We reviewed recent studies concerning prescription stimulant use specifically among students in the United States and Canada, using the method illustrated in Figure 1. Although less informative about the general population, these studies included questions about students’ specific reasons for using the drugs, as well as frequency of use and means of obtaining them. These studies typically found rates of use greater than those reported by the nationwide NSDUH or the MTF surveys. This probably reflects a true difference in rates of usage among the different populations. In support of that conclusion, the NSDUH data for college age Americans showed that college students were considerably more likely than nonstudents of the same age to use prescription stimulants nonmedically (odds ratio: 2.76; Herman-Stahl, Krebs, Kroutil, & Heller, 2007).
I took 1.5mg of melatonin, and went to bed at ~1:30AM; I woke up around 6:30, took a modafinil pill/200mg, and felt pretty reasonable. By noon my mind started to feel a bit fuzzy, and lunch didn’t make much of it go away. I’ve been looking at studies, and users seem to degrade after 30 hours; I started on mid-Thursday, so call that 10 hours, then 24 (Friday), 24 (Saturday), and 14 (Sunday), totaling 72hrs with <20hrs sleep; this might be equivalent to 52hrs with no sleep, and Wikipedia writes:
The ethics of cognitive enhancement have been extensively debated in the academic literature (e.g., Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009; Farah et al., 2004; Greely et al., 2008; Mehlman, 2004; Sahakian & Morein-Zamir, 2007). We do not attempt to review this aspect of the problem here. Rather, we attempt to provide a firmer empirical basis for these discussions. Despite the widespread interest in the topic and its growing public health implications, there remains much researchers do not know about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement.
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.
Even party drugs are going to work: Biohackers are taking recreational drugs like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline in microdoses—about a tenth of what constitutes a typical dose—with the goal of becoming more focused and creative. Many who’ve tried it report positive results, but real research on the practice—and its safety—is a long way off. “Whether microdosing with LSD improves creativity and cognition remains to be determined in an objective experiment using double-blind, placebo-controlled methodology,” Sahakian says.
Lebowitz says that if you're purchasing supplements to improve your brain power, you're probably wasting your money. "There is nothing you can buy at your local health food store that will improve your thinking skills," Lebowitz says. So that turmeric latte you've been drinking everyday has no additional brain benefits compared to a regular cup of java.
I have elsewhere remarked on the apparent lack of benefit to taking multivitamins and the possible harm; so one might well wonder about a specific vitamin like vitamin D. However, a multivitamin is not vitamin D, so it’s no surprise that they might do different things. If a multivitamin had no vitamin D in it, or if it had vitamin D in different doses, or if it had substances which interacted with vitamin D (such as calcium), or if it had substances which had negative effects which outweigh the positive (such as vitamin A?), we could well expect differing results. In this case, all of those are true to varying extents. Some multivitamins I’ve had contained no vitamin D. The last multivitamin I was taking both contains vitamins used in the negative trials and also some calcium; the listed vitamin D dosage was a trivial ~400IU, while I take >10x as much now (5000IU).
So what’s the catch? Well, it’s potentially addictive for one. Anything that messes with your dopamine levels can be. And Patel says there are few long-term studies on it yet, so we don’t know how it will affect your brain chemistry down the road, or after prolonged, regular use. Also, you can’t get it very easily, or legally for that matter, if you live in the U.S. It’s classified as a schedule IV controlled substance. That’s where Adrafinil comes in.
One reason I like modafinil is that it enhances dopamine release, but it binds to your dopamine receptors differently than addictive substances like cocaine and amphetamines do, which may be part of the reason modafinil shares many of the benefits of other stimulants but doesn’t cause addiction or withdrawal symptoms.   It does increase focus, problem-solving abilities, and wakefulness, but it is not in the same class of drugs as Adderall, and it is not a classical stimulant. Modafinil is off of patent, so you can get it generically, or order it from India. It’s a prescription drug, so you need to talk to a physician.
For illustration, consider amphetamines, Ritalin, and modafinil, all of which have been proposed as cognitive enhancers of attention. These drugs exhibit some positive effects on cognition, especially among individuals with lower baseline abilities. However, individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance following drug treatment (for details, see de Jongh, Bolt, Schermer, & Olivier, 2008). For instance, Randall, Shneerson, and File (2005) found that modafinil improved performance only among individuals with lower IQ, not among those with higher IQ. [See also Finke et al 2010 on visual attention.] Farah, Haimm, Sankoorikal, & Chatterjee 2009 found a similar nonlinear relationship of dose to response for amphetamines in a remote-associates task, with low-performing individuals showing enhanced performance but high-performing individuals showing reduced performance. Such ∩-shaped dose-response curves are quite common (see Cools & Robbins, 2004)
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Instead, I urge the military to examine the use of smart drugs and the potential benefits they bring to the military. If they are safe, and pride cognitive enhancement to servicemembers, then we should discuss their use in the military. Imagine the potential benefits on the battlefield. They could potentially lead to an increase in the speed and tempo of our individual and collective OODA loop. They could improve our ability to become aware and make observations. Improve the speed of orientation and decision-making. Lastly, smart drugs could improve our ability to act and adapt to rapidly changing situations.
