These days, nootropics are beginning to take their rightful place as a particularly powerful tool in the Neurohacker’s toolbox. After all, biochemistry is deeply foundational to neural function. Whether you are trying to fix the damage that is done to your nervous system by a stressful and toxic environment or support and enhance your neural functioning, getting the chemistry right is table-stakes. And we are starting to get good at getting it right. What’s changed?
The stop-signal task has been used in a number of laboratories to study the effects of stimulants on cognitive control. In this task, subjects are instructed to respond as quickly as possible by button press to target stimuli except on certain trials, when the target is followed by a stop signal. On those trials, they must try to avoid responding. The stop signal can follow the target stimulus almost immediately, in which case it is fairly easy for subjects to cancel their response, or it can come later, in which case subjects may fail to inhibit their response. The main dependent measure for stop-signal task performance is the stop time, which is the average go reaction time minus the interval between the target and stop signal at which subjects inhibit 50% of their responses. De Wit and colleagues have published two studies of the effects of d-AMP on this task. De Wit, Crean, and Richards (2000) reported no significant effect of the drug on stop time for their subjects overall but a significant effect on the half of the subjects who were slowest in stopping on the baseline trials. De Wit et al. (2002) found an overall improvement in stop time in addition to replicating their earlier finding that this was primarily the result of enhancement for the subjects who were initially the slowest stoppers. In contrast, Filmore, Kelly, and Martin (2005) used a different measure of cognitive control in this task, simply the number of failures to stop, and reported no effects of d-AMP.
If you want to try a nootropic in supplement form, check the label to weed out products you may be allergic to and vet the company as best you can by scouring its website and research basis, and talking to other customers, Kerl recommends. "Find one that isn't just giving you some temporary mental boost or some quick fix – that’s not what a nootropic is intended to do," Cyr says.
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.
Related to the famous -racetams but reportedly better (and much less bulky), Noopept is one of the many obscure Russian nootropics. (Further reading: Google Scholar, Examine.com, Reddit, Longecity, Bluelight.ru.) Its advantages seem to be that it’s far more compact than piracetam and doesn’t taste awful so it’s easier to store and consume; doesn’t have the cloud hanging over it that piracetam does due to the FDA letters, so it’s easy to purchase through normal channels; is cheap on a per-dose basis; and it has fans claiming it is better than piracetam.
Organizations, and even entire countries, are struggling with “always working” cultures. Germany and France have adopted rules to stop employees from reading and responding to email after work hours. Several companies have explored banning after-hours email; when one Italian company banned all email for one week, stress levels dropped among employees. This is not a great surprise: A Gallup study found that among those who frequently check email after working hours, about half report having a lot of stress.
Two variants of the Towers of London task were used by Elliott et al. (1997) to study the effects of MPH on planning. The object of this task is for subjects to move game pieces from one position to another while adhering to rules that constrain the ways in which they can move the pieces, thus requiring subjects to plan their moves several steps ahead. Neither version of the task revealed overall effects of the drug, but one version showed impairment for the group that received the drug first, and the other version showed enhancement for the group that received the placebo first.
Bacopa Monnieri is probably one of the safest and most effective memory and mood enhancer nootropic available today with the least side-effects. In some humans, a majorly extended use of Bacopa Monnieri can result in nausea. One of the primary products of AlternaScript is Optimind, a nootropic supplement which mostly constitutes of Bacopa Monnieri as one of the main ingredients.
One of the most popular legal stimulants in the world, nicotine is often conflated with the harmful effects of tobacco; considered on its own, it has performance & possibly health benefits. Nicotine is widely available at moderate prices as long-acting nicotine patches, gums, lozenges, and suspended in water for vaping. While intended for smoking cessation, there is no reason one cannot use a nicotine patch or nicotine gum for its stimulant effects.
Panax ginseng – A review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "there is a lack of convincing evidence to show a cognitive enhancing effect of Panax ginseng in healthy participants and no high quality evidence about its efficacy in patients with dementia." According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "[a]lthough Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb."
“Certain people might benefit from certain combinations of certain things,” he told me. “But across populations, there is still no conclusive proof that substances of this class improve cognitive functions.” And with no way to reliably measure the impact of a given substance on one’s mental acuity, one’s sincere beliefs about “what works” probably have a lot to do with, say, how demanding their day was, or whether they ate breakfast, or how susceptible they are to the placebo effect.
So with these 8 results in hand, what do I think? Roughly, I was right 5 of the days and wrong 3 of them. If not for the sleep effect on #4, which is - in a way - cheating (one hopes to detect modafinil due to good effects), the ratio would be 5:4 which is awfully close to a coin-flip. Indeed, a scoring rule ranks my performance at almost identical to a coin flip: -5.49 vs -5.5419. (The bright side is that I didn’t do worse than a coin flip: I was at least calibrated.)
