Only two of the eight experiments reviewed in this section found that stimulants enhanced performance, on a nonverbal fluency task in one case and in Raven’s Progressive Matrices in the other. The small number of studies of any given type makes it difficult to draw general conclusions about the underlying executive function systems that might be influenced.
In the largest nationwide study, McCabe et al. (2005) sampled 10,904 students at 119 public and private colleges and universities across the United States, providing the best estimate of prevalence among American college students in 2001, when the data were collected. This survey found 6.9% lifetime, 4.1% past-year, and 2.1% past-month nonmedical use of a prescription stimulant. It also found that prevalence depended strongly on student and school characteristics, consistent with the variability noted among the results of single-school studies. The strongest predictors of past-year nonmedical stimulant use by college students were admissions criteria (competitive and most competitive more likely than less competitive), fraternity/sorority membership (members more likely than nonmembers), and gender (males more likely than females).
Ngo has experimented with piracetam himself (“The first time I tried it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty strong for a supplement.’ I had a little bit of reflux, heartburn, but in general it was a cognitive enhancer. . . . I found it helpful”) and the neurotransmitter DMEA (“You have an idea, it helps you finish the thought. It’s for when people have difficulty finishing that last connection in the brain”).
Many of the food-derived ingredients that are often included in nootropics—omega-3s in particular, but also flavonoids—do seem to improve brain health and function. But while eating fatty fish, berries and other healthy foods that are high in these nutrients appears to be good for your brain, the evidence backing the cognitive benefits of OTC supplements that contain these and other nutrients is weak.

A total of 14 studies surveyed reasons for using prescription stimulants nonmedically, all but one study confined to student respondents. The most common reasons were related to cognitive enhancement. Different studies worded the multiple-choice alternatives differently, but all of the following appeared among the top reasons for using the drugs: “concentration” or “attention” (Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; Teter, McCabe, Cranford, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2005; White et al., 2006); “help memorize,” “study,” “study habits,” or “academic assignments” (Arria et al., 2008; Barrett et al., 2005; Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; DuPont et al., 2008; Low & Gendaszek, 2002; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2005, 2006; White et al., 2006); “grades” or “intellectual performance” (Low & Gendaszek, 2002; White et al., 2006); “before tests” or “finals week” (Hall et al., 2005); “alertness” (Boyd et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Teter et al., 2003, 2005, 2006); or “performance” (Novak et al., 2007). However, every survey found other motives mentioned as well. The pills were also taken to “stay awake,” “get high,” “be able to drink and party longer without feeling drunk,” “lose weight,” “experiment,” and for “recreational purposes.”
The term “smart pills” refers to miniature electronic devices that are shaped and designed in the mold of pharmaceutical capsules but perform highly advanced functions such as sensing, imaging and drug delivery. They may include biosensors or image, pH or chemical sensors. Once they are swallowed, they travel along the gastrointestinal tract to capture information that is otherwise difficult to obtain, and then are easily eliminated from the system. Their classification as ingestible sensors makes them distinct from implantable or wearable sensors.

