Nootropics. You might have heard of them. The “limitless pill” that keeps Billionaires rich. The ‘smart drugs’ that students are taking to help boost their hyperfocus. The cognitive enhancers that give corporate executives an advantage. All very exciting. But as always, the media are way behind the curve. Yes, for the past few decades, cognitive enhancers were largely sketchy substances that people used to grasp at a short term edge at the expense of their health and well being. But the days of taking prescription pills to pull an all-nighter are so 2010. The better, safer path isn’t with these stimulants but with nootropics. Nootropics consist of dietary supplements and substances which enhance your cognition, in particular when it comes to motivation, creativity, memory, and other executive functions. They play an important role in supporting memory and promoting optimal brain function.
However, history has shown that genies don’t stay in bottles. All ethics aside, there is ample proof that use of smart drugs can profoundly improve human cognition, and where there is an advantage to be gained – even where risks are involved – some people will leap at the chance to capitalize. At Smart Drug Smarts, we anticipate the social tide will continue to turn in favor of elective neural enhancers, and that the beneficial effects to users who choose to make the most of their brains will inevitably outweigh the costs.
Four of the studies focused on middle and high school students, with varied results. Boyd, McCabe, Cranford, and Young (2006) found a 2.3% lifetime prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use in their sample, and McCabe, Teter, and Boyd (2004) found a 4.1% lifetime prevalence in public school students from a single American public school district. Poulin (2001) found an 8.5% past-year prevalence in public school students from four provinces in the Atlantic region of Canada. A more recent study of the same provinces found a 6.6% and 8.7% past-year prevalence for MPH and AMP use, respectively (Poulin, 2007).
The goal of this article has been to synthesize what is known about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement and what is known about the cognitive effects of these drugs. We have eschewed discussion of ethical issues in favor of simply trying to get the facts straight. Although ethical issues cannot be decided on the basis of facts alone, neither can they be decided without relevant facts. Personal and societal values will dictate whether success through sheer effort is as good as success with pharmacologic help, whether the freedom to alter one’s own brain chemistry is more important than the right to compete on a level playing field at school and work, and how much risk of dependence is too much risk. Yet these positions cannot be translated into ethical decisions in the real world without considerable empirical knowledge. Do the drugs actually improve cognition? Under what circumstances and for whom? Who will be using them and for what purposes? What are the mental and physical health risks for frequent cognitive-enhancement users? For occasional users?
(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.)
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Like caffeine, nicotine tolerates rapidly and addiction can develop, after which the apparent performance boosts may only represent a return to baseline after withdrawal; so nicotine as a stimulant should be used judiciously, perhaps roughly as frequent as modafinil. Another problem is that nicotine has a half-life of merely 1-2 hours, making regular dosing a requirement. There is also some elevated heart-rate/blood-pressure often associated with nicotine, which may be a concern. (Possible alternatives to nicotine include cytisine, 2’-methylnicotine, GTS-21, galantamine, Varenicline, WAY-317,538, EVP-6124, and Wellbutrin, but none have emerged as clearly superior.)
A similar pill from HQ Inc. (Palmetto, Fla.) called the CorTemp Ingestible Core Body Temperature Sensor transmits real-time body temperature. Firefighters, football players, soldiers and astronauts use it to ensure that they do not overheat in high temperatures. HQ Inc. is working on a consumer version, to be available in 2018, that would wirelessly communicate to a smartphone app.
Tyrosine (Examine.com) is an amino acid; people on the Imminst.org forums (as well as Wikipedia) suggest that it helps with energy and coping with stress. I ordered 4oz (bought from Smart Powders) to try it out, and I began taking 1g with my usual caffeine+piracetam+choline mix. It does not dissolve easily in hot water, and is very chalky and not especially tasty. I have not noticed any particular effects from it.
Taurine (Examine.com) was another gamble on my part, based mostly on its inclusion in energy drinks. I didn’t do as much research as I should have: it came as a shock to me when I read in Wikipedia that taurine has been shown to prevent oxidative stress induced by exercise and was an antioxidant - oxidative stress is a key part of how exercise creates health benefits and antioxidants inhibit those benefits.
“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.
The beneficial effects as well as the potentially serious side effects of these drugs can be understood in terms of their effects on the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine (Wilens, 2006). These neurotransmitters play an important role in cognition, affecting the cortical and subcortical systems that enable people to focus and flexibly deploy attention (Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). In addition, the brain’s reward centers are innervated by dopamine neurons, accounting for the pleasurable feelings engendered by these stimulants (Robbins & Everett, 1996).
Smart drugs offer significant memory enhancing benefits. Clinical studies of the best memory pills have shown gains to focus and memory. Individuals seek the best quality supplements to perform better for higher grades in college courses or become more efficient, productive, and focused at work for career advancement. It is important to choose a high quality supplement to get the results you want.
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 use of cognitive enhancers by healthy individuals sparked debate about ethics and safety. Cognitive enhancement by pharmaceutical means was considered a form of illicit drug use in some places, even while other cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine and nicotine, were freely available. The conflict therein raised the possibility for further acceptance of smart drugs in the future. However, the long-term effects of smart drugs on otherwise healthy brains were unknown, delaying safety assessments.
