Caffeine (; FDA adverse events) is of course the most famous stimulant around. But consuming 200mg or more a day, I have discovered the downside: it is addictive and has a nasty withdrawal - headaches, decreased motivation, apathy, and general unhappiness. (It’s a little amusing to read academic descriptions of caffeine addiction9; if caffeine were a new drug, I wonder what Schedule it would be in and if people might be even more leery of it than modafinil.) Further, in some ways, aside from the ubiquitous placebo effect, caffeine combines a mix of weak performance benefits (Lorist & Snel 2008, Nehlig 2010) with some possible decrements, anecdotally and scientifically:
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
Brain-imaging studies are consistent with the existence of small effects that are not reliably captured by the behavioral paradigms of the literature reviewed here. Typically with executive function tasks, reduced activation of task-relevant areas is associated with better performance and is interpreted as an indication of higher neural efficiency (e.g., Haier, Siegel, Tang, Abel, & Buchsbaum, 1992). Several imaging studies showed effects of stimulants on task-related activation while failing to find effects on cognitive performance. Although changes in brain activation do not necessarily imply functional cognitive changes, they are certainly suggestive and may well be more sensitive than behavioral measures. Evidence of this comes from a study of COMT variation and executive function. Egan and colleagues (2001) found a genetic effect on executive function in an fMRI study with sample sizes as small as 11 but did not find behavioral effects in these samples. The genetic effect on behavior was demonstrated in a separate study with over a hundred participants. In sum, d-AMP and MPH measurably affect the activation of task-relevant brain regions when participants’ task performance does not differ. This is consistent with the hypothesis (although by no means positive proof) that stimulants exert a true cognitive-enhancing effect that is simply too small to be detected in many studies.
The nonmedical use of substances—often dubbed smart drugs—to increase memory or concentration is known as pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE), and it rose in all 15 nations included in the survey. The study looked at prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin—prescribed medically to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—as well as the sleep-disorder medication modafinil and illegal stimulants such as cocaine.
Googling, you sometimes see correlational studies like Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men and Women Is Associated with Better Cognitive Test Performance; in this one, the correlated performance increase from eating chocolate was generally fairly modest (say, <10%), and the maximum effects were at 10g/day of what was probably milk chocolate, which generally has 10-40% chocolate liquor in it, suggesting any experiment use 1-4g. More interesting is the blind RCT experiment Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort11, which found improvements at ~1g; the most dramatic improvement of the 4 tasks (on the Threes correct) saw a difference of 2 to 6 at the end of the hour of testing, while several of the other tests converged by the end or saw the controls winning (Sevens correct). Crews et al 2008 found no cognitive benefit, and an fMRI experiment found the change in brain oxygen levels it wanted but no improvement to reaction times.
In 2011, as part of the Silk Road research, I ordered 10x100mg Modalert (5btc) from a seller. I also asked him about his sourcing, since if it was bad, it’d be valuable to me to know whether it was sourced from one of the vendors listed in my table. He replied, more or less, I get them from a large Far Eastern pharmaceuticals wholesaler. I think they’re probably the supplier for a number of the online pharmacies. 100mg seems likely to be too low, so I treated this shipment as 5 doses:

The question of whether stimulants are smart pills in a pragmatic sense cannot be answered solely by consideration of the statistical significance of the difference between stimulant and placebo. A drug with tiny effects, even if statistically significant, would not be a useful cognitive enhancer for most purposes. We therefore report Cohen’s d effect size measure for published studies that provide either means and standard deviations or relevant F or t statistics (Thalheimer & Cook, 2002). More generally, with most sample sizes in the range of a dozen to a few dozen, small effects would not reliably be found.

