Christopher Wanjek is the Bad Medicine columnist for Live Science and a health and science writer based near Washington, D.C. He is the author of two health books, "Food at Work" (2005) and "Bad Medicine" (2003), and a comical science novel, "Hey Einstein" (2012). For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he occasionally opines with a great deal of healthy skepticism. His "Food at Work" book and project, commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, concerns workers health, safety and productivity. Christopher has presented this book in more than 20 countries and has inspired the passage of laws to support worker meal programs in numerous countries. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University. He has two Twitter handles, @wanjek (for science) and @lostlenowriter (for jokes).
The effect? 3 or 4 weeks later, I’m not sure. When I began putting all of my nootropic powders into pill-form, I put half a lithium pill in each, and nevertheless ran out of lithium fairly quickly (3kg of piracetam makes for >4000 OO-size pills); those capsules were buried at the bottom of the bucket under lithium-less pills. So I suddenly went cold-turkey on lithium. Reflecting on the past 2 weeks, I seem to have been less optimistic and productive, with items now lingering on my To-Do list which I didn’t expect to. An effect? Possibly.
In fact, some of these so-called “smart drugs” are already remarkably popular. One recent survey involving tens of thousands of people found that 30% of Americans who responded had taken them in the last year. It seems as though we may soon all be partaking – and it’s easy to get carried away with the consequences. Will this new batch of intellectual giants lead to dazzling, space-age inventions? Or perhaps an explosion in economic growth? Might the working week become shorter, as people become more efficient?
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.
The question of how much nonmedical use of stimulants occurs on college campuses is only partly answered by the proportion of students using the drugs in this way. The other part of the answer is how frequently they are used by those students. Three studies addressed this issue. Low and Gendaszek (2002) found a high past-year rate of 35.3%, but only 10% and 8% of this population used monthly and weekly, respectively. White et al. (2006) found a larger percentage used frequently: 15.5% using two to three times per week and 33.9% using two to three times per month. Teter et al. (2006) found that most nonmedical users take prescription stimulants sporadically, with well over half using five or fewer times and nearly 40% using only once or twice in their lives. DeSantis et al. (2008) offered qualitative evidence on the issue, reporting that students often turned to stimulants at exam time only, particularly when under pressure to study for multiple exams at the same time. Thus, there appears to be wide variation in the regularity of stimulant use, with the most common pattern appearing to be infrequent use.
One should note the serious caveats here: it is a small in vitro study of a single category of human cells with an effect size that is not clear on a protein which feeds into who-knows-what pathways. It is not a result in a whole organism on any clinically meaningful endpoint, even if we take it at face-value (many results never replicate). A look at followup work citing Rapuri et al 2007 is not encouraging: Google Scholar lists no human studies of any kind, much less high-quality studies like RCTs; just some rat followups on the calcium effect. This is not to say Rapuri et al 2007 is a bad study, just that it doesn’t bear the weight people are putting on it: if you enjoy caffeine, this is close to zero evidence that you should reduce or drop caffeine consumption; if you’re taking too much caffeine, you already have plenty of reasons to reduce; if you’re drinking lots of coffee, you already have plenty of reasons to switch to tea; etc.
Still, the scientific backing and ingredient sourcing of nootropics on the market varies widely, and even those based in some research won't necessarily immediately, always or ever translate to better grades or an ability to finally crank out that novel. Nor are supplements of any kind risk-free, says Jocelyn Kerl, a pharmacist in Madison, Wisconsin.
Two increasingly popular options are amphetamines and methylphenidate, which are prescription drugs sold under the brand names Adderall and Ritalin. In the United States, both are approved as treatments for people with ADHD, a behavioural disorder which makes it hard to sit still or concentrate. Now they’re also widely abused by people in highly competitive environments, looking for a way to remain focused on specific tasks.
In general, I feel a little bit less alert, but still close to normal. By 6PM, I have a mild headache, but I try out 30 rounds of gbrainy (haven’t played it in months) and am surprised to find that I reach an all-time high; no idea whether this is due to DNB or not, since Gbrainy is very heavily crystallized (half the challenge disappears as you learn how the problems work), but it does indicate I’m not deluding myself about mental ability. (To give a figure: my last score well before I did any DNB was 64, and I was doing well that day; on modafinil, I had a 77.) I figure the headache might be food related, eat, and by 7:30 the headache is pretty much gone and I’m fine up to midnight.
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)
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.
