A rough translation for the word “nootropic” comes from the Greek for “to bend or shape the mind.” And already, there are dozens of over-the-counter (OTC) products—many of which are sold widely online or in stores—that claim to boost creativity, memory, decision-making or other high-level brain functions. Some of the most popular supplements are a mixture of food-derived vitamins, lipids, phytochemicals and antioxidants that studies have linked to healthy brain function. One popular pick on Amazon, for example, is an encapsulated cocktail of omega-3s, B vitamins and plant-derived compounds that its maker claims can improve memory, concentration and focus.
I posted a link to the survey on my Google+ account, and inserted the link at the top of all gwern.net pages; 51 people completed all 11 binary choices (most of them coming from North America & Europe), which seems adequate since the 11 questions are all asking the same question, and 561 responses to one question is quite a few. A few different statistical tests seem applicable: a chi-squared test whether there’s a difference between all the answers, a two-sample test on the averages, and most meaningfully, summing up the responses as a single pair of numbers and doing a binomial test:
I started with the 10g of Vitality Enhanced Blend, a sort of tan dust. Used 2 little-spoonfuls (dust tastes a fair bit like green/oolong tea dust) into the tea mug and then some boiling water. A minute of steeping and… bleh. Tastes sort of musty and sour. (I see why people recommended sweetening it with honey.) The effects? While I might’ve been more motivated - I hadn’t had caffeine that day and was a tad under the weather, a feeling which seemed to go away perhaps half an hour after starting - I can’t say I experienced any nausea or very noticeable effects. (At least the flavor is no longer quite so offensive.)
As professionals and aging baby boomers alike become more interested in enhancing their own brain power (either to achieve more in a workday or to stave off cognitive decline), a huge market has sprung up for nonprescription nootropic supplements. These products don’t convince Sahakian: “As a clinician scientist, I am interested in evidence-based cognitive enhancement,” she says. “Many companies produce supplements, but few, if any, have double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to show that these supplements are cognitive enhancers.” Plus, supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so consumers don’t have that assurance as to exactly what they are getting. Check out these 15 memory exercises proven to keep your brain sharp.
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.
Today piracetam is a favourite with students and young professionals looking for a way to boost their performance, though decades after Giurgea’s discovery, there still isn’t much evidence that it can improve the mental abilities of healthy people. It’s a prescription drug in the UK, though it’s not approved for medical use by the US Food and Drug Administration and can’t be sold as a dietary supplement either.
The intradimensional– extradimensional shift task from the CANTAB battery was used in two studies of MPH and measures the ability to shift the response criterion from one dimension to another, as in the WCST, as well as to measure other abilities, including reversal learning, measured by performance in the trials following an intradimensional shift. With an intradimensional shift, the learned association between values of a given stimulus dimension and reward versus no reward is reversed, and participants must learn to reverse their responses accordingly. Elliott et al. (1997) reported finding no effects of the drug on ability to shift among dimensions in the extradimensional shift condition and did not describe performance on the intradimensional shift. Rogers et al. (1999) found that accuracy improved but responses slowed with MPH on trials requiring a shift from one dimension to another, which leaves open the question of whether the drug produced net enhancement, interference, or neither on these trials once the tradeoff between speed and accuracy is taken into account. For intradimensional shifts, which require reversal learning, these authors found drug-induced impairment: significantly slower responding accompanied by a borderline-significant impairment of accuracy.
Modafinil is a eugeroic, or ‘wakefulness promoting agent’, intended to help people with narcolepsy. It was invented in the 1970s, but was first approved by the American FDA in 1998 for medical use. Recent years have seen its off-label use as a ‘smart drug’ grow. It’s not known exactly how Modafinil works, but scientists believe it may increase levels of histamines in the brain, which can keep you awake. It might also inhibit the dissipation of dopamine, again helping wakefulness, and it may help alertness by boosting norepinephrine levels, contributing to its reputation as a drug to help focus and concentration.
Adderall is an amphetamine, used as a drug to help focus and concentration in people with ADHD, and promote wakefulness for sufferers of narcolepsy. Adderall increases levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, along with a few other chemicals and neurotransmitters. It’s used off-label as a study drug, because, as mentioned, it is believed to increase focus and concentration, improve cognition and help users stay awake. Please note: Side Effects Possible.
