Use of prescription stimulants by normal healthy individuals to enhance cognition is said to be on the rise. Who is using these medications for cognitive enhancement, and how prevalent is this practice? Do prescription stimulants in fact enhance cognition for normal healthy people? We review the epidemiological and cognitive neuroscience literatures in search of answers to these questions. Epidemiological issues addressed include the prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use, user demographics, methods by which users obtain prescription stimulants, and motivations for use. Cognitive neuroscience issues addressed include the effects of prescription stimulants on learning and executive function, as well as the task and individual variables associated with these effects. Little is known about the prevalence of prescription stimulant use for cognitive enhancement outside of student populations. Among college students, estimates of use vary widely but, taken together, suggest that the practice is commonplace. The cognitive effects of stimulants on normal healthy people cannot yet be characterized definitively, despite the volume of research that has been carried out on these issues. Published evidence suggests that declarative memory can be improved by stimulants, with some evidence consistent with enhanced consolidation of memories. Effects on the executive functions of working memory and cognitive control are less reliable but have been found for at least some individuals on some tasks. In closing, we enumerate the many outstanding questions that remain to be addressed by future research and also identify obstacles facing this research.

“I enjoyed this book. It was full of practical information. It was easy to understand. I implemented some of the ideas in the book and they have made a positive impact for me. Not only is this book a wealth of knowledge it helps you think outside the box and piece together other ideas to research and helps you understand more about TBI and the way food might help you mitigate symptoms.”
Piracetam boosts acetylcholine function, a neurotransmitter responsible for memory consolidation. Consequently, it improves memory in people who suffer from age-related dementia, which is why it is commonly prescribed to Alzheimer’s patients and people struggling with pre-dementia symptoms. When it comes to healthy adults, it is believed to improve focus and memory, enhancing the learning process altogether.

l-theanine (Examine.com) is occasionally mentioned on Reddit or Imminst or LessWrong32 but is rarely a top-level post or article; this is probably because theanine was discovered a very long time ago (>61 years ago), and it’s a pretty straightforward substance. It’s a weak relaxant/anxiolytic (Google Scholar) which is possibly responsible for a few of the health benefits of tea, and which works synergistically with caffeine (and is probably why caffeine delivered through coffee feels different from the same amount consumed in tea - in one study, separate caffeine and theanine were a mixed bag, but the combination beat placebo on all measurements). The half-life in humans seems to be pretty short, with van der Pijl 2010 putting it ~60 minutes. This suggests to me that regular tea consumption over a day is best, or at least that one should lower caffeine use - combining caffeine and theanine into a single-dose pill has the problem of caffeine’s half-life being much longer so the caffeine will be acting after the theanine has been largely eliminated. The problem with getting it via tea is that teas can vary widely in their theanine levels and the variations don’t seem to be consistent either, nor is it clear how to estimate them. (If you take a large dose in theanine like 400mg in water, you can taste the sweetness, but it’s subtle enough I doubt anyone can actually distinguish the theanine levels of tea; incidentally, r-theanine - the useless racemic other version - anecdotally tastes weaker and less sweet than l-theanine.)
** = Important note - whilst BrainZyme is scientifically proven to support concentration and mental performance, it is not a replacement for a good diet, moderate exercise or sleep. BrainZyme is also not a drug, medicine or pharmaceutical. It is a natural-sourced, vegan food supplement with ingredients that are scientifically proven to support cognition, concentration, mental performance and reduction of tiredness. You should always consult with your Doctor if you require medical attention.
That it is somewhat valuable is clear if we consider it under another guise. Imagine you received the same salary you do, but paid every day. Accounting systems would incur considerable costs handling daily payments, since they would be making so many more and so much smaller payments, and they would have to know instantly whether you showed up to work that day and all sorts of other details, and the recipients themselves would waste time dealing with all these checks or looking through all the deposits to their account, and any errors would be that much harder to track down. (And conversely, expensive payday loans are strong evidence that for poor people, a bi-weekly payment is much too infrequent.) One might draw a comparison to batching or buffers in computers: by letting data pile up in buffers, the computer can then deal with them in one batch, amortizing overhead over many items rather than incurring the overhead again and again. The downside, of course, is that latency will suffer and performance may drop based on that or the items becoming outdated & useless. The right trade-off will depend on the specifics; one would not expect random buffer-sizes to be optimal, but one would have to test and see what works best.
None of that has kept entrepreneurs and their customers from experimenting and buying into the business of magic pills, however. In 2015 alone, the nootropics business raked in over $1 billion dollars, and web sites like the nootropics subreddit, the Bluelight forums, and Bulletproof Exec are popular and packed with people looking for easy ways to boost their mental performance. Still, this bizarre, Philip K. Dick-esque world of smart drugs is a tough pill to swallow. To dive into the topic and explain, I spoke to Kamal Patel, Director of evidence-based medical database Examine.com, and even tried a few commercially-available nootropics myself.
Caffeine (Examine.com; 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:

Metabolic function smart drugs provide mental benefits by generally facilitating the body’s metabolic processes related to the production of new tissues and the release of energy from food and fat stores. Creatine, a long-time favorite performance-enhancement drug for competitive athletes, was in the news recently when it was found in a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial to have significant cognitive benefits – including both general speed of cognition and improvements in working memory. Ginkgo Biloba is another metabolic function smart drug used to increase memory and improve circulation – however, news from recent studies raises questions about these purported effects.
The truth is that, almost 20 years ago when my brain was failing and I was fat and tired, I did not know to follow this advice. I bought $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe, took them all at once out of desperation, and got enough cognitive function to save my career and tackle my metabolic problems. With the information we have now, you don’t need to do that. Please learn from my mistakes!
The above are all reasons to expect that even if I do excellent single-subject design self-experiments, there will still be the old problem of internal validity versus external validity: an experiment may be wrong or erroneous or unlucky in some way (lack of internal validity) or be right but not matter to anyone else (lack of external validity). For example, alcohol makes me sad & depressed; I could run the perfect blind randomized experiment for hundreds of trials and be extremely sure that alcohol makes me less happy, but would that prove that alcohol makes everyone sad or unhappy? Of course not, and as far as I know, for a lot of people alcohol has the opposite effect. So my hypothetical alcohol experiment might have tremendous internal validity (it does prove that I am sadder after inebriating), and zero external validity (someone who has never tried alcohol learns nothing about whether they will be depressed after imbibing). Keep this in mind if you are minded to take the experiments too seriously.
One idea I’ve been musing about is the connections between IQ, Conscientiousness, and testosterone. IQ and Conscientiousness do not correlate to a remarkable degree - even though one would expect IQ to at least somewhat enable a long-term perspective, self-discipline, metacognition, etc! There are indications in studies of gifted youth that they have lower testosterone levels. The studies I’ve read on testosterone indicate no improvements to raw ability. So, could there be a self-sabotaging aspect to human intelligence whereby greater intelligence depends on lack of testosterone, but this same lack also holds back Conscientiousness (despite one’s expectation that intelligence would produce greater self-discipline and planning), undermining the utility of greater intelligence? Could cases of high IQ types who suddenly stop slacking and accomplish great things sometimes be due to changes in testosterone? Studies on the correlations between IQ, testosterone, Conscientiousness, and various measures of accomplishment are confusing and don’t always support this theory, but it’s an idea to keep in mind.
That first night, I had severe trouble sleeping, falling asleep in 30 minutes rather than my usual 19.6±11.9, waking up 12 times (5.9±3.4), and spending ~90 minutes awake (18.1±16.2), and naturally I felt unrested the next day; I initially assumed it was because I had left a fan on (moving air keeps me awake) but the new potassium is also a possible culprit. When I asked, Kevin said:

“Cavin Balaster knows brain injury as well as any specialist. He survived a horrific accident and came out on the other side stronger than ever. His book, “How To Feed A Brain” details how changing his diet helped him to recover further from the devastating symptoms of brain injury such as fatigue and brain fog. Cavin is able to thoroughly explain complex issues in a simplified manner so the reader does not need a medical degree to understand. The book also includes comprehensive charts to simplify what the body needs and how to provide the necessary foods. “How To Feed A Brain” is a great resource for anyone looking to improve their health through diet, brain injury not required.”

