When it comes to coping with exam stress or meeting that looming deadline, the prospect of a "smart drug" that could help you focus, learn and think faster is very seductive. At least this is what current trends on university campuses suggest. Just as you might drink a cup of coffee to help you stay alert, an increasing number of students and academics are turning to prescription drugs to boost academic performance.
After my rudimentary stacking efforts flamed out in unspectacular fashion, I tried a few ready-made stacks—brand-name nootropic cocktails that offer to eliminate the guesswork for newbies. They were just as useful. And a lot more expensive. Goop’s Braindust turned water into tea-flavored chalk. But it did make my face feel hot for 45 minutes. Then there were the two pills of Brain Force Plus, a supplement hawked relentlessly by Alex Jones of InfoWars infamy. The only result of those was the lingering guilt of knowing that I had willingly put $19.95 in the jorts pocket of a dipshit conspiracy theorist.

Over the last few months, as part of a new research project, I have talked with five people who regularly use drugs at work. They are all successful in their jobs, financially secure, in stable relationships, and generally content with their lives. None of them have plans to stop using the drugs, and so far they have kept the secret from their employers. But as their colleagues become more likely to start using the same drugs (people talk, after all), will they continue to do so?
(I was more than a little nonplussed when the mushroom seller included a little pamphlet educating one about how papaya leaves can cure cancer, and how I’m shortening my life by decades by not eating many raw fruits & vegetables. There were some studies cited, but usually for points disconnected from any actual curing or longevity-inducing results.)
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.
In my last post, I talked about the idea that there is a resource that is necessary for self-control…I want to talk a little bit about the candidate for this resource, glucose. Could willpower fail because the brain is low on sugar? Let’s look at the numbers. A well-known statistic is that the brain, while only 2% of body weight, consumes 20% of the body’s energy. That sounds like the brain consumes a lot of calories, but if we assume a 2,400 calorie/day diet - only to make the division really easy - that’s 100 calories per hour on average, 20 of which, then, are being used by the brain. Every three minutes, then, the brain - which includes memory systems, the visual system, working memory, then emotion systems, and so on - consumes one (1) calorie. One. Yes, the brain is a greedy organ, but it’s important to keep its greediness in perspective… Suppose, for instance, that a brain in a person exerting their willpower - resisting eating brownies or what have you - used twice as many calories as a person not exerting willpower. That person would need an extra one third of a calorie per minute to make up the difference compared to someone not exerting willpower. Does exerting self control burn more calories?
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 are seven primary classes used to categorize smart drugs: Racetams, Stimulants, Adaptogens, Cholinergics, Serotonergics, Dopaminergics, and Metabolic Function Smart Drugs. Despite considerable overlap and no clear border in the brain and body’s responses to these substances, each class manifests its effects through a different chemical pathway within the body.
By which I mean that simple potassium is probably the most positively mind altering supplement I’ve ever tried…About 15 minutes after consumption, it manifests as a kind of pressure in the head or temples or eyes, a clearing up of brain fog, increased focus, and the kind of energy that is not jittery but the kind that makes you feel like exercising would be the reasonable and prudent thing to do. I have done no tests, but feel smarter from this in a way that seems much stronger than piracetam or any of the conventional weak nootropics. It is not just me – I have been introducing this around my inner social circle and I’m at 7/10 people felt immediately noticeable effects. The 3 that didn’t notice much were vegetarians and less likely to have been deficient. Now that I’m not deficient, it is of course not noticeable as mind altering, but still serves to be energizing, particularly for sustained mental energy as the night goes on…Potassium chloride initially, but since bought some potassium gluconate pills… research indicates you don’t want to consume large amounts of chloride (just moderate amounts).
But perhaps the biggest difference between Modafinil and other nootropics like Piracetam, according to Patel, is that Modafinil studies show more efficacy in young, healthy people, not just the elderly or those with cognitive deficits. That’s why it’s great for (and often prescribed to) military members who are on an intense tour, or for those who can’t get enough sleep for physiological reasons. One study, by researchers at Imperial College London, and published in Annals of Surgery, even showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
When you hear about nootropics, often called “smart drugs,” you probably picture something like the scene above from Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s character becomes brilliant after downing a strange pill. The drugs and supplements currently available don’t pack that strong of a punch, but the concept is basically the same. Many nootropics have promising benefits, like boosting memory, focus, or motivation, and there’s research to support specific uses. But the most effective nootropics, like Modafinil, aren’t intended for use without a prescription to treat a specific condition. In fact, recreational use of nootropics is hotly-debated among doctors and medical researchers. Many have concerns about the possible adverse effects of long-term use, as well as the ethics of using cognitive enhancers to gain an advantage in school, sports, or even everyday work.
DNB-wise, eyeballing my stats file seems to indicate a small increase: when I compare peak scores D4B scores, I see mostly 50s and a few 60s before piracetam, and after starting piracetam, a few 70s mixed into the 50s and 60s. Natural increase from training? Dunno - I’ve been stuck on D4B since June, so 5 or 10% in a week or 3 seems a little suspicious. A graph of the score series26:
An unusual intervention is infrared/near-infrared light of particular wavelengths (LLLT), theorized to assist mitochondrial respiration and yielding a variety of therapeutic benefits. Some have suggested it may have cognitive benefits. LLLT sounds strange but it’s simple, easy, cheap, and just plausible enough it might work. I tried out LLLT treatment on a sporadic basis 2013-2014, and statistically, usage correlated strongly & statistically-significantly with increases in my daily self-ratings, and not with any sleep disturbances. Excited by that result, I did a randomized self-experiment 2014-2015 with the same procedure, only to find that the causal effect was weak or non-existent. I have stopped using LLLT as likely not worth the inconvenience.
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?