To judge from recent reports in the popular media, healthy people have also begun to use MPH and AMPs for cognitive enhancement. Major daily newspapers such as The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal; magazines including Time, The Economist, The New Yorker, and Vogue; and broadcast news organizations including the BBC, CNN, and NPR have reported a trend toward growing use of prescription stimulants by healthy people for the purpose of enhancing school or work performance.
While the mechanism is largely unknown, one commonly mechanism possibility is that light of the relevant wavelengths is preferentially absorbed by the protein cytochrome c oxidase, which is a key protein in mitochondrial metabolism and production of ATP, substantially increasing output, and this extra output presumably can be useful for cellular activities like healing or higher performance.
The power calculation indicates a 20% chance of getting useful information. My quasi-experiment has <70% chance of being right, and I preserve a general skepticism about any experiment, even one as well done as the medical student one seems to be, and give that one a <80% chance of being right; so let’s call it 70% the effect exists, or 30% it doesn’t exist (which is the case in which I save money by dropping fish oil for 10 years).
A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.
“Cavin, you are phemomenal! An incredulous journey of a near death accident scripted by an incredible man who chose to share his knowledge of healing his own broken brain. I requested our public library purchase your book because everyone, those with and without brain injuries, should have access to YOUR brain and this book. Thank you for your legacy to mankind!”
CDP-Choline is also known as Citicoline or Cytidine Diphosphocholine. It has been enhanced to allow improved crossing of the blood-brain barrier. Your body converts it to Choline and Cytidine. The second then gets converted to Uridine (which crosses the blood-brain barrier). CDP-Choline is found in meats (liver), eggs (yolk), fish, and vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprout).
The original “smart drug” is piracetam, which was discovered by the Romanian scientist Corneliu Giurgea in the early 1960s. At the time, he was looking for a chemical that could sneak into the brain and make people feel sleepy. After months of testing, he came up with “Compound 6215”. It was safe, it had very few side effects – and it didn’t work. The drug didn’t send anyone into a restful slumber and seemed to work in the opposite way to that intended.
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?
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.
I noticed on SR something I had never seen before, an offer for 150mgx10 of Waklert for ฿13.47 (then, ฿1 = $3.14). I searched and it seemed Sun was somehow manufacturing armodafinil! Interesting. Maybe not cost-effective, but I tried out of curiosity. They look and are packaged the same as the Modalert, but at a higher price-point: 150 rather than 81 rupees. Not entirely sure how to use them: assuming quality is the same, 150mg Waklert is still 100mg less armodafinil than the 250mg Nuvigil pills.
With so many different ones to choose from, choosing the best nootropics for you can be overwhelming at times. As usual, a decision this important will require research. Study up on the top nootropics which catch your eye the most. The nootropics you take will depend on what you want the enhancement for. The ingredients within each nootropic determine its specific function. For example, some nootropics contain ginkgo biloba, which can help memory, thinking speed, and increase attention span. Check the nootropic ingredients as you determine what end results you want to see. Some nootropics supplements can increase brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. An increase in dopamine levels can be very useful for memory, alertness, reward and more. Many healthy adults, as well as college students take nootropics. This really supports the central nervous system and the brain.
the larger size of the community enables economies of scale and increases the peak sophistication possible. In a small nootropics community, there is likely to be no one knowledgeable about statistics/experimentation/biochemistry/neuroscience/whatever-you-need-for-a-particular-discussion, and the available funds increase: consider /r/Nootropics’s testing program, which is doable only because it’s a large lucrative community to sell to so the sellers are willing to donate funds for independent lab tests/Certificates of Analysis (COAs) to be done. If there were 1000 readers rather than 23,295, how could this ever happen short of one of those 1000 readers being very altruistic?
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).
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.
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.
Nicotine absorption through the stomach is variable and relatively reduced in comparison with absorption via the buccal cavity and the small intestine. Drinking, eating, and swallowing of tobacco smoke by South American Indians have frequently been reported. Tenetehara shamans reach a state of tobacco narcosis through large swallows of smoke, and Tapirape shams are said to eat smoke by forcing down large gulps of smoke only to expel it again in a rapid sequence of belches. In general, swallowing of tobacco smoke is quite frequently likened to drinking. However, although the amounts of nicotine swallowed in this way - or in the form of saturated saliva or pipe juice - may be large enough to be behaviorally significant at normal levels of gastric pH, nicotine, like other weak bases, is not significantly absorbed.
