Vinh Ngo, a San Francisco family practice doctor who specializes in hormone therapy, has become familiar with piracetam and other nootropics through a changing patient base. His office is located in the heart of the city’s tech boom and he is increasingly sought out by young, male tech workers who tell him they are interested in cognitive enhancement.
Coconut oil was recommended by Pontus Granström on the Dual N-Back mailing list for boosting energy & mental clarity. It is fairly cheap (~$13 for 30 ounces) and tastes surprisingly good; it has a very bad reputation in some parts, but seems to be in the middle of a rehabilitation. Seth Robert’s Buttermind experiment found no mental benefits to coconut oil (and benefits to eating butter), but I wonder.
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?
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.
When Giurgea coined the word nootropic (combining the Greek words for mind and bending) in the 1970s, he was focused on a drug he had synthesized called piracetam. Although it is approved in many countries, it isn’t categorized as a prescription drug in the United States. That means it can be purchased online, along with a number of newer formulations in the same drug family (including aniracetam, phenylpiracetam, and oxiracetam). Some studies have shown beneficial effects, including one in the 1990s that indicated possible improvement in the hippocampal membranes in Alzheimer’s patients. But long-term studies haven’t yet borne out the hype.
“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.
I largely ignored this since the discussions were of sub-RDA doses, and my experience has usually been that RDAs are a poor benchmark and frequently far too low (consider the RDA for vitamin D). This time, I checked the actual RDA - and was immediately shocked and sure I was looking at a bad reference: there was no way the RDA for potassium was seriously 3700-4700mg or 4-5 grams daily, was there? Just as an American, that implied that I was getting less than half my RDA. (How would I get 4g of potassium in the first place? Eat a dozen bananas a day⸮) I am not a vegetarian, nor is my diet that fantastic: I figured I was getting some potassium from the ~2 fresh tomatoes I was eating daily, but otherwise my diet was not rich in potassium sources. I have no blood tests demonstrating deficiency, but given the figures, I cannot see how I could not be deficient.
This tendency is exacerbated by general inefficiencies in the nootropics market - they are manufactured for vastly less than they sell for, although the margins aren’t as high as they are in other supplement markets, and not nearly as comical as illegal recreational drugs. (Global Price Fixing: Our Customers are the Enemy (Connor 2001) briefly covers the vitamin cartel that operated for most of the 20th century, forcing food-grade vitamins prices up to well over 100x the manufacturing cost.) For example, the notorious Timothy Ferriss (of The Four-hour Work Week) advises imitators to find a niche market with very high margins which they can insert themselves into as middlemen and reap the profits; one of his first businesses specialized in… nootropics & bodybuilding. Or, when Smart Powders - usually one of the cheapest suppliers - was dumping its piracetam in a fire sale of half-off after the FDA warning, its owner mentioned on forums that the piracetam was still profitable (and that he didn’t really care because selling to bodybuilders was so lucrative); this was because while SP was selling 2kg of piracetam for ~$90, Chinese suppliers were offering piracetam on AliBaba for $30 a kilogram or a third of that in bulk. (Of course, you need to order in quantities like 30kg - this is more or less the only problem the middlemen retailers solve.) It goes without saying that premixed pills or products are even more expensive than the powders.
Racetams, such as piracetam, oxiracetam, and aniracetam, which are often marketed as cognitive enhancers and sold over-the-counter. Racetams are often referred to as nootropics, but this property is not well established. The racetams have poorly understood mechanisms, although piracetam and aniracetam are known to act as positive allosteric modulators of AMPA receptors and appear to modulate cholinergic systems.