^ EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies; European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy (2011). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to L-theanine from Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze (tea) and improvement of cognitive function (ID 1104, 1222, 1600, 1601, 1707, 1935, 2004, 2005), alleviation of psychological stress (ID 1598, 1601), maintenance of normal sleep (ID 1222, 1737, 2004) and reduction of menstrual discomfort (ID 1599) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006". EFSA Journal. 9 (6): 2238. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2238.
We’ve talk about how caffeine affects the body in great detail, but the basic idea is that it can improve your motivation and focus by increasing catecholamine signaling. Its effects can be dampened over time, however, as you start to build a caffeine tolerance. Research on L-theanine, a common amino acid, suggests it promotes neuronal health and can decrease the incidence of cold and flu symptoms by strengthening the immune system. And one study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, found that L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses—which is why it’s often taken with caffeine. In fact, in a 2014 systematic review of 11 different studies, published in the journal Nutrition Review, researchers found that use of caffeine in combination with L-theanine promoted alertness, task switching, and attention. The reviewers note the effects are most pronounced during the first two hours post-dose, and they also point out that caffeine is the major player here, since larger caffeine doses were found to have more of an effect than larger doses of L-theanine.
The difference in standard deviations is not, from a theoretical perspective, all that strange a phenomenon: at the very beginning of this page, I covered some basic principles of nootropics and mentioned how many stimulants or supplements follow a inverted U-curve where too much or too little lead to poorer performance (ironically, one of the examples in Kruschke 2012 was a smart drug which did not affect means but increased standard deviations).
Many people find that they experience increased “brain fog” as they age, some of which could be attributed to early degeneration of synapses and neural pathways. Some drugs have been found to be useful for providing cognitive improvements in these individuals. It’s possible that these supplements could provide value by improving brain plasticity and supporting the regeneration of cells.10
And yet aside from anecdotal evidence, we know very little about the use of these drugs in professional settings. The Financial Times has claimed that they are “becoming popular among city lawyers, bankers, and other professionals keen to gain a competitive advantage over colleagues.” Back in 2008 the narcolepsy medication Modafinil was labeled the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice” by TechCrunch. That same year, the magazine Nature asked its readers whether they use cognitive-enhancing drugs; of the 1,400 respondents, one in five responded in the affirmative.
An additional complexity, related to individual differences, concerns dosage. This factor, which varies across studies and may be fixed or determined by participant body weight within a study, undoubtedly influences the cognitive effects of stimulant drugs. Furthermore, single-unit recordings with animals and, more recently, imaging of humans indicate that the effects of stimulant dose are nonmonotonic; increases enhance prefrontal function only up to a point, with further increases impairing function (e.g., Arnsten, 1998; Mattay et al., 2003; Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). Yet additional complexity comes from the fact that the optimal dosage depends on the same kinds of individual characteristics just discussed and on the task (Mattay et al., 2003).
Talk to your doctor, too, before diving in "to ensure that they do not conflict with current meds or cause a detrimental effect," Hohler says. You also want to consider what you already know about your health and body – if you have anxiety or are already sensitive to caffeine, for example, you may find that some of the supplements work a little too well and just enhance anxiety or make it difficult to sleep, Barbour says. Finances matter, too, of course: The retail price for Qualia Mind is $139 for 22 seven-capsule "servings"; the suggestion is to take one serving a day, five days a week. The retail price for Alpha Brain is $79.95 for 90 capsules; adults are advised to take two a day.
Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, doesn’t dismiss the possibility of nootropics to enhance cognitive function in healthy people. She would like to see society think about what might be considered acceptable use and where it draws the line – for example, young people whose brains are still developing. But she also points out a big problem: long-term safety studies in healthy people have never been done. Most efficacy studies have only been short-term. “Proving safety and efficacy is needed,” she says.
As with other nootropics, the way it works is still partially a mystery, but most research points to it acting as a weak dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Put simply, it increases your dopamine levels the same way cocaine does, but in a much less extreme fashion. The enhanced reward system it creates in the brain, however, makes it what Patel considers to be the most potent cognitive enhancer available; and he notes that some people go from sloth to superman within an hour or two of taking it.