(If I am not deficient, then supplementation ought to have no effect.) The previous material on modern trends suggests a prior >25%, and higher than that if I were female. However, I was raised on a low-salt diet because my father has high blood pressure, and while I like seafood, I doubt I eat it more often than weekly. I suspect I am somewhat iodine-deficient, although I don’t believe as confidently as I did that I had a vitamin D deficiency. Let’s call this one 75%.
Many of these supplements include exotic-sounding ingredients. Ginseng root and an herb called bacopa are two that have shown some promising memory and attention benefits, says Dr. Guillaume Fond, a psychiatrist with France’s Aix-Marseille University Medical School who has studied smart drugs and cognitive enhancement. “However, data are still lacking to definitely confirm their efficacy,” he adds.
Due to the synthetic nature of racetams, you won’t find them in many of the best smart pills on the market. The intentional exclusion is not because racetams are ineffective. Instead, the vast majority of users trust natural smart drugs more. The idea of using a synthetic substance to alter your brain’s operating system is a big turn off for most people. With synthetic nootropics, you’re a test subject until more definitive studies arise.
In addition, while the laboratory research reviewed here is of interest concerning the effects of stimulant drugs on specific cognitive processes, it does not tell us about the effects on cognition in the real world. How do these drugs affect academic performance when used by students? How do they affect the total knowledge and understanding that students take with them from a course? How do they affect various aspects of occupational performance? Similar questions have been addressed in relation to students and workers with ADHD (Barbaresi, Katusic, Colligan, Weaver, & Jacobsen, 2007; Halmøy, Fasmer, Gillberg, & Haavik, 2009; see also Advokat, 2010) but have yet to be addressed in the context of cognitive enhancement of normal individuals.

“It is important to note that Abilify MyCite’s prescribing information (labeling) notes that the ability of the product to improve patient compliance with their treatment regimen has not been shown. Abilify MyCite should not be used to track drug ingestion in “real-time” or during an emergency because detection may be delayed or may not occur,” the FDA said in a statement.
When comparing supplements, consider products with a score above 90% to get the greatest benefit from smart pills to improve memory. Additionally, we consider the reviews that users send to us when scoring supplements, so you can determine how well products work for others and use this information to make an informed decision. Every month, our editor puts her name on that month’s best smart bill, in terms of results and value offered to users.

So is there a future in smart drugs? Some scientists are more optimistic than others. Gary Lynch, a professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine argues that recent advances in neuroscience have opened the way for the smart design of drugs, configured for specific biological targets in the brain. “Memory enhancement is not very far off,” he says, although the prospects for other kinds of mental enhancement are “very difficult to know… To me, there’s an inevitability to the thing, but a timeline is difficult.”
Power times prior times benefit minus cost of experimentation: (0.20 \times 0.30 \times 540) - 41 = -9. So the VoI is negative: because my default is that fish oil works and I am taking it, weak information that it doesn’t work isn’t enough. If the power calculation were giving us 40% reliable information, then the chance of learning I should drop fish oil is improved enough to make the experiment worthwhile (going from 20% to 40% switches the value from -$9 to +$23.8).
Finally, two tasks measuring subjects’ ability to control their responses to monetary rewards were used by de Wit et al. (2002) to assess the effects of d-AMP. When subjects were offered the choice between waiting 10 s between button presses for high-probability rewards, which would ultimately result in more money, and pressing a button immediately for lower probability rewards, d-AMP did not affect performance. However, when subjects were offered choices between smaller rewards delivered immediately and larger rewards to be delivered at later times, the normal preference for immediate rewards was weakened by d-AMP. That is, subjects were more able to resist the impulse to choose the immediate reward in favor of the larger reward.
As shown in Table 6, two of these are fluency tasks, which require the generation of as large a set of unique responses as possible that meet the criteria given in the instructions. Fluency tasks are often considered tests of executive function because they require flexibility and the avoidance of perseveration and because they are often impaired along with other executive functions after prefrontal damage. In verbal fluency, subjects are asked to generate as many words that begin with a specific letter as possible. Neither Fleming et al. (1995), who administered d-AMP, nor Elliott et al. (1997), who administered MPH, found enhancement of verbal fluency. However, Elliott et al. found enhancement on a more complex nonverbal fluency task, the sequence generation task. Subjects were able to touch four squares in more unique orders with MPH than with placebo.
Integrity & Reputation: Go with a company that sells more than just a brain formula. If a company is just selling this one item,buyer-beware!!! It is an indication that it is just trying to capitalize on a trend and make a quick buck. Also, if a website selling a brain health formula does not have a highly visible 800# for customer service, you should walk away.