Dallas Michael Cyr, a 41-year-old life coach and business mentor in San Diego, California, also says he experienced a mental improvement when he regularly took another product called Qualia Mind, which its makers say enhances focus, energy, mental clarity, memory and even creativity and mood. "One of the biggest things I noticed was it was much more difficult to be distracted," says Cyr, who took the supplements for about six months but felt their effects last longer. While he's naturally great at starting projects and tasks, the product allowed him to be a "great finisher" too, he says.
So what about the flip side: a drug to erase bad memories? It may have failed Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but neuroscientists have now discovered an amnesia drug that can dull the pain of traumatic events. The drug, propranolol, was originally used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors noticed that patients given the drug suffered fewer signs of stress when recalling a trauma.
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).
The Stroop task tests the ability to inhibit the overlearned process of reading by presenting color names in colored ink and instructing subjects to either read the word (low need for cognitive control because this is the habitual response to printed words) or name the ink color (high need for cognitive control). Barch and Carter (2005) administered this task to normal control subjects on placebo and d-AMP and found speeding of responses with the drug. However, the speeding was roughly equivalent for the conditions with low and high cognitive control demands, suggesting that the observed facilitation may not have been specific to cognitive control.
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.
“In 183 pages, Cavin Balaster’s new book, How to Feed A Brain provides an outline and plan for how to maximize one’s brain performance. The “Citation Notes” provide all the scientific and academic documentation for further understanding. The “Additional Resources and Tips” listing takes you to Cavin’s website for more detail than could be covered in 183 pages. Cavin came to this knowledge through the need to recover from a severe traumatic brain injury and he did not keep his lessons learned to himself. This book is enlightening for anyone with a brain. We all want to function optimally, even to take exams, stay dynamic, and make positive contributions to our communities. Bravo Cavin for sharing your lessons learned!”
as scientific papers become much more accessible online due to Open Access, digitization by publishers, and cheap hosting for pirates, the available knowledge about nootropics increases drastically. This reduces the perceived risk by users, and enables them to educate themselves and make much more sophisticated estimates of risk and side-effects and benefits. (Take my modafinil page: in 1997, how could an average person get their hands on any of the papers available up to that point? Or get detailed info like the FDA’s prescribing guide? Even assuming they had a computer & Internet?)
Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, doesn’t dismiss the possibility of nootropics to enhance cognitive function in healthy people. She would like to see society think about what might be considered acceptable use and where it draws the line – for example, young people whose brains are still developing. But she also points out a big problem: long-term safety studies in healthy people have never been done. Most efficacy studies have only been short-term. “Proving safety and efficacy is needed,” she says.
There is no clear answer to this question. Many of the smart drugs have decades of medical research and widespread use behind them, as well as only minor, manageable, or nonexistent side effects, but are still used primarily as a crutch for people already experiencing cognitive decline, rather than as a booster-rocket for people with healthy brains. Unfortunately, there is a bias in Western medicine in favor of prescribing drugs once something bad has already begun, rather than for up-front prevention. There’s also the principle of “leave well enough alone” – in this case, extended to mean, don’t add unnecessary or unnatural drugs to the human body in place of a normal diet. [Smart Drug Smarts would argue that the average human diet has strayed so far from what is physiologically “normal” that leaving well enough alone is already a failed proposition.]
A 2015 review of various nutrients and dietary supplements found no convincing evidence of improvements in cognitive performance. While there are “plausible mechanisms” linking these and other food-sourced nutrients to better brain function, “supplements cannot replicate the complexity of natural food and provide all its potential benefits,” says Dr. David Hogan, author of that review and a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary in Canada.
Companies already know a great deal about how their employees live their lives. With the help of wearable technologies and health screenings, companies can now analyze the relation between bodily activities — exercise, sleep, nutrition, etc. — and work performance. With the justification that healthy employees perform better, some companies have made exercise mandatory by using sanctions against those who refuse to perform. And according to The Kaiser Family Foundation, of the large U.S. companies that offer health screenings, nearly half of them use financial incentives to persuade employees to participate.
A quick search for drugs that make you smarter will lead you to the discovery of piracetam. Piracetam is the first synthetic smart drug of its kind. All other racetams derive from Piracetam. Some are far more potent, but they may also carry more side effects. Piracetam is an allosteric modulator of acetylcholine receptors. In other words, it enhances acetylcholine synthesis which boosts cognitive function.
The use of cognition-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals in the absence of a medical indication spans numerous controversial issues, including the ethics and fairness of their use, concerns over adverse effects, and the diversion of prescription drugs for nonmedical uses, among others. Nonetheless, the international sales of cognition-enhancing supplements exceeded US$1 billion in 2015 when global demand for these compounds grew.