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.”
There are a number of treatments for the last. I already use melatonin. I sort of have light therapy from a full-spectrum fluorescent desk lamp. But I get very little sunlight; the surprising thing would be if I didn’t have a vitamin D deficiency. And vitamin D deficiencies have been linked with all sorts of interesting things like near-sightedness, with time outdoors inversely correlating with myopia and not reading or near-work time. (It has been claimed that caffeine interferes with vitamin D absorption and so people like me especially need to take vitamin D, on top of the deficits caused by our vampiric habits, but I don’t think this is true34.) Unfortunately, there’s not very good evidence that vitamin D supplementation helps with mood/SAD/depression: there’s ~6 small RCTs with some findings of benefits, with their respective meta-analysis turning in a positive but currently non-statistically-significant result. Better confirmed is reducing all-cause mortality in elderly people (see, in order of increasing comprehensiveness: Evidence Syntheses 2013, Chung et al 2009, Autier & Gandini 2007, Bolland et al 2014).
This formula presents a relatively high price and one bottle of 60 tables, at the recommended dosage of two tablets per day with a meal, a bottle provides a month’s supply. The secure online purchase is available on the manufacturer’s site as well as at several online retailers. Although no free trials or money back guarantees are available at this time, the manufacturer provides free shipping if the desired order exceeds a certain amount. With time different online retailers could offer some advantages depending on the amount purchased, so an online research is advised before purchase, as to assess the market and find the best solution.
The experiment then is straightforward: cut up a fresh piece of gum, randomly select from it and an equivalent dry piece of gum, and do 5 rounds of dual n-back to test attention/energy & WM. (If it turns out to be placebo, I’ll immediately use the remaining active dose: no sense in wasting gum, and this will test whether nigh-daily use renders nicotine gum useless, similar to how caffeine may be useless if taken daily. If there’s 3 pieces of active gum left, then I wrap it very tightly in Saran wrap which is sticky and air-tight.) The dose will be 1mg or 1/4 a gum. I cut up a dozen pieces into 4 pieces for 48 doses and set them out to dry. Per the previous power analyses, 48 groups of DNB rounds likely will be enough for detecting small-medium effects (partly since we will be only looking at one metric - average % right per 5 rounds - with no need for multiple correction). Analysis will be one-tailed, since we’re looking for whether there is a clear performance improvement and hence a reason to keep using nicotine gum (rather than whether nicotine gum might be harmful).
What worries me about amphetamine is its addictive potential, and the fact that it can cause stress and anxiety. Research says it’s only slightly likely to cause addiction in people with ADHD,  but we don’t know much about its addictive potential in healthy adults. We all know the addictive potential of methamphetamine, and amphetamine is closely related enough to make me nervous about so many people giving it to their children. Amphetamines cause withdrawal symptoms, so the potential for addiction is there.
But, if we find in 10 or 20 years that the drugs don't do damage, what are the benefits? These are stimulants that help with concentration. College students take such drugs to pass tests; graduates take them to gain professional licenses. They are akin to using a calculator to solve an equation. Do you really want a doctor who passed his boards as a result of taking speed — and continues to depend on that for his practice?
Adaptogens are plant-derived chemicals whose activity helps the body maintain or regain homeostasis (equilibrium between the body’s metabolic processes). Almost without exception, adaptogens are available over-the-counter as dietary supplements, not controlled drugs. Well-known adaptogens include Ginseng, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, St. Johns Wort, and Gotu Kola. Many of these traditional remedies border on being “folk wisdom,” and have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years, and are used to treat everything from anxiety and mild depression to low libido. While these smart drugs work in a many different ways (their commonality is their resultant function within the body, not their chemical makeup), it can generally be said that the cognitive boost users receive is mostly a result of fixing an imbalance in people with poor diets, body toxicity, or other metabolic problems, rather than directly promoting the growth of new brain cells or neural connections.
(As I was doing this, I reflected how modafinil is such a pure example of the money-time tradeoff. It’s not that you pay someone else to do something for you, which necessarily they will do in a way different from you; nor is it that you have exchanged money to free yourself of a burden of some future time-investment; nor have you paid money for a speculative return of time later in life like with many medical expenses or supplements. Rather, you have paid for 8 hours today of your own time.)
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics. Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.