The absence of a suitable home for this needed research on the current research funding landscape exemplifies a more general problem emerging now, as applications of neuroscience begin to reach out of the clinical setting and into classrooms, offices, courtrooms, nurseries, marketplaces, and battlefields (Farah, 2011). Most of the longstanding sources of public support for neuroscience research are dedicated to basic research or medical applications. As neuroscience is increasingly applied to solving problems outside the medical realm, it loses access to public funding. The result is products and systems reaching the public with less than adequate information about effectiveness and/or safety. Examples include cognitive enhancement with prescription stimulants, event-related potential and fMRI-based lie detection, neuroscience-based educational software, and anti-brain-aging computer programs. Research and development in nonmedical neuroscience are now primarily the responsibility of private corporations, which have an interest in promoting their products. Greater public support of nonmedical neuroscience research, including methods of cognitive enhancement, will encourage greater knowledge and transparency concerning the efficacy and safety of these products and will encourage the development of products based on social value rather than profit value.
Take at 11 AM; distractions ensue and the Christmas tree-cutting also takes up much of the day. By 7 PM, I am exhausted and in a bad mood. While I don’t expect day-time modafinil to buoy me up, I do expect it to at least buffer me against being tired, and so I conclude placebo this time, and with more confidence than yesterday (65%). I check before bed, and it was placebo.
In the nearer future, Lynch points to nicotinic receptor agents – molecules that act on the neurotransmitter receptors affected by nicotine – as ones to watch when looking out for potential new cognitive enhancers. Sarter agrees: a class of agents known as α4β2* nicotinic receptor agonists, he says, seem to act on mechanisms that control attention. Among the currently known candidates, he believes they come closest “to fulfilling the criteria for true cognition enhancers.”
One fairly powerful nootropic substance that, appropriately, has fallen out of favor is nicotine. It’s the chemical that gives tobacco products their stimulating kick. It isn’t what makes them so deadly, but it does make smoking very addictive. When Europeans learned about tobacco’s use from indigenous tribes they encountered in the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, they got hooked on its mood-altering effects right away and even believed it could cure joint pain, epilepsy, and the plague. Recently, researchers have been testing the effects of nicotine that’s been removed from tobacco, and they believe that it might help treat neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia; it may also improve attention and focus. But, please, don’t start smoking or vaping. Check out these 14 weird brain exercises that make you smarter.
My first time was relatively short: 10 minutes around the F3/F4 points, with another 5 minutes to the forehead. Awkward holding it up against one’s head, and I see why people talk of LED helmets, it’s boring waiting. No initial impressions except maybe feeling a bit mentally cloudy, but that goes away within 20 minutes of finishing when I took a nap outside in the sunlight. Lostfalco says Expectations: You will be tired after the first time for 2 to 24 hours. It’s perfectly normal., but I’m not sure - my dog woke me up very early and disturbed my sleep, so maybe that’s why I felt suddenly tired. On the second day, I escalated to 30 minutes on the forehead, and tried an hour on my finger joints. No particular observations except less tiredness than before and perhaps less joint ache. Third day: skipped forehead stimulation, exclusively knee & ankle. Fourth day: forehead at various spots for 30 minutes; tiredness 5/6/7/8th day (11/12/13/4): skipped. Ninth: forehead, 20 minutes. No noticeable effects.
Flow diagram of cognitive neuroscience literature search completed July 2, 2010. Search terms were dextroamphetamine, Aderrall, methylphenidate, or Ritalin, and cognitive, cognition, learning, memory, or executive function, and healthy or normal. Stages of subsequent review used the information contained in the titles, abstracts, and articles to determine whether articles reported studies meeting the inclusion criteria stated in the text.
When you hear about nootropics, often called “smart drugs,” you probably picture something like the scene above from Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s character becomes brilliant after downing a strange pill. The drugs and supplements currently available don’t pack that strong of a punch, but the concept is basically the same. Many nootropics have promising benefits, like boosting memory, focus, or motivation, and there’s research to support specific uses. But the most effective nootropics, like Modafinil, aren’t intended for use without a prescription to treat a specific condition. In fact, recreational use of nootropics is hotly-debated among doctors and medical researchers. Many have concerns about the possible adverse effects of long-term use, as well as the ethics of using cognitive enhancers to gain an advantage in school, sports, or even everyday work.
If you haven’t seen the movie, imagine unfathomable brain power in capsule form. Picture a drug from another universe. It can transform an unsuccessful couch potato into a millionaire financial mogul. Ingesting the powerful smart pill boosts intelligence and turns you into a prodigy. Its results are instant. Sounds great, right? If only it were real.
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.
Bacopa is a supplement herb often used for memory or stress adaptation. Its chronic effects reportedly take many weeks to manifest, with no important acute effects. Out of curiosity, I bought 2 bottles of Bacognize Bacopa pills and ran a non-randomized non-blinded ABABA quasi-self-experiment from June 2014 to September 2015, measuring effects on my memory performance, sleep, and daily self-ratings of mood/productivity. Because of the very slow onset, small effective sample size, definite temporal trends probably unrelated to Bacopa, and noise in the variables, the results were as expected, ambiguous, and do not strongly support any correlation between Bacopa and memory/sleep/self-rating (+/-/- respectively).
Took pill #6 at 12:35 PM. Hard to be sure. I ultimately decided that it was Adderall because I didn’t have as much trouble as I normally would in focusing on reading and then finishing my novel (Surface Detail) despite my family watching a movie, though I didn’t notice any lack of appetite. Call this one 60-70% Adderall. I check the next evening and it was Adderall.
It isn’t unlikely to hear someone from Silicon Valley say the following: “I’ve just cycled off a stack of Piracetam and CDP-Choline because I didn’t get the mental acuity I was expecting. I will try a blend of Noopept and Huperzine A for the next two weeks and see if I can increase my output by 10%. We don’t have immortality yet and I would really like to join the three comma club before it’s all over.”
Instead of buying expensive supplements, Lebowitz recommends eating heart-healthy foods, like those found in the MIND diet. Created by researchers at Rush University, MIND combines the Mediterranean and DASH eating plans, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart problems. Fish, nuts, berries, green leafy vegetables and whole grains are MIND diet staples. Lebowitz says these foods likely improve your cognitive health by keeping your heart healthy.

