More recently, the drug modafinil (brand name: Provigil) has become the brain-booster of choice for a growing number of Americans. According to the FDA, modafinil is intended to bolster “wakefulness” in people with narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea or shift work disorder. But when people without those conditions take it, it has been linked with improvements in alertness, energy, focus and decision-making. A 2017 study found evidence that modafinil may enhance some aspects of brain connectivity, which could explain these benefits.
The word “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by a Romanian scientist, Corneliu Giurgea, who combined the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.” Caffeine and nicotine can be considered mild nootropics, while prescription Ritalin, Adderall and Provigil (modafinil, a drug for treating narcolepsy) lie at the far end of the spectrum when prescribed off-label as cognitive enhancers. Even microdosing of LSD is increasingly viewed as a means to greater productivity.
Blinding stymied me for a few months since the nasty taste was unmistakable and I couldn’t think of any gums with a similar flavor to serve as placebo. (The nasty taste does not seem to be due to the nicotine despite what one might expect; Vaniver plausibly suggested the bad taste might be intended to prevent over-consumption, but nothing in the Habitrol ingredient list seemed to be noted for its bad taste, and a number of ingredients were sweetening sugars of various sorts. So I couldn’t simply flavor some gum.)
“I have a bachelors degree in Nutrition Science. Cavin’s Balaster’s How to Feed a Brain is one the best written health nutrition books that I have ever read. It is evident that through his personal journey with a TBI and many years of research Cavin has gained a great depth of understanding on the biomechanics of nutrition has how it relates to the structure of the brain and nervous system, as well as how all of the body systems intercommunicate with one another. He then takes this complicated knowledge and breaks it down into a concise and comprehensive book. If you or your loved one is suffering from ANY neurological disorder or TBI please read this book.”
Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)
I ultimately mixed it in with the 3kg of piracetam and included it in that batch of pills. I mixed it very thoroughly, one ingredient at a time, so I’m not very worried about hot spots. But if you are, one clever way to get accurate caffeine measurements is to measure out a large quantity & dissolve it since it’s easier to measure water than powder, and dissolving guarantees even distribution. This can be important because caffeine is, like nicotine, an alkaloid poison which - the dose makes the poison - can kill in high doses, and concentrated powder makes it easy to take too much, as one inept Englishman discovered the hard way. (This dissolving trick is applicable to anything else that dissolves nicely.)
On the other metric, suppose we removed the creatine? Dropping 4 grams of material means we only need to consume 5.75 grams a day, covered by 8 pills (compared to 13 pills). We save 5,000 pills, which would have cost $45 and also don’t spend the $68 for the creatine; assuming a modafinil formulation, that drops our $1761 down to $1648 or $1.65 a day. Or we could remove both the creatine and modafinil, for a grand total of $848 or $0.85 a day, which is pretty reasonable.
But while some studies have found short-term benefits, Doraiswamy says there is no evidence that what are commonly known as smart drugs — of any type — improve thinking or productivity over the long run. “There’s a sizable demand, but the hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence,” notes Doraiswamy, adding that, for healthy young people such as Silicon Valley go-getters, “it’s a zero-sum game. That’s because when you up one circuit in the brain, you’re probably impairing another system.”
Another factor to consider is whether the nootropic is natural or synthetic. Natural nootropics generally have effects which are a bit more subtle, while synthetic nootropics can have more pronounced effects. It’s also important to note that there are natural and synthetic nootropics. Some natural nootropics include Ginkgo biloba and ginseng. One benefit to using natural nootropics is they boost brain function and support brain health. They do this by increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the arteries and veins in the brain. Moreover, some nootropics contain Rhodiola rosea, panxax ginseng, and more.
Caveats aside, if you do want to try a nootropic, consider starting with something simple and pretty much risk-free, like aromatherapy with lemon essential oil or frankincense, which can help activate your brain, Barbour says. You could also sip on "golden milk," a sweet and anti-inflammatory beverage made with turmeric, or rosemary-infused water, she adds.
One might suggest just going to the gym or doing other activities which may increase endogenous testosterone secretion. This would be unsatisfying to me as it introduces confounds: the exercise may be doing all the work in any observed effect, and certainly can’t be blinded. And blinding is especially important because the 2011 review discusses how some studies report that the famed influence of testosterone on aggression (eg. Wedrifid’s anecdote above) is a placebo effect caused by the folk wisdom that testosterone causes aggression & rage!
^ EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies; European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy (2011). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to L-theanine from Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze (tea) and improvement of cognitive function (ID 1104, 1222, 1600, 1601, 1707, 1935, 2004, 2005), alleviation of psychological stress (ID 1598, 1601), maintenance of normal sleep (ID 1222, 1737, 2004) and reduction of menstrual discomfort (ID 1599) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006". EFSA Journal. 9 (6): 2238. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2238.
Furthermore, there is no certain way to know whether you’ll have an adverse reaction to a particular substance, even if it’s natural. This risk is heightened when stacking multiple substances because substances can have synergistic effects, meaning one substance can heighten the effects of another. However, using nootropic stacks that are known to have been frequently used can reduce the chances of any negative side effects.
Vitamin B12 is also known as Cobalamin and is a water-soluble essential vitamin. A (large) deficiency of Vitamin B12 will ultimately lead to cognitive impairment . Older people and people who don’t eat meat are at a higher risk than young people who eat more meat. And people with depression have less Vitamin B12 than the average population .
Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HTP), is another primary neurotransmitter and controls major features of the mental landscape including mood, sleep and appetite. Serotonin is produced within the body by exposure, which is one reason that the folk-remedy of “getting some sun” to fight depression is scientifically credible. Many foods contain natural serotonergic (serotonin-promoting or releasing) compounds, including the well-known chemical L-Tryptophan found in turkey, which can promote sleep after big Thanksgiving dinners.
Chocolate or cocoa powder (Examine.com), contains the stimulants caffeine and the caffeine metabolite theobromine, so it’s not necessarily surprising if cocoa powder was a weak stimulant. It’s also a witch’s brew of chemicals such as polyphenols and flavonoids some of which have been fingered as helpful10, which all adds up to an unclear impact on health (once you control for eating a lot of sugar).
That doesn’t necessarily mean all smart drugs – now and in the future – will be harmless, however. The brain is complicated. In trying to upgrade it, you risk upsetting its intricate balance. “It’s not just about more, it’s about having to be exquisitely and exactly right. And that’s very hard to do,” says Arnstein. “What’s good for one system may be bad for another system,” adds Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “It’s clear from the experimental literature that you can affect memory with pharmacological agents, but the problem is keeping them safe.”
In August 2011, after winning the spaced repetition contest and finishing up the Adderall double-blind testing, I decided the time was right to try nicotine again. I had since learned that e-cigarettes use nicotine dissolved in water, and that nicotine-water was a vastly cheaper source of nicotine than either gum or patches. So I ordered 250ml of water at 12mg/ml (total cost: $18.20). A cigarette apparently delivers around 1mg of nicotine, so half a ml would be a solid dose of nicotine, making that ~500 doses. Plenty to experiment with. The question is, besides the stimulant effect, nicotine also causes habit formation; what habits should I reinforce with nicotine? Exercise, and spaced repetition seem like 2 good targets.
“We stumbled upon fasting as a way to optimize cognition and make yourself into a more efficient human being,” says Manuel Lam, an internal medicine physician who advises Nootrobox on clinical issues. He and members of the company’s executive team have implanted glucose monitors in their arms — not because they fear diabetes but because they wish to track the real-time effect of the foods they eat.
In addition, the cognitive enhancing effects of stimulant drugs often depend on baseline performance. So whilst stimulants enhance performance in people with low baseline cognitive abilities, they often impair performance in those who are already at optimum. Indeed, in a study by Randall et al., modafinil only enhanced cognitive performance in subjects with a lower (although still above-average) IQ.
Some supplement blends, meanwhile, claim to work by combining ingredients – bacopa, cat's claw, huperzia serrata and oat straw in the case of Alpha Brain, for example – that have some support for boosting cognition and other areas of nervous system health. One 2014 study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggested that huperzia serrata, which is used in China to fight Alzheimer's disease, may help slow cell death and protect against (or slow the progression of) neurodegenerative diseases. The Alpha Brain product itself has also been studied in a company-funded small randomized controlled trial, which found Alpha Brain significantly improved verbal memory when compared to adults who took a placebo.
Enhanced learning was also observed in two studies that involved multiple repeated encoding opportunities. Camp-Bruno and Herting (1994) found MPH enhanced summed recall in the Buschke Selective Reminding Test (Buschke, 1973; Buschke & Fuld, 1974) when 1-hr and 2-hr delays were combined, although individually only the 2-hr delay approached significance. Likewise, de Wit, Enggasser, and Richards (2002) found no effect of d-AMP on the Hopkins Verbal Learning Test (Brandt, 1991) after a 25-min delay. Willett (1962) tested rote learning of nonsense syllables with repeated presentations, and his results indicate that d-AMP decreased the number of trials needed to reach criterion.
Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless. Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others.
This doesn’t fit the U-curve so well: while 60mg is substantially negative as one would extrapolate from 30mg being ~0, 48mg is actually better than 15mg. But we bought the estimates of 48mg/60mg at a steep price - we ignore the influence of magnesium which we know influences the data a great deal. And the higher doses were added towards the end, so may be influenced by the magnesium starting/stopping. Another fix for the missingness is to impute the missing data. In this case, we might argue that the placebo days of the magnesium experiment were identical to taking no magnesium at all and so we can classify each NA as a placebo day, and rerun the desired analysis:
Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes. Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals. The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.
While the commentary makes effective arguments — that this isn't cheating, because cheating is based on what the rules are; that this is fair, because hiring a tutor isn't outlawed for being unfair to those who can't afford it; that this isn't unnatural, because humans with computers and antibiotics have been shaping what is natural for millennia; that this isn't drug abuse anymore than taking multivitamins is — the authors seem divorced from reality in the examples they provide of effective stimulant use today.
Regardless of your goal, there is a supplement that can help you along the way. Below, we’ve put together the definitive smart drugs list for peak mental performance. There are three major groups of smart pills and cognitive enhancers. We will cover each one in detail in our list of smart drugs. They are natural and herbal nootropics, prescription ADHD medications, and racetams and synthetic nootropics.
This is a small water plant native to India. Bacopa is an adaptogen – it helps your body adapt to stress. It also improves memory in healthy adults and enhances attention and mood in people over 65.  Scientists still don’t fully understand how Bacopa works, but they do know it takes time to work; study participants didn’t feel its memory-enhancing effects until they’d been supplementing with it daily for 4 weeks, so if you try Bacopa, stick with it for a month before you give up on it.