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.

If you could take a pill that would help you study and get better grades, would you? Off-label use of “smart drugs” – pharmaceuticals meant to treat disorders like ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s – are becoming increasingly popular among college students hoping to get ahead, by helping them to stay focused and alert for longer periods of time. But is this cheating? Should their use as cognitive enhancers be approved by the FDA, the medical community, and society at large? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
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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).
The information learned in the tasks reviewed so far was explicit, declarative, and consistent within each experiment. In contrast, probabilistic and procedural learning tasks require the subject to gradually extract a regularity in the associations among stimuli from multiple presentations in which the correct associations are only presented some of the time, with incorrect associations also presented. Findings are mixed in these tasks. Breitenstein and colleagues (2004, 2006) showed subjects drawings of common objects accompanied by nonsense word sounds in training sessions that extended over multiple days. They found faster learning of the to-be-learned, higher probability pairings between sessions (consistent with enhanced retention over longer delays). Breitenstein et al. (2004) found that this enhancement remained a year later. Schlösser et al. (2009) tested subjects’ probabilistic learning ability in the context of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, comparing performance and brain activation with MPH and placebo. MPH did not affect learning performance as measured by accuracy. Although subjects were overall faster in responding on MPH, this difference was independent of the difficulty of the learning task, and the authors accordingly attributed it to response processes rather than learning.
“We stumbled upon fasting as a way to optimize cognition and make yourself into a more efficient human being,” says Manuel Lam, an internal medicine physician who advises Nootrobox on clinical issues. He and members of the company’s executive team have implanted glucose monitors in their arms — not because they fear diabetes but because they wish to track the real-time effect of the foods they eat.
These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”
The therapeutic effect of AMP and MPH in ADHD is consistent with the finding of abnormalities in the catecholamine system in individuals with ADHD (e.g., Volkow et al., 2007). Both AMP and MPH exert their effects on cognition primarily by increasing levels of catecholamines in prefrontal cortex and the cortical and subcortical regions projecting to it, and this mechanism is responsible for improving cognition and behavior in ADHD (Pliszka, 2005; Wilens, 2006).
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).
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.
There is an ancient precedent to humans using natural compounds to elevate cognitive performance. Incan warriors in the 15th century would ingest coca leaves (the basis for cocaine) before battle. Ethiopian hunters in the 10th century developed coffee bean paste to improve hunting stamina. Modern athletes ubiquitously consume protein powders and hormones to enhance their training, recovery, and performance. The most widely consumed psychoactive compound today is caffeine. Millions of people use coffee and tea to be more alert and focused.
The peculiar tired-sharp feeling was there as usual, and the DNB scores continue to suggest this is not an illusion, as they remain in the same 30-50% band as my normal performance. I did not notice the previous aboulia feeling; instead, around noon, I was filled with a nervous energy and a disturbingly rapid pulse which meditation & deep breathing did little to help with, and which didn’t go away for an hour or so. Fortunately, this was primarily at church, so while I felt irritable, I didn’t actually interact with anyone or snap at them, and was able to keep a lid on it. I have no idea what that was about. I wondered if it might’ve been a serotonin storm since amphetamines are some of the drugs that can trigger storms but the Adderall had been at 10:50 AM the previous day, or >25 hours (the half-lives of the ingredients being around 13 hours). An hour or two previously I had taken my usual caffeine-piracetam pill with my morning tea - could that have interacted with the armodafinil and the residual Adderall? Or was it caffeine+modafinil? Speculation, perhaps. A house-mate was ill for a few hours the previous day, so maybe the truth is as prosaic as me catching whatever he had.
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.
For Malcolm Gladwell, “the thing with doping is that it allows you to train harder than you would have done otherwise.” He argues that we cannot easily call someone a cheater on the basis of having used a drug for this purpose. The equivalent, he explains, would be a student who steals an exam paper from the teacher, and then instead of going home and not studying at all, goes to a library and studies five times harder.
“There seems to be a growing percentage of intellectual workers in Silicon Valley and Wall Street using nootropics. They are akin to intellectual professional athletes where the stakes and competition is high,” says Geoffrey Woo, the CEO and co-founder of nutrition company HVMN, which produces a line of nootropic supplements. Denton agrees. “I think nootropics just make things more and more competitive. The ease of access to Chinese, Russian intellectual capital in the United States, for example, is increasing. And there is a willingness to get any possible edge that’s available.”

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An expert in legal and ethical issues surrounding health care technology, Associate Professor Eric Swirsky suggested that both groups have valid arguments, but that neither group is asking the right questions. Prof Swirsky is the clinical associate professor of biomedical and health information sciences in the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences.
At this point I began to get bored with it and the lack of apparent effects, so I began a pilot trial: I’d use the LED set for 10 minutes every few days before 2PM, record, and in a few months look for a correlation with my daily self-ratings of mood/productivity (for 2.5 years I’ve asked myself at the end of each day whether I did more, the usual, or less work done that day than average, so 2=below-average, 3=average, 4=above-average; it’s ad hoc, but in some factor analyses I’ve been playing with, it seems to load on a lot of other variables I’ve measured, so I think it’s meaningful).
If smart drugs are the synthetic cognitive enhancers, sleep, nutrition and exercise are the "natural" ones. But the appeal of drugs like Ritalin and modafinil lies in their purported ability to enhance brain function beyond the norm. Indeed, at school or in the workplace, a pill that enhanced the ability to acquire and retain information would be particularly useful when it came to revising and learning lecture material. But despite their increasing popularity, do prescription stimulants actually enhance cognition in healthy users?

More than once I have seen results indicating that high-IQ types benefit the least from random nootropics; nutritional deficits are the premier example, because high-IQ types almost by definition suffer from no major deficiencies like iodine. But a stimulant modafinil may be another such nootropic (see Cognitive effects of modafinil in student volunteers may depend on IQ, Randall et al 2005), which mentions:
Never heard of OptiMind before? This supplement promotes itself as an all-natural nootropic supplement that increases focus, improves memory, and enhances overall mental drive. The product first captured our attention when we noticed that their supplement blend contains a few of the same ingredients currently present in our editor’s #1 choice. So, of course, we grew curious to see whether their formula was as (un)successful as their initial branding techniques. Keep reading to find out what we discovered… Learn More...
Several studies have assessed the effect of MPH and d-AMP on tasks tapping various other aspects of spatial working memory. Three used the spatial working memory task from the CANTAB battery of neuropsychological tests (Sahakian & Owen, 1992). In this task, subjects search for a target at different locations on a screen. Subjects are told that locations containing a target in previous trials will not contain a target in future trials. Efficient performance therefore requires remembering and avoiding these locations in addition to remembering and avoiding locations already searched within a trial. Mehta et al. (2000) found evidence of greater accuracy with MPH, and Elliott et al. (1997) found a trend for the same. In Mehta et al.’s study, this effect depended on subjects’ working memory ability: the lower a subject’s score on placebo, the greater the improvement on MPH. In Elliott et al.’s study, MPH enhanced performance for the group of subjects who received the placebo first and made little difference for the other group. The reason for this difference is unclear, but as mentioned above, this may reflect ability differences between the groups. More recently, Clatworthy et al. (2009) undertook a positron emission tomography (PET) study of MPH effects on two tasks, one of which was the CANTAB spatial working memory task. They failed to find consistent effects of MPH on working memory performance but did find a systematic relation between the performance effect of the drug in each individual and its effect on individuals’ dopamine activity in the ventral striatum.
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.