Table 4 lists the results of 27 tasks from 23 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on working memory. The oldest and most commonly used type of working memory task in this literature is the Sternberg short-term memory scanning paradigm (Sternberg, 1966), in which subjects hold a set of items (typically letters or numbers) in working memory and are then presented with probe items, to which they must respond “yes” (in the set) or “no” (not in the set). The size of the set, and hence the working memory demand, is sometimes varied, and the set itself may be varied from trial to trial to maximize working memory demands or may remain fixed over a block of trials. Taken together, the studies that have used a version of this task to test the effects of MPH and d-AMP on working memory have found mixed and somewhat ambiguous results. No pattern is apparent concerning the specific version of the task or the specific drug. Four studies found no effect (Callaway, 1983; Kennedy, Odenheimer, Baltzley, Dunlap, & Wood, 1990; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007; Tipper et al., 2005), three found faster responses with the drugs (Fitzpatrick, Klorman, Brumaghim, & Keefover, 1988; Ward et al., 1997; D. E. Wilson et al., 1971), and one found higher accuracy in some testing sessions at some dosages, but no main effect of drug (Makris et al., 2007). The meaningfulness of the increased speed of responding is uncertain, given that it could reflect speeding of general response processes rather than working memory–related processes. Aspects of the results of two studies suggest that the effects are likely due to processes other than working memory: D. E. Wilson et al. (1971) reported comparable speeding in a simple task without working memory demands, and Tipper et al. (2005) reported comparable speeding across set sizes.
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.
After my rudimentary stacking efforts flamed out in unspectacular fashion, I tried a few ready-made stacks—brand-name nootropic cocktails that offer to eliminate the guesswork for newbies. They were just as useful. And a lot more expensive. Goop’s Braindust turned water into tea-flavored chalk. But it did make my face feel hot for 45 minutes. Then there were the two pills of Brain Force Plus, a supplement hawked relentlessly by Alex Jones of InfoWars infamy. The only result of those was the lingering guilt of knowing that I had willingly put $19.95 in the jorts pocket of a dipshit conspiracy theorist.

Clarke and Sokoloff (1998) remarked that although [a] common view equates concentrated mental effort with mental work…there appears to be no increased energy utilization by the brain during such processes (p. 664), and …the areas that participate in the processes of such reasoning represent too small a fraction of the brain for changes in their functional and metabolic activities to be reflected in the energy metabolism of the brain… (p. 675).

We’d want 53 pairs, but Fitzgerald 2012’s experimental design called for 32 weeks of supplementation for a single pair of before-after tests - so that’d be 1664 weeks or ~54 months or ~4.5 years! We can try to adjust it downwards with shorter blocks allowing more frequent testing; but problematically, iodine is stored in the thyroid and can apparently linger elsewhere - many of the cited studies used intramuscular injections of iodized oil (as opposed to iodized salt or kelp supplements) because this ensured an adequate supply for months or years with no further compliance by the subjects. If the effects are that long-lasting, it may be worthless to try shorter blocks than ~32 weeks.
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.
The magnesium was neither randomized nor blinded and included mostly as a covariate to avoid confounding (the Noopept coefficient & t-value increase somewhat without the Magtein variable), so an OR of 1.9 is likely too high; in any case, this experiment was too small to reliably detect any effect (~26% power, see bootstrap power simulation in the magnesium section) so we can’t say too much.

Aniracetam is known as one of the smart pills with the widest array of uses. From benefits for dementia patients and memory boost in adults with healthy brains, to the promotion of brain damage recovery. It also improves the quality of sleep, what affects the overall increase in focus during the day. Because it supports the production of dopamine and serotonin, it elevates our mood and helps fight depression and anxiety.


One reason I like modafinil is that it enhances dopamine release, but it binds to your dopamine receptors differently than addictive substances like cocaine and amphetamines do, which may be part of the reason modafinil shares many of the benefits of other stimulants but doesn’t cause addiction or withdrawal symptoms. [3] [4] It does increase focus, problem-solving abilities, and wakefulness, but it is not in the same class of drugs as Adderall, and it is not a classical stimulant. Modafinil is off of patent, so you can get it generically, or order it from India. It’s a prescription drug, so you need to talk to a physician.
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