential impact of cognitive enhancement on society, more research is needed. For research on the epidemiology of cognitive enhancement, studies focused on the cognitive-enhancement practices and experiences of students and nonstudent workers are needed. For research on the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants, larger samples are needed. Only with substantially larger samples will it be possible to assess small but potentially important benefits, as well as risks, and to distinguish individual differences in drug response. Large samples would also be required to compare these effects to the cognitive effects of improved sleep, exercise, nutrition, and stress management. To include more ecologically valid measures of cognition in academic and work environments would in addition require the equivalent of a large clinical trial.
Dosage is apparently 5-10mg a day. (Prices can be better elsewhere; selegiline is popular for treating dogs with senile dementia, where those 60x5mg will cost $2 rather than $3531. One needs a veterinarian’s prescription to purchase from pet-oriented online pharmacies, though.) I ordered it & modafinil from Nubrain.com at $35 for 60x5mg; Nubrain delayed and eventually canceled my order - and my enthusiasm. Between that and realizing how much of a premium I was paying for Nubrain’s deprenyl, I’m tabling deprenyl along with nicotine & modafinil for now. Which is too bad, because I had even ordered 20g of PEA from Smart Powders to try out with the deprenyl. (My later attempt to order some off the Silk Road also failed when the seller canceled the order.)

The placebos can be the usual pills filled with olive oil. The Nature’s Answer fish oil is lemon-flavored; it may be worth mixing in some lemon juice. In Kiecolt-Glaser et al 2011, anxiety was measured via the Beck Anxiety scale; the placebo mean was 1.2 on a standard deviation of 0.075, and the experimental mean was 0.93 on a standard deviation of 0.076. (These are all log-transformed covariates or something; I don’t know what that means, but if I naively plug those numbers into Cohen’s d, I get a very large effect: \frac{1.2 - 0.93}{0.076}=3.55.)

Spaced repetition at midnight: 3.68. (Graphing preceding and following days: ▅▄▆▆▁▅▆▃▆▄█ ▄ ▂▄▄▅) DNB starting 12:55 AM: 30/34/41. Transcribed Sawaragi 2005, then took a walk. DNB starting 6:45 AM: 45/44/33. Decided to take a nap and then take half the armodafinil on awakening, before breakfast. I wound up oversleeping until noon (4:28); since it was so late, I took only half the armodafinil sublingually. I spent the afternoon learning how to do value of information calculations, and then carefully working through 8 or 9 examples for my various pages, which I published on Lesswrong. That was a useful little project. DNB starting 12:09 AM: 30/38/48. (To graph the preceding day and this night: ▇▂█▆▅▃▃▇▇▇▁▂▄ ▅▅▁▁▃▆) Nights: 9:13; 7:24; 9:13; 8:20; 8:31.
Two studies investigated the effects of MPH on reversal learning in simple two-choice tasks (Clatworthy et al., 2009; Dodds et al., 2008). In these tasks, participants begin by choosing one of two stimuli and, after repeated trials with these stimuli, learn that one is usually rewarded and the other is usually not. The rewarded and nonrewarded stimuli are then reversed, and participants must then learn to choose the new rewarded stimulus. Although each of these studies found functional neuroimaging correlates of the effects of MPH on task-related brain activity (increased blood oxygenation level-dependent signal in frontal and striatal regions associated with task performance found by Dodds et al., 2008, using fMRI and increased dopamine release in the striatum as measured by increased raclopride displacement by Clatworthy et al., 2009, using PET), neither found reliable effects on behavioral performance in these tasks. The one significant result concerning purely behavioral measures was Clatworthy et al.’s (2009) finding that participants who scored higher on a self-report personality measure of impulsivity showed more performance enhancement with MPH. MPH’s effect on performance in individuals was also related to its effects on individuals’ dopamine activity in specific regions of the caudate nucleus.
Specifically, the film is completely unintelligible if you had not read the book. The best I can say for it is that it delivers the action and events one expects in the right order and with basic competence, but its artistic merits are few. It seems generally devoid of the imagination and visual flights of fancy that animated movies 1 and 3 especially (although Mike Darwin disagrees), copping out on standard imagery like a Star Wars-style force field over Hogwarts Castle, or luminescent white fog when Harry was dead and in his head; I was deeply disappointed to not see any sights that struck me as novel and new. (For example, the aforementioned dead scene could have been done in so many interesting ways, like why not show Harry & Dumbledore in a bustling King’s Cross shot in bright sharp detail, but with not a single person in sight and all the luggage and equipment animatedly moving purposefully on their own?) The ending in particular boggles me. I actually turned to the person next to me and asked them whether that really was the climax and Voldemort was dead, his death was so little dwelt upon or laden with significance (despite a musical score that beat you over the head about everything else). In the book, I remember it feeling like a climactic scene, with everyone watching and little speeches explaining why Voldemort was about to be defeated, and a suitable victory celebration; I read in the paper the next day a quote from the director or screenwriter who said one scene was cut because Voldemort would not talk but simply try to efficiently kill Harry. (This is presumably the explanation for the incredible anti-climax. Hopefully.) I was dumbfounded by the depths of dishonesty or delusion or disregard: Voldemort not only does that in Deathly Hallows multiple times, he does it every time he deals with Harry, exactly as the classic villains (he is numbered among) always do! How was it possible for this man to read the books many times, as he must have, and still say such a thing?↩
Common environmental toxins – pesticides, for example – cause your brain to release glutamate (a neurotransmitter). Your brain needs glutamate to function, but when you create too much of it it becomes toxic and starts killing neurons. Oxaloacetate protects rodents from glutamate-induced brain damage.[17] Of course, we need more research to determine whether or not oxaloacetate has the same effect on humans.
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