The beneficial effects as well as the potentially serious side effects of these drugs can be understood in terms of their effects on the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine (Wilens, 2006). These neurotransmitters play an important role in cognition, affecting the cortical and subcortical systems that enable people to focus and flexibly deploy attention (Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). In addition, the brain’s reward centers are innervated by dopamine neurons, accounting for the pleasurable feelings engendered by these stimulants (Robbins & Everett, 1996).
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A big part is that we are finally starting to apply complex systems science to psycho-neuro-pharmacology and a nootropic approach. The neural system is awesomely complex and old-fashioned reductionist science has a really hard time with complexity. Big companies spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to separate the effects of just a single molecule from placebo – and nootropics invariably show up as “stacks” of many different ingredients (ours, Qualia , currently has 42 separate synergistic nootropics ingredients from alpha GPC to bacopa monnieri and L-theanine). That kind of complex, multi pathway input requires a different methodology to understand well that goes beyond simply what’s put in capsules.
Accordingly, we searched the literature for studies in which MPH or d-AMP was administered orally to nonelderly adults in a placebo-controlled design. Some of the studies compared the effects of multiple drugs, in which case we report only the results of stimulant–placebo comparisons; some of the studies compared the effects of stimulants on a patient group and on normal control subjects, in which case we report only the results for control subjects. The studies varied in many other ways, including the types of tasks used, the specific drug used, the way in which dosage was determined (fixed dose or weight-dependent dose), sample size, and subject characteristics (e.g., age, college sample or not, gender). Our approach to the classic splitting versus lumping dilemma has been to take a moderate lumping approach. We group studies according to the general type of cognitive process studied and, within that grouping, the type of task. The drug and dose are reported, as well as sample characteristics, but in the absence of pronounced effects of these factors, we do not attempt to make generalizations about them.
And as before, around 9 AM I began to feel the peculiar feeling that I was mentally able and apathetic (in a sort of aboulia way); so I decided to try what helped last time, a short nap. But this time, though I took a full hour, I slept not a wink and my Zeo recorded only 2 transient episodes of light sleep! A back-handed sort of proof of alertness, I suppose. I didn’t bother trying again. The rest of the day was mediocre, and I wound up spending much of it on chores and whatnot out of my control. Mentally, I felt better past 3 PM.
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Took pill 12:11 PM. I am not certain. While I do get some things accomplished (a fair amount of work on the Silk Road article and its submission to places), I also have some difficulty reading through a fiction book (Sum) and I seem kind of twitchy and constantly shifting windows. I am weakly inclined to think this is Adderall (say, 60%). It’s not my normal feeling. Next morning - it was Adderall.
12:18 PM. (There are/were just 2 Adderall left now.) I manage to spend almost the entire afternoon single-mindedly concentrating on transcribing two parts of a 1996 Toshio Okada interview (it was very long, and the formatting more challenging than expected), which is strong evidence for Adderall, although I did feel fairly hungry while doing it. I don’t go to bed until midnight and & sleep very poorly - despite taking triple my usual melatonin! Inasmuch as I’m already fairly sure that Adderall damages my sleep, this makes me even more confident (>80%). When I grumpily crawl out of bed and check: it’s Adderall. (One Adderall left.)
I noticed what may have been an effect on my dual n-back scores; the difference is not large (▃▆▃▃▂▂▂▂▄▅▂▄▂▃▅▃▄ vs ▃▄▂▂▃▅▂▂▄▁▄▃▅▂▃▂▄▂▁▇▃▂▂▄▄▃▃▂▃▂▂▂▃▄▄▃▆▄▄▂▃▄▃▁▂▂▂▃▂▄▂▁▁▂▄▁▃▂▄) and appears mostly in the averages - Toomim’s quick two-sample t-test gave p=0.23, although a another analysis gives p=0.138112. One issue with this before-after quasi-experiment is that one would expect my scores to slowly rise over time and hence a fish oil after would yield a score increase - the 3.2 point difference could be attributable to that, placebo effect, or random variation etc. But an accidentally noticed effect (d=0.28) is a promising start. An experiment may be worth doing given that fish oil does cost a fair bit each year: randomized blocks permitting an fish-oil-then-placebo comparison would take care of the first issue, and then blinding (olive oil capsules versus fish oil capsules?) would take care of the placebo worry.
Since LLLT was so cheap, seemed safe, was interesting, just trying it would involve minimal effort, and it would be a favor to lostfalco, I decided to try it. I purchased off eBay a $13 48 LED illuminator light IR Infrared Night Vision+Power Supply For CCTV. Auto Power-On Sensor, only turn-on when the surrounding is dark. IR LED wavelength: 850nm. Powered by DC 12V 500mA adaptor. It arrived in 4 days, on 7 September 2013. It fits handily in my palm. My cellphone camera verified it worked and emitted infrared - important because there’s no visible light at all (except in complete darkness I can make out a faint red light), no noise, no apparent heat (it took about 30 minutes before the lens or body warmed up noticeably when I left it on a table). This was good since I worried that there would be heat or noise which made blinding impossible; all I had to do was figure out how to randomly turn the power on and I could run blinded self-experiments with it.
