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).
Smart pills are defined as drugs or prescription medication used to treat certain mental disorders, from milder ones such as brain fog, to some more severe like ADHD. They are often referred to as ‘nootropics’ but even though the two terms are often used interchangeably, smart pills and nootropics represent two different types of cognitive enhancers.
Federal law classifies most nootropics as dietary supplements, which means that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate manufacturers’ statements about their benefits (as the giant “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” disclaimer on the label indicates). And the types of claims that the feds do allow supplement companies to make are often vague and/or supported by less-than-compelling scientific evidence. “If you find a study that says that an ingredient caused neurons to fire on rat brain cells in a petri dish,” says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “you can probably get away with saying that it ‘enhances memory’ or ‘promotes brain health.’”
“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.
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.
But there are some potential side effects, including headaches, anxiety and insomnia. Part of the way modafinil works is by shifting the brain’s levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters; it’s not clear what effects these shifts may have on a person’s health in the long run, and some research on young people who use modafinil has found changes in brain plasticity that are associated with poorer cognitive function.
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)
Power times prior times benefit minus cost of experimentation: (0.20 \times 0.30 \times 540) - 41 = -9. So the VoI is negative: because my default is that fish oil works and I am taking it, weak information that it doesn’t work isn’t enough. If the power calculation were giving us 40% reliable information, then the chance of learning I should drop fish oil is improved enough to make the experiment worthwhile (going from 20% to 40% switches the value from -$9 to +$23.8).
The absence of a suitable home for this needed research on the current research funding landscape exemplifies a more general problem emerging now, as applications of neuroscience begin to reach out of the clinical setting and into classrooms, offices, courtrooms, nurseries, marketplaces, and battlefields (Farah, 2011). Most of the longstanding sources of public support for neuroscience research are dedicated to basic research or medical applications. As neuroscience is increasingly applied to solving problems outside the medical realm, it loses access to public funding. The result is products and systems reaching the public with less than adequate information about effectiveness and/or safety. Examples include cognitive enhancement with prescription stimulants, event-related potential and fMRI-based lie detection, neuroscience-based educational software, and anti-brain-aging computer programs. Research and development in nonmedical neuroscience are now primarily the responsibility of private corporations, which have an interest in promoting their products. Greater public support of nonmedical neuroscience research, including methods of cognitive enhancement, will encourage greater knowledge and transparency concerning the efficacy and safety of these products and will encourage the development of products based on social value rather than profit value.
Tuesday: I went to bed at 1am, and first woke up at 6am, and I wrote down a dream; the lucid dreaming book I was reading advised that waking up in the morning and then going back for a short nap often causes lucid dreams, so I tried that - and wound up waking up at 10am with no dreams at all. Oops. I take a pill, but the whole day I don’t feel so hot, although my conversation and arguments seem as cogent as ever. I’m also having a terrible time focusing on any actual work. At 8 I take another; I’m behind on too many things, and it looks like I need an all-nighter to catch up. The dose is no good; at 11, I still feel like at 8, possibly worse, and I take another along with the choline+piracetam (which makes a total of 600mg for the day). Come 12:30, and I disconsolately note that I don’t seem any better, although I still seem to understand the IQ essays I am reading. I wonder if this is tolerance to modafinil, or perhaps sleep catching up to me? Possibly it’s just that I don’t remember what the quasi-light-headedness of modafinil felt like. I feel this sort of zombie-like state without change to 4am, so it must be doing something, when I give up and go to bed, getting up at 7:30 without too much trouble. Some N-backing at 9am gives me some low scores but also some pretty high scores (38/43/66/40/24/67/60/71/54 or ▂▂▆▂▁▆▅▇▄), which suggests I can perform normally if I concentrate. I take another pill and am fine the rest of the day, going to bed at 1am as usual.
Natural nootropic supplements derive from various nutritional studies. Research shows the health benefits of isolated vitamins, nutrients, and herbs. By increasing your intake of certain herbal substances, you can enhance brain function. Below is a list of the top categories of natural and herbal nootropics. These supplements are mainstays in many of today’s best smart pills.
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.