So I eventually got around to ordering another thing of nicotine gum, Habitrol Nicotine Gum, 4mg MINT flavor COATED gum. 96 pieces per box. Gum should be easier to double-blind myself with than nicotine patches - just buy some mint gum. If 4mg is too much, cut the gum in half or whatever. When it arrived, my hopes were borne out: the gum was rectangular and soft, which made it easy to cut into fourths.


Nootropics are a responsible way of using smart drugs to enhance productivity. As defined by Giurgea in the 1960’s, nootropics should have little to no side-effects. With nootropics, there should be no dependency. And maybe the effects of nootropics are smaller than for instance Adderall, you still improve your productivity without risking your life. This is what separates nootropics from other drugs.
Iluminal is an example of an over-the-counter serotonergic drug used by people looking for performance enhancement, memory improvements, and mood-brightening. Also noteworthy, a wide class of prescription anti-depression drugs are based on serotonin reuptake inhibitors that slow the absorption of serotonin by the presynaptic cell, increasing the effect of the neurotransmitter on the receptor neuron – essentially facilitating the free flow of serotonin throughout the brain.
Do note that this isn’t an extensive list by any means, there are plenty more ‘smart drugs’ out there purported to help focus and concentration. Most (if not all) are restricted under the Psychoactive Substances Act, meaning they’re largely illegal to sell. We strongly recommend against using these products off-label, as they can be dangerous both due to side effects and their lack of regulation on the grey/black market.
L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine or choline alfoscerate, also known as Alpha GPC is a natural nootropic which works both on its own and also in combination with other nootropics. It can be found in the human body naturally in small amounts. It’s also present in some dairy products, wheat germ, and in organic meats. However, these dietary sources contain small quantities of GPC, which is why people prefer taking it through supplements.
“Cavin’s enthusiasm and drive to help those who need it is unparalleled! He delivers the information in an easy to read manner, no PhD required from the reader. 🙂 Having lived through such trauma himself he has real empathy for other survivors and it shows in the writing. This is a great read for anyone who wants to increase the health of their brain, injury or otherwise! Read it!!!”
Finally, it’s not clear that caffeine results in performance gains after long-term use; homeostasis/tolerance is a concern for all stimulants, but especially for caffeine. It is plausible that all caffeine consumption does for the long-term chronic user is restore performance to baseline. (Imagine someone waking up and drinking coffee, and their performance improves - well, so would the performance of a non-addict who is also slowly waking up!) See for example, James & Rogers 2005, Sigmon et al 2009, and Rogers et al 2010. A cross-section of thousands of participants in the Cambridge brain-training study found caffeine intake showed negligible effect sizes for mean and component scores (participants were not told to use caffeine, but the training was recreational & difficult, so one expects some difference).
MPH was developed more recently and marketed primarily for ADHD, although it is sometimes prescribed off label or used nonmedically to increase alertness, energy, or concentration in conditions other than ADHD. Both MPH and AMP are on the list of substances banned from sports competitions by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Docherty, 2008). Both also have the potential for abuse and dependence, which detracts from their usefulness and is the reason for their classification as Schedule II controlled substances. Although the risk of developing dependence on these drugs is believed to be low for individuals taking them for ADHD, the Schedule II classification indicates that these drugs have a high potential for abuse and that abuse may lead to severe dependence.
The main area of the brain effected by smart pills is the prefrontal cortex, where representations of our goals for the future are created. Namely, the prefrontal cortex consists of pyramidal cells that keep each other firing. However in some instances they can become disconnected due to chemical imbalances, or due to being tired, stressed, and overworked.
Systematic reviews and meta-analyses of clinical human research using low doses of certain central nervous system stimulants found enhanced cognition in healthy people.[21][22][23] In particular, the classes of stimulants that demonstrate cognition-enhancing effects in humans act as direct agonists or indirect agonists of dopamine receptor D1, adrenoceptor A2, or both types of receptor in the prefrontal cortex.[21][22][24][25] Relatively high doses of stimulants cause cognitive deficits.[24][25]
×