That first night, I had severe trouble sleeping, falling asleep in 30 minutes rather than my usual 19.6±11.9, waking up 12 times (5.9±3.4), and spending ~90 minutes awake (18.1±16.2), and naturally I felt unrested the next day; I initially assumed it was because I had left a fan on (moving air keeps me awake) but the new potassium is also a possible culprit. When I asked, Kevin said:
So is there a future in smart drugs? Some scientists are more optimistic than others. Gary Lynch, a professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine argues that recent advances in neuroscience have opened the way for the smart design of drugs, configured for specific biological targets in the brain. “Memory enhancement is not very far off,” he says, although the prospects for other kinds of mental enhancement are “very difficult to know… To me, there’s an inevitability to the thing, but a timeline is difficult.”
“My husband and I (Ryan Cedermark) are so impressed with the research Cavin did when writing this book. If you, a family member or friend has suffered a TBI, concussion or are just looking to be nicer to your brain, then we highly recommend this book! Your brain is only as good as the body’s internal environment and Cavin has done an amazing job on providing the information needed to obtain such!”
Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
Smart drugs act within the brain speeding up chemical transfers, acting as neurotransmitters, or otherwise altering the exchange of brain chemicals. There are typically very few side effects, and they are considered generally safe when used as indicated. Special care should be used by those who have underlying health conditions, are on other medications, pregnant women, and children, as there is no long-term data on the use and effects of nootropics in these groups.
The price is not as good as multivitamins or melatonin. The studies showing effects generally use pretty high dosages, 1-4g daily. I took 4 capsules a day for roughly 4g of omega acids. The jar of 400 is 100 days’ worth, and costs ~$17, or around 17¢ a day. The general health benefits push me over the edge of favoring its indefinite use, but looking to economize. Usually, small amounts of packaged substances are more expensive than bulk unprocessed, so I looked at fish oil fluid products; and unsurprisingly, liquid is more cost-effective than pills (but like with the powders, straight fish oil isn’t very appetizing) in lieu of membership somewhere or some other price-break. I bought 4 bottles (16 fluid ounces each) for $53.31 total (thanks to coupons & sales), and each bottle lasts around a month and a half for perhaps half a year, or ~$100 for a year’s supply. (As it turned out, the 4 bottles lasted from 4 December 2010 to 17 June 2011, or 195 days.) My next batch lasted 19 August 2011-20 February 2012, and cost $58.27. Since I needed to buy empty 00 capsules (for my lithium experiment) and a book (Stanovich 2010, for SIAI work) from Amazon, I bought 4 more bottles of 16fl oz Nature’s Answer (lemon-lime) at $48.44, which I began using 27 February 2012. So call it ~$70 a year.
Another common working memory task is the n-back task, which requires the subject to view a series of items (usually letters) and decide whether the current item is identical to the one presented n items back. This task taxes working memory because the previous items must be held in working memory to be compared with the current item. The easiest version of this is a 1-back task, which is also called a double continuous performance task (CPT) because the subject is continuously monitoring for a repeat or double. Three studies examined the effects of MPH on working memory ability as measured by the 1-back task, and all found enhancement of performance in the form of reduced errors of omission (Cooper et al., 2005; Klorman et al., 1984; Strauss et al., 1984). Fleming et al. (1995) tested the effects of d-AMP on a 5-min CPT and found a decrease in reaction time, but did not specify which version of the CPT was used.
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.
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.)
Maj. Jamie Schwandt, USAR, is a logistics officer and has served as an operations officer, planner and commander. He is certified as a Department of the Army Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, certified Red Team Member, and holds a doctorate from Kansas State University. This article represents his own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army.
Depending on where you live, some nootropics may not be sold over the counter, but they are usually available online. The law regarding nootropics can vary massively around the world, so be sure to do your homework before you purchase something for the first time. Be particularly cautious when importing smart drugs, because quality control and regulations abroad are not always as stringent as they are in the US. Do not put your health at risk if all you are trying to do is gain an edge in a competitive sport.
Burke says he definitely got the glow. “The first time I took it, I was working on a business plan. I had to juggle multiple contingencies in my head, and for some reason a tree with branches jumped into my head. I was able to place each contingency on a branch, retract and go back to the trunk, and in this visual way I was able to juggle more information.”
With so many different ones to choose from, choosing the best nootropics for you can be overwhelming at times. As usual, a decision this important will require research. Study up on the top nootropics which catch your eye the most. The nootropics you take will depend on what you want the enhancement for. The ingredients within each nootropic determine its specific function. For example, some nootropics contain ginkgo biloba, which can help memory, thinking speed, and increase attention span. Check the nootropic ingredients as you determine what end results you want to see. Some nootropics supplements can increase brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. An increase in dopamine levels can be very useful for memory, alertness, reward and more. Many healthy adults, as well as college students take nootropics. This really supports the central nervous system and the brain.