Nootropics. You might have heard of them. The “limitless pill” that keeps Billionaires rich. The ‘smart drugs’ that students are taking to help boost their hyperfocus. The cognitive enhancers that give corporate executives an advantage. All very exciting. But as always, the media are way behind the curve. Yes, for the past few decades, cognitive enhancers were largely sketchy substances that people used to grasp at a short term edge at the expense of their health and well being. But the days of taking prescription pills to pull an all-nighter are so 2010. The better, safer path isn’t with these stimulants but with nootropics. Nootropics consist of dietary supplements and substances which enhance your cognition, in particular when it comes to motivation, creativity, memory, and other executive functions. They play an important role in supporting memory and promoting optimal brain function.
In contrast to the types of memory discussed in the previous section, which are long-lasting and formed as a result of learning, working memory is a temporary store of information. Working memory has been studied extensively by cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists because of its role in executive function. It has been likened to an internal scratch pad; by holding information in working memory, one keeps it available to consult and manipulate in the service of performing tasks as diverse as parsing a sentence and planning a route through the environment. Presumably for this reason, working memory ability correlates with measures of general intelligence (Friedman et al., 2006). The possibility of enhancing working memory ability is therefore of potential real-world interest.
Some nootropics are more commonly used than others. These include nutrients like Alpha GPC, huperzine A, L-Theanine, bacopa monnieri, and vinpocetine. Other types of nootropics ware still gaining traction. With all that in mind, to claim there is a “best” nootropic for everyone would be the wrong approach since every person is unique and looking for different benefits.
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.
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.
Clearly, the hype surrounding drugs like modafinil and methylphenidate is unfounded. These drugs are beneficial in treating cognitive dysfunction in patients with Alzheimer's, ADHD or schizophrenia, but it's unlikely that today's enhancers offer significant cognitive benefits to healthy users. In fact, taking a smart pill is probably no more effective than exercising or getting a good night's sleep.
Take quarter at midnight, another quarter at 2 AM. Night runs reasonably well once I remember to eat a lot of food (I finish a big editing task I had put off for weeks), but the apathy kicks in early around 4 AM so I gave up and watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, finishing around 6 AM. I then read until it’s time to go to a big shotgun club function, which occupies the rest of the morning and afternoon; I had nothing to do much of the time and napped very poorly on occasion. By the time we got back at 4 PM, the apathy was completely gone and I started some modafinil research with gusto (interrupted by going to see Puss in Boots). That night: Zeo recorded 8:30 of sleep, gap of about 1:50 in the recording, figure 10:10 total sleep; following night, 8:33; third night, 8:47; fourth, 8:20 (▇▁▁▁).
Some of the newest substances being used as ‘smart drugs’ are medically prescribed for other conditions. For example, methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So is Adderall, a combination drug containing two forms of amphetamine. These are among a suite of pharmaceuticals now being used by healthy people, particularly university students, to enhance their capabilities for learning or working.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a behavioral syndrome characterized by inattention and distractibility, restlessness, inability to sit still, and difficulty concentrating on one thing for any period of time. ADHD most commonly occurs in children, though an increasing number of adults are being diagnosed with the disorder. ADHD is three times more…
Another factor to consider is whether the nootropic is natural or synthetic. Natural nootropics generally have effects which are a bit more subtle, while synthetic nootropics can have more pronounced effects. It’s also important to note that there are natural and synthetic nootropics. Some natural nootropics include Ginkgo biloba and ginseng. One benefit to using natural nootropics is they boost brain function and support brain health. They do this by increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the arteries and veins in the brain. Moreover, some nootropics contain Rhodiola rosea, panxax ginseng, and more.
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Most diehard nootropic users have considered using racetams for enhancing brain function. Racetams are synthetic nootropic substances first developed in Russia. These smart drugs vary in potency, but they are not stimulants. They are unlike traditional ADHD medications (Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, etc.). Instead, racetams boost cognition by enhancing the cholinergic system.
I largely ignored this since the discussions were of sub-RDA doses, and my experience has usually been that RDAs are a poor benchmark and frequently far too low (consider the RDA for vitamin D). This time, I checked the actual RDA - and was immediately shocked and sure I was looking at a bad reference: there was no way the RDA for potassium was seriously 3700-4700mg or 4-5 grams daily, was there? Just as an American, that implied that I was getting less than half my RDA. (How would I get 4g of potassium in the first place? Eat a dozen bananas a day⸮) I am not a vegetarian, nor is my diet that fantastic: I figured I was getting some potassium from the ~2 fresh tomatoes I was eating daily, but otherwise my diet was not rich in potassium sources. I have no blood tests demonstrating deficiency, but given the figures, I cannot see how I could not be deficient.
Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless. Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others.
Up to 20% of Ivy League college students have already tried “smart drugs,” so we can expect these pills to feature prominently in organizations (if they don’t already). After all, the pressure to perform is unlikely to disappear the moment students graduate. And senior employees with demanding jobs might find these drugs even more useful than a 19-year-old college kid does. Indeed, a 2012 Royal Society report emphasized that these “enhancements,” along with other technologies for self-enhancement, are likely to have far-reaching implications for the business world.
Although piracetam has a history of “relatively few side effects,” it has fallen far short of its initial promise for treating any of the illnesses associated with cognitive decline, according to Lon Schneider, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “We don’t use it at all and never have.”
Feeling behind, I resolved to take some armodafinil the next morning, which I did - but in my hurry I failed to recall that 200mg armodafinil was probably too much to take during the day, with its long half life. As a result, I felt irritated and not that great during the day (possibly aggravated by some caffeine - I wish some studies would be done on the possible interaction of modafinil and caffeine so I knew if I was imagining it or not). Certainly not what I had been hoping for. I went to bed after midnight (half an hour later than usual), and suffered severe insomnia. The time wasn’t entirely wasted as I wrote a short story and figured out how to make nicotine gum placebos during the hours in the dark, but I could have done without the experience. All metrics omitted because it was a day usage.
Or in other words, since the standard deviation of my previous self-ratings is 0.75 (see the Weather and my productivity data), a mean rating increase of >0.39 on the self-rating. This is, unfortunately, implying an extreme shift in my self-assessments (for example, 3s are ~50% of the self-ratings and 4s ~25%; to cause an increase of 0.25 while leaving 2s alone in a sample of 23 days, one would have to push 3s down to ~25% and 4s up to ~47%). So in advance, we can see that the weak plausible effects for Noopept are not going to be detected here at our usual statistical levels with just the sample I have (a more plausible experiment might use 178 pairs over a year, detecting down to d>=0.18). But if the sign is right, it might make Noopept worthwhile to investigate further. And the hardest part of this was just making the pills, so it’s not a waste of effort.
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people. It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks. At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.