At small effects like d=0.07, a nontrivial chance of negative effects, and an unknown level of placebo effects (this was non-blinded, which could account for any residual effects), this strongly implies that LLLT is not doing anything for me worth bothering with. I was pretty skeptical of LLLT in the first place, and if 167 days can’t turn up anything noticeable, I don’t think I’ll be continuing with LLLT usage and will be giving away my LED set. (Should any experimental studies of LLLT for cognitive enhancement in healthy people surface with large quantitative effects - as opposed to a handful of qualitative case studies about brain-damaged people - and I decide to give LLLT another try, I can always just buy another set of LEDs: it’s only ~$15, after all.)

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.]


The evidence? Found helpful in reducing bodily twitching in myoclonus epilepsy, a rare disorder, but otherwise little studied. Mixed evidence from a study published in 1991 suggests it may improve memory in subjects with cognitive impairment. A meta-analysis published in 2010 that reviewed studies of piracetam and other racetam drugs found that piracetam was somewhat helpful in improving cognition in people who had suffered a stroke or brain injury; the drugs’ effectiveness in treating depression and reducing anxiety was more significant.
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.)
My general impression is positive; it does seem to help with endurance and extended the effect of piracetam+choline, but is not as effective as that combo. At $20 for 30g (bought from Smart Powders), I’m not sure it’s worthwhile, but I think at $10-15 it would probably be worthwhile. Sulbutiamine seems to affect my sleep negatively, like caffeine. I bought 2 or 3 canisters for my third batch of pills along with the theanine. For a few nights in a row, I slept terribly and stayed awake thinking until the wee hours of the morning; eventually I realized it was because I was taking the theanine pills along with the sleep-mix pills, and the only ingredient that was a stimulant in the batch was - sulbutiamine. I cut out the theanine pills at night, and my sleep went back to normal. (While very annoying, this, like the creatine & taekwondo example, does tend to prove to me that sulbutiamine was doing something and it is not pure placebo effect.)
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.
“Cavin has done an amazing job in all aspects of his life. Overcoming the horrific life threatening accident, and then going on to do whatever he can to help others with his contagious wonderful attitude. This book is an easy to understand fact filled manual for anyone, but especially those who are or are caregivers for a loved one with tbi. I also highly recommend his podcast series.”
A synthetic derivative of Piracetam, aniracetam is believed to be the second most widely used nootropic in the Racetam family, popular for its stimulatory effects because it enters the bloodstream quickly. Initially developed for memory and learning, many anecdotal reports also claim that it increases creativity. However, clinical studies show no effect on the cognitive functioning of healthy adult mice.
Similar to the way in which some athletes used anabolic steroids (muscle-building hormones) to artificially enhance their physique, some students turned to smart drugs, particularly Ritalin and Adderall, to heighten their intellectual abilities. A 2005 study reported that, at some universities in the United States, as many as 7 percent of respondents had used smart drugs at least once in their lifetime and 2.1 percent had used smart drugs in the past month. Modafinil was used increasingly by persons who sought to recover quickly from jet lag and who were under heavy work demands. Military personnel were given the same drug when sent on missions with extended flight times.
Because executive functions tend to work in concert with one another, these three categories are somewhat overlapping. For example, tasks that require working memory also require a degree of cognitive control to prevent current stimuli from interfering with the contents of working memory, and tasks that require planning, fluency, and reasoning require working memory to hold the task goals in mind. The assignment of studies to sections was based on best fit, according to the aspects of executive function most heavily taxed by the task, rather than exclusive category membership. Within each section, studies are further grouped according to the type of task and specific type of learning, working memory, cognitive control, or other executive function being assessed.
Another prescription stimulant medication, modafinil (known by the brand name Provigil), is usually prescribed to patients suffering from narcolepsy and shift-work sleep disorder, but it might turn out to have broader applications. “We have conducted at the University of Cambridge double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in healthy people using modafinil and have found improvements in cognition, including in working memory,” Sahakian says. However, she doesn’t think everyone should start using the drug off-label. “There are no long-term safety and efficacy studies of modafinil in healthy people, and so it is unclear what the risks might be.”
A study mentioned in Neuropsychopharmacology as of August 2002, revealed that Bacopa Monnieri decreases the rate of forgetting newly acquired information, memory consolidations, and verbal learning rate. It also helps in enhancing the nerve impulse transmission, which leads to increased alertness. It is also known to relieve the effects of anxiety and depression. All these benefits happen as Bacopa