Either way, if more and more people use these types of stimulants, there may be a risk that we will find ourselves in an ever-expanding neurological arm’s race, argues philosophy professor Nicole Vincent. But is this necessarily a bad thing? No, says Farahany, who sees the improvement in cognitive functioning as a social good that we should pursue. Better brain functioning would result in societal benefits, she argues, “like economic gains or even reducing dangerous errors.”
A 100mg dose of caffeine (half of a No-Doz or one cup of strong coffee) with 200mg of L-theanine is what the nootropics subreddit recommends in their beginner’s FAQ, and many nootropic sellers, like Peak Nootropics, suggest the same. In my own experiments, I used a pre-packaged combination from Nootrobox called Go Cubes. They’re essentially chewable coffee cubes (not as gross as it sounds) filled with that same beginner dose of caffeine, L-theanine, as well as a few B vitamins thrown into the mix. After eating an entire box of them (12 separate servings—not all at once), I can say eating them made me feel more alert and energetic, but less jittery than my usual three cups of coffee every day. I noticed enough of a difference in the past two weeks that I’ll be looking into getting some L-theanine supplements to take with my daily coffee.
I bought 500g of piracetam (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) from Smart Powders (piracetam is one of the cheapest nootropics and SP was one of the cheapest suppliers; the others were much more expensive as of October 2010), and I’ve tried it out for several days (started on 7 September 2009, and used it steadily up to mid-December). I’ve varied my dose from 3 grams to 12 grams (at least, I think the little scoop measures in grams), taking them in my tea or bitter fruit juice. Cranberry worked the best, although orange juice masks the taste pretty well; I also accidentally learned that piracetam stings horribly when I got some on a cat scratch. 3 grams (alone) didn’t seem to do much of anything while 12 grams gave me a nasty headache. I also ate 2 or 3 eggs a day.
Government restrictions and difficulty getting approval for various medical devices is expected to impede market growth. The stringency of approval by regulatory authorities is accompanied by the high cost of smart pills to challenge the growth of the smart pills market. However, the demand for speedy diagnosis, and improving reimbursement policies are likely to reveal market opportunities.
The use of cognitive enhancers by healthy individuals sparked debate about ethics and safety. Cognitive enhancement by pharmaceutical means was considered a form of illicit drug use in some places, even while other cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine and nicotine, were freely available. The conflict therein raised the possibility for further acceptance of smart drugs in the future. However, the long-term effects of smart drugs on otherwise healthy brains were unknown, delaying safety assessments.
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.
Gibson and Green (2002), talking about a possible link between glucose and cognition, wrote that research in the area …is based on the assumption that, since glucose is the major source of fuel for the brain, alterations in plasma levels of glucose will result in alterations in brain levels of glucose, and thus neuronal function. However, the strength of this notion lies in its common-sense plausibility, not in scientific evidence… (p. 185).
Another interpretation of the mixed results in the literature is that, in some cases at least, individual differences in response to stimulants have led to null results when some participants in the sample are in fact enhanced and others are not. This possibility is not inconsistent with the previously mentioned ones; both could be at work. Evidence has already been reviewed that ability level, personality, and COMT genotype modulate the effect of stimulants, although most studies in the literature have not broken their samples down along these dimensions. There may well be other as-yet-unexamined individual characteristics that determine drug response. The equivocal nature of the current literature may reflect a mixture of substantial cognitive-enhancement effects for some individuals, diluted by null effects or even counteracted by impairment in others.
“One of my favorites is 1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine,” says Dr. Mark Moyad, director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan. He says this chemical boosts many aspects of cognition by improving alertness. It’s also associated with some memory benefits. “Of course,” Moyad says, “1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine goes by another name—caffeine.”
But when aficionados talk about nootropics, they usually refer to substances that have supposedly few side effects and low toxicity. Most often they mean piracetam, which Giurgea first synthesized in 1964 and which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Not so in the United States, however, where officially it can be sold only for research purposes.
Smart drugs, formally known as nootropics, are medications, supplements, and other substances that improve some aspect of mental function. In the broadest sense, smart drugs can include common stimulants such as caffeine, herbal supplements like ginseng, and prescription medications for conditions such as ADHD, Alzheimer's disease, and narcolepsy. These substances can enhance concentration, memory, and learning.