Clearly, the hype surrounding drugs like modafinil and methylphenidate is unfounded. These drugs are beneficial in treating cognitive dysfunction in patients with Alzheimer's, ADHD or schizophrenia, but it's unlikely that today's enhancers offer significant cognitive benefits to healthy users. In fact, taking a smart pill is probably no more effective than exercising or getting a good night's sleep.
If you want to try a nootropic in supplement form, check the label to weed out products you may be allergic to and vet the company as best you can by scouring its website and research basis, and talking to other customers, Kerl recommends. "Find one that isn't just giving you some temporary mental boost or some quick fix – that’s not what a nootropic is intended to do," Cyr says.
But, thanks to the efforts of a number of remarkable scientists, researchers and plain-old neurohackers, we are beginning to put together a “whole systems” model of how all the different parts of the human brain work together and how they mesh with the complex regulatory structures of the body. It’s going to take a lot more data and collaboration to dial this model in, but already we are empowered to design stacks that can meaningfully deliver on the promise of nootropics “to enhance the quality of subjective experience and promote cognitive health, while having extremely low toxicity and possessing very few side effects.” It’s a type of brain hacking that is intended to produce noticeable cognitive benefits.
Fish oil (Examine.com, buyer’s guide) provides benefits relating to general mood (eg. inflammation & anxiety; see later on anxiety) and anti-schizophrenia; it is one of the better supplements one can take. (The known risks are a higher rate of prostate cancer and internal bleeding, but are outweighed by the cardiac benefits - assuming those benefits exist, anyway, which may not be true.) The benefits of omega acids are well-researched.
Next, if these theorized safe and effective pills don't just get you through a test or the day's daily brain task but also make you smarter, whatever smarter means, then what? Where's the boundary between genius and madness? If Einstein had taken such drugs, would he have created a better theory of gravity? Or would he have become delusional, chasing quantum ghosts with no practical application, or worse yet, string theory. (Please use "string theory" in your subject line for easy sorting of hate mail.)
Given the size of the literature just reviewed, it is surprising that so many basic questions remain open. Although d-AMP and MPH appear to enhance retention of recently learned information and, in at least some individuals, also enhance working memory and cognitive control, there remains great uncertainty regarding the size and robustness of these effects and their dependence on dosage, individual differences, and specifics of the task.
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.
It’s not clear that there is much of an effect at all. This makes it hard to design a self-experiment - how big an effect on, say, dual n-back should I be expecting? Do I need an arduous long trial or an easy short one? This would principally determine the value of information too; chocolate seems like a net benefit even if it does not affect the mind, but it’s also fairly costly, especially if one likes (as I do) dark chocolate. Given the mixed research, I don’t think cocoa powder is worth investigating further as a nootropic.
In the largest nationwide study, McCabe et al. (2005) sampled 10,904 students at 119 public and private colleges and universities across the United States, providing the best estimate of prevalence among American college students in 2001, when the data were collected. This survey found 6.9% lifetime, 4.1% past-year, and 2.1% past-month nonmedical use of a prescription stimulant. It also found that prevalence depended strongly on student and school characteristics, consistent with the variability noted among the results of single-school studies. The strongest predictors of past-year nonmedical stimulant use by college students were admissions criteria (competitive and most competitive more likely than less competitive), fraternity/sorority membership (members more likely than nonmembers), and gender (males more likely than females).
Other drugs, like cocaine, are used by bankers to manage their 18-hour workdays . Unlike nootropics, dependency is very likely and not only mentally but also physically. Bankers and other professionals who take drugs to improve their productivity will become dependent. Almost always, the negative consequences outweigh any positive outcomes from using drugs.
During the 1920s, Amphetamine was being researched as an asthma medication when its cognitive benefits were accidentally discovered. In many years that followed, this enhancer was exploited in a number of medical and nonmedical applications, for instance, to enhance alertness in military personnel, treat depression, improve athletic performance, etc.
…The first time I took supplemental potassium (50% US RDA in a lot of water), it was like a brain fog lifted that I never knew I had, and I felt profoundly energized in a way that made me feel exercise was reasonable and prudent, which resulted in me and the roommate that had just supplemented potassium going for an hour long walk at 2AM. Experiences since then have not been quite so profound (which probably was so stark for me as I was likely fixing an acute deficiency), but I can still count on a moderately large amount of potassium to give me a solid, nearly side effect free performance boost for a few hours…I had been doing Bikram yoga on and off, and I think I wasn’t keeping up the practice because I wasn’t able to properly rehydrate myself.
I was contacted by the Longecity user lostfalco, and read through some of his writings on the topic. I had never heard of LLLT before, but the mitochondria mechanism didn’t sound impossible (although I wondered whether it made sense at a quantity level14151617), and there was at least some research backing it; more importantly, lostfalco had discovered that devices for LLLT could be obtained as cheap as $15. (Clearly no one will be getting rich off LLLT or affiliate revenue any time soon.) Nor could I think of any way the LLLT could be easily harmful: there were no drugs involved, physical contact was unnecessary, power output was too low to directly damage through heating, and if it had no LLLT-style effect but some sort of circadian effect through hitting photoreceptors, using it in the morning wouldn’t seem to interfere with sleep.
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.