But though it’s relatively new on the scene with ambitious young professionals, creatine has a long history with bodybuilders, who have been taking it for decades to improve their muscle #gains. In the US, sports supplements are a multibillion-dollar industry – and the majority contain creatine. According to a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs last year, 22% of adults said they had taken a sports supplement in the last year. If creatine was going to have a major impact in the workplace, surely we would have seen some signs of this already.
Unfortunately, cognitive enhancement falls between the stools of research funding, which makes it unlikely that such research programs will be carried out. Disease-oriented funders will, by definition, not support research on normal healthy individuals. The topic intersects with drug abuse research only in the assessment of risk, leaving out the study of potential benefits, as well as the comparative benefits of other enhancement methods. As a fundamentally applied research question, it will not qualify for support by funders of basic science. The pharmaceutical industry would be expected to support such research only if cognitive enhancement were to be considered a legitimate indication by the FDA, which we hope would happen only after considerably more research has illuminated its risks, benefits, and societal impact. Even then, industry would have little incentive to delve into all of the issues raised here, including the comparison of drug effects to nonpharmaceutical means of enhancing cognition.
As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩
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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.
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.
Swanson J, Arnold LE, Kraemer H, Hechtman L, Molina B, Hinshaw S, Wigal T. Evidence, interpretation and qualification from multiple reports of long-term outcomes in the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children With ADHD (MTA): Part II. Supporting details. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2008;12:15–43. doi: 10.1177/1087054708319525. [PubMed] [CrossRef]
Overall, the studies listed in Table 1 vary in ways that make it difficult to draw precise quantitative conclusions from them, including their definitions of nonmedical use, methods of sampling, and demographic characteristics of the samples. For example, some studies defined nonmedical use in a way that excluded anyone for whom a drug was prescribed, regardless of how and why they used it (Carroll et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Kaloyanides et al., 2007; Low & Gendaszek, 2002; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; McCabe et al., 2004; Rabiner et al., 2009; Shillington et al., 2006; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; Weyandt et al., 2009), whereas others focused on the intent of the user and counted any use for nonmedical purposes as nonmedical use, even if the user had a prescription (Arria et al., 2008; Babcock & Byrne, 2000; Boyd et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Herman-Stahl et al., 2007; Poulin, 2001, 2007; White et al., 2006), and one did not specify its definition (Barrett, Darredeau, Bordy, & Pihl, 2005). Some studies sampled multiple institutions (DuPont et al., 2008; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; Poulin, 2001, 2007), some sampled only one (Babcock & Byrne, 2000; Barrett et al., 2005; Boyd et al., 2006; Carroll et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Kaloyanides et al., 2007; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; McCabe et al., 2004; Shillington et al., 2006; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; White et al., 2006), and some drew their subjects primarily from classes in a single department at a single institution (DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Low & Gendaszek, 2002). With few exceptions, the samples were all drawn from restricted geographical areas. Some had relatively high rates of response (e.g., 93.8%; Low & Gendaszek 2002) and some had low rates (e.g., 10%; Judson & Langdon, 2009), the latter raising questions about sample representativeness for even the specific population of students from a given region or institution.
Another well-known smart drug classed as a cholinergic is Sulbutiamine, a synthetic derivative of thiamine which crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to improve memory while reducing psycho-behavioral inhibition. While Sulbutiamine has been shown to exhibit cholinergic regulation within the hippocampus, the reasons for the drug’s discernable effects on the brain remain unclear. This smart drug, available over the counter as a nutritional supplement, has a long history of use, and appears to have no serious side effects at therapeutic levels.
I can’t try either of the products myself – I am pregnant and my doctor doesn’t recommend it – but my husband agrees to. He describes the effect of the Nootrobox product as like having a cup of coffee but not feeling as jittery. “I had a very productive day, but I don’t know if that was why,” he says. His Nootroo experience ends after one capsule. He gets a headache, which he is convinced is related, and refuses to take more. “It is just not a beginner friendly cocktail,” offers Noehr.
My general impression is positive; it does seem to help with endurance and extended the effect of piracetam+choline, but is not as effective as that combo. At $20 for 30g (bought from Smart Powders), I’m not sure it’s worthwhile, but I think at $10-15 it would probably be worthwhile. Sulbutiamine seems to affect my sleep negatively, like caffeine. I bought 2 or 3 canisters for my third batch of pills along with the theanine. For a few nights in a row, I slept terribly and stayed awake thinking until the wee hours of the morning; eventually I realized it was because I was taking the theanine pills along with the sleep-mix pills, and the only ingredient that was a stimulant in the batch was - sulbutiamine. I cut out the theanine pills at night, and my sleep went back to normal. (While very annoying, this, like the creatine & taekwondo example, does tend to prove to me that sulbutiamine was doing something and it is not pure placebo effect.)
Because executive functions tend to work in concert with one another, these three categories are somewhat overlapping. For example, tasks that require working memory also require a degree of cognitive control to prevent current stimuli from interfering with the contents of working memory, and tasks that require planning, fluency, and reasoning require working memory to hold the task goals in mind. The assignment of studies to sections was based on best fit, according to the aspects of executive function most heavily taxed by the task, rather than exclusive category membership. Within each section, studies are further grouped according to the type of task and specific type of learning, working memory, cognitive control, or other executive function being assessed.
Two additional studies used other spatial working memory tasks. Barch and Carter (2005) required subjects to maintain one of 18 locations on the perimeter of a circle in working memory and then report the name of the letter that appeared there in a similarly arranged circle of letters. d-AMP caused a speeding of responses but no change in accuracy. Fleming et al. (1995) referred to a spatial delay response task, with no further description or citation. They reported no effect of d-AMP in the task except in the zero-delay condition (which presumably places minimal demand on working memory).
It is at the top of the supplement snake oil list thanks to tons of correlations; for a review, see Luchtman & Song 2013 but some specifics include Teenage Boys Who Eat Fish At Least Once A Week Achieve Higher Intelligence Scores, anti-inflammatory properties (see Fish Oil: What the Prescriber Needs to Know on arthritis), and others - Fish oil can head off first psychotic episodes (study; Seth Roberts commentary), Fish Oil May Fight Breast Cancer, Fatty Fish May Cut Prostate Cancer Risk & Walnuts slow prostate cancer, Benefits of omega-3 fatty acids tally up, Serum Phospholipid Docosahexaenonic Acid Is Associated with Cognitive Functioning during Middle Adulthood endless anecdotes.
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.)
If stimulants truly enhance cognition but do so to only a small degree, this raises the question of whether small effects are of practical use in the real world. Under some circumstances, the answer would undoubtedly be yes. Success in academic and occupational competitions often hinges on the difference between being at the top or merely near the top. A scholarship or a promotion that can go to only one person will not benefit the runner-up at all. Hence, even a small edge in the competition can be important.
So what about the flip side: a drug to erase bad memories? It may have failed Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but neuroscientists have now discovered an amnesia drug that can dull the pain of traumatic events. The drug, propranolol, was originally used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors noticed that patients given the drug suffered fewer signs of stress when recalling a trauma.
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics. Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.