What worries me about amphetamine is its addictive potential, and the fact that it can cause stress and anxiety. Research says it’s only slightly likely to cause addiction in people with ADHD,  but we don’t know much about its addictive potential in healthy adults. We all know the addictive potential of methamphetamine, and amphetamine is closely related enough to make me nervous about so many people giving it to their children. Amphetamines cause withdrawal symptoms, so the potential for addiction is there.
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
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 truth is, taking a smart pill will not allow you to access information that you have not already learned. If you speak English, a smart drug cannot embed the Spanish dictionary into your brain. In other words, they won't make you smarter or more intelligent. We need to throttle back our expectations and explore reality. What advantage can smart drugs provide? Brain enhancing substances have excellent health and cognitive benefits that are worth exploring.
Caffeine keeps you awake, which keeps you coding. It may also be a nootropic, increasing brain-power. Both desirable results. However, it also inhibits vitamin D receptors, and as such decreases the body’s uptake of this-much-needed-vitamin. OK, that’s not so bad, you’re not getting the maximum dose of vitamin D. So what? Well, by itself caffeine may not cause you any problems, but combined with cutting off a major source of the vitamin - the production via sunlight - you’re leaving yourself open to deficiency in double-quick time.
Nondrug cognitive-enhancement methods include the high tech and the low. An example of the former is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), whereby weak currents are induced in specific brain areas by magnetic fields generated outside the head. TMS is currently being explored as a therapeutic modality for neuropsychiatric conditions as diverse as depression and ADHD and is capable of enhancing the cognition of normal healthy people (e.g., Kirschen, Davis-Ratner, Jerde, Schraedley-Desmond, & Desmond, 2006). An older technique, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), has become the subject of renewed research interest and has proven capable of enhancing the cognitive performance of normal healthy individuals in a variety of tasks. For example, Flöel, Rösser, Michka, Knecht, and Breitenstein (2008) reported enhancement of learning and Dockery, Hueckel-Weng, Birbaumer, and Plewnia (2009) reported enhancement of planning with tDCS.
Taken together, these considerations suggest that the cognitive effects of stimulants for any individual in any task will vary based on dosage and will not easily be predicted on the basis of data from other individuals or other tasks. Optimizing the cognitive effects of a stimulant would therefore require, in effect, a search through a high-dimensional space whose dimensions are dose; individual characteristics such as genetic, personality, and ability levels; and task characteristics. The mixed results in the current literature may be due to the lack of systematic optimization.
I can’t try either of the products myself – I am pregnant and my doctor doesn’t recommend it – but my husband agrees to. He describes the effect of the Nootrobox product as like having a cup of coffee but not feeling as jittery. “I had a very productive day, but I don’t know if that was why,” he says. His Nootroo experience ends after one capsule. He gets a headache, which he is convinced is related, and refuses to take more. “It is just not a beginner friendly cocktail,” offers Noehr.
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.
Probably most significantly, use of the term “drug” has a significant negative connotation in our culture. “Drugs” are bad: So proclaimed Richard Nixon in the War on Drugs, and Nancy “No to Drugs” Reagan decades later, and other leaders continuing to present day. The legitimate demonization of the worst forms of recreational drugs has resulted in a general bias against the elective use of any chemical to alter the body’s processes. Drug enhancement of athletes is considered cheating – despite the fact that many of these physiological shortcuts obviously work. University students and professionals seeking mental enhancements by taking smart drugs are now facing similar scrutiny.
Known widely as ‘Brahmi,’ the Bacopa Monnieri or Water Hyssop, is a small herb native to India that finds mention in various Ayurvedic texts for being the best natural cognitive enhancer. It has been used traditionally for memory enhancement, asthma, epilepsy and improving mood and attention of people over 65. It is known to be one of the best brain supplement in the world.
The flanker task is designed to tax cognitive control by requiring subjects to respond based on the identity of a target stimulus (H or S) and not the more numerous and visually salient stimuli that flank the target (as in a display such as HHHSHHH). Servan-Schreiber, Carter, Bruno, and Cohen (1998) administered the flanker task to subjects on placebo and d-AMP. They found an overall speeding of responses but, more importantly, an increase in accuracy that was disproportionate for the incongruent conditions, that is, the conditions in which the target and flankers did not match and cognitive control was needed.
Ngo has experimented with piracetam himself (“The first time I tried it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty strong for a supplement.’ I had a little bit of reflux, heartburn, but in general it was a cognitive enhancer. . . . I found it helpful”) and the neurotransmitter DMEA (“You have an idea, it helps you finish the thought. It’s for when people have difficulty finishing that last connection in the brain”).
Long-term use is different, and research-backed efficacy is another question altogether. The nootropic market is not regulated, so a company can make claims without getting in trouble for making those claims because they’re not technically selling a drug. This is why it’s important to look for well-known brands and standardized nootropic herbs where it’s easier to calculate the suggested dose and be fairly confident about what you’re taking.
Before you try nootropics, I suggest you start with the basics: get rid of the things in your diet and life that reduce cognitive performance first. That is easiest. Then, add in energizers like Brain Octane and clean up your diet. Then, go for the herbals and the natural nootropics. Use the pharmaceuticals selectively only after you’ve figured out your basics.