Fortunately, there are some performance-enhancing habits that have held up under rigorous scientific scrutiny. They are free, and easy to pronounce. Unfortunately, they are also the habits you were perhaps hoping to forego by using nootropics instead. “Of all the things that are supposed to be ‘good for the brain,’” says Stanford neurology professor Sharon Sha, “there is more evidence for exercise than anything else.” Next time you’re facing a long day, you could take a pill and see what happens.
Most people would describe school as a place where they go to learn, so learning is an especially relevant cognitive process for students to enhance. Even outside of school, however, learning plays a role in most activities, and the ability to enhance the retention of information would be of value in many different occupational and recreational contexts.
(In particular, I don’t think it’s because there’s a sudden new surge of drugs. FDA drug approval has been decreasing over the past few decades, so this is unlikely a priori. More specifically, many of the major or hot drugs go back a long time. Bacopa goes back millennia, melatonin I don’t even know, piracetam was the ’60s, modafinil was ’70s or ’80s, ALCAR was ’80s AFAIK, Noopept & coluracetam were ’90s, and so on.)
When you drink tea, you’re getting some caffeine (less than the amount in coffee), plus an amino acid called L-theanine that has been shown in studies to increase activity in the brain’s alpha frequency band, which can lead to relaxation without drowsiness. These calming-but-stimulating effects might contribute to tea’s status as the most popular beverage aside from water. People have been drinking it for more than 4,000 years, after all, but modern brain hackers try to distill and enhance the benefits by taking just L-theanine as a nootropic supplement. Unfortunately, that means they’re missing out on the other health effects that tea offers. It’s packed with flavonoids, which are associated with longevity, reduced inflammation, weight loss, cardiovascular health, and cancer prevention.
As expected since most of the data overlaps with the previous LLLT analysis, the LLLT variable correlates strongly; the individual magnesium variables may look a little more questionable but were justified in the magnesium citrate analysis. The Noopept result looks a little surprising - almost zero effect? Let’s split by dose (which was the point of the whole rigmarole of changing dose levels):

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).
Lebowitz says that if you're purchasing supplements to improve your brain power, you're probably wasting your money. "There is nothing you can buy at your local health food store that will improve your thinking skills," Lebowitz says. So that turmeric latte you've been drinking everyday has no additional brain benefits compared to a regular cup of java.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if you are already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.
Nootropics are a specific group of smart drugs. But nootropics aren’t the only drugs out there that promise you some extra productivity. More students and office workers are using drugs to increase their productivity than ever before [79]. But unlike with nootropics, many have side-effects. And that is precisely what is different between nootropics and other enhancing drugs, nootropics have little to no negative side-effects.
“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.
The flanker task is designed to tax cognitive control by requiring subjects to respond based on the identity of a target stimulus (H or S) and not the more numerous and visually salient stimuli that flank the target (as in a display such as HHHSHHH). Servan-Schreiber, Carter, Bruno, and Cohen (1998) administered the flanker task to subjects on placebo and d-AMP. They found an overall speeding of responses but, more importantly, an increase in accuracy that was disproportionate for the incongruent conditions, that is, the conditions in which the target and flankers did not match and cognitive control was needed.

…researchers have added a new layer to the smart pill conversation. Adderall, they’ve found, makes you think you’re doing better than you actually are….Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job….But the results of the new University of Pennsylvania study, funded by the U.S. Navy and not yet published but presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference last month, are consistent with much of the existing research. As a group, no overall statistically-significant improvement or impairment was seen as a result of taking Adderall. The research team tested 47 subjects, all in their 20s, all without a diagnosis of ADHD, on a variety of cognitive functions, from working memory-how much information they could keep in mind and manipulate-to raw intelligence, to memories for specific events and faces….The last question they asked their subjects was: How and how much did the pill influence your performance on today’s tests? Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job on the tasks they’d been given, even though their performance did not show an improvement over that of those who had taken the placebo. According to Irena Ilieva…it’s the first time since the 1960s that a study on the effects of amphetamine, a close cousin of Adderall, has asked how subjects perceive the effect of the drug on their performance.
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.

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.
Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)

Exercise and nutrition also play an important role in neuroplasticity. Many vitamins and ingredients found naturally in food products have been shown to have cognitive enhancing effects. Some of these include vitamins B6 and B12, caffeine, phenethylamine found in chocolate and l-theanine, found in green tea, whose combined effects with caffeine are more extensively researched.
With just 16 predictions, I can’t simply bin the predictions and say yep, that looks good. Instead, we can treat each prediction as equivalent to a bet and see what my winnings (or losses) were; the standard such proper scoring rule is the logarithmic rule which pretty simple: you earn the logarithm of the probability if you were right, and the logarithm of the negation if you were wrong; he who racks up the fewest negative points wins. We feed in a list and get back a number:
"Piracetam is not a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical, or dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake. Further, piracetam is not a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract or combination of any such dietary ingredient. [...] Accordingly, these products are drugs, under section 201(g)(1)(C) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(C), because they are not foods and they are intended to affect the structure or any function of the body. Moreover, these products are new drugs as defined by section 201(p) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(p), because they are not generally recognized as safe and effective for use under the conditions prescribed, recommended, or suggested in their labeling."[33]