Another classic approach to the assessment of working memory is the span task, in which a series of items is presented to the subject for repetition, transcription, or recognition. The longest series that can be reproduced accurately is called the forward span and is a measure of working memory capacity. The ability to reproduce the series in reverse order is tested in backward span tasks and is a more stringent test of working memory capacity and perhaps other working memory functions as well. The digit span task from the Wechsler (1981) IQ test was used in four studies of stimulant effects on working memory. One study showed that d-AMP increased digit span (de Wit et al., 2002), and three found no effects of d-AMP or MPH (Oken, Kishiyama, & Salinsky, 1995; Schmedtje, Oman, Letz, & Baker, 1988; Silber, Croft, Papafotiou, & Stough, 2006). A spatial span task, in which subjects must retain and reproduce the order in which boxes in a scattered spatial arrangement change color, was used by Elliott et al. (1997) to assess the effects of MPH on working memory. For subjects in the group receiving placebo first, MPH increased spatial span. However, for the subjects who received MPH first, there was a nonsignificant opposite trend. The group difference in drug effect is not easily explained. The authors noted that the subjects in the first group performed at an overall lower level, and so, this may be another manifestation of the trend for a larger enhancement effect for less able subjects.
A new all-in-one nootropic mix/company run by some people active on /r/nootropics; they offered me a month’s supply for free to try & review for them. At ~$100 a month (it depends on how many months one buys), it is not cheap (John Backus estimates one could buy the raw ingredients for $25/month) but it provides convenience & is aimed at people uninterested in spending a great deal of time reviewing research papers & anecdotes or capping their own pills (ie. people with lives) and it’s unlikely I could spare the money to subscribe if TruBrain worked well for me - but certainly there was no harm in trying it out.
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2 commenters point out that my possible lack of result is due to my mistaken assumption that if nicotine is absorbable through skin, mouth, and lungs it ought to be perfectly fine to absorb it through my stomach by drinking it (rather than vaporizing it and breathing it with an e-cigarette machine) - it’s apparently known that absorption differs in the stomach.

He recommends a 10mg dose, but sublingually. He mentions COLURACETAM’s taste is more akin to that of PRAMIRACETAM than OXIRACETAM, in that it tastes absolutely vile (not a surprise), so it is impossible to double-blind a sublingual administration - even if I knew of an inactive equally-vile-tasting substitute, I’m not sure I would subject myself to it. To compensate for ingesting the coluracetam, it would make sense to double the dose to 20mg (turning the 2g into <100 doses). Whether the effects persist over multiple days is not clear; I’ll assume it does not until someone says it does, since this makes things much easier.
When taken as prescribed, Modafinil is safer than Adderall with fewer side effects. Smart pill enthusiasts find a heightened sense of alertness and motivation with Modafinil. In healthy individuals, Modafinil will reliably boost energy levels. If you find that it gives you headaches, add a choline supplement to your stack. With that said, you should only use Modafinil in moderation on an as-needed basis.

Sulbutiamine, mentioned earlier as a cholinergic smart drug, can also be classed a dopaminergic, although its mechanism is counterintuitive: by reducing the release of dopamine in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the density of dopamine receptors actually increase after continued Sulbutiamine exposure, through a compensatory mechanism. (This provides an interesting example of how dividing smart drugs into sensible “classes” is a matter of taste as well as science, especially since many of them create their discernable neural effects through still undefined mechanisms.)
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.[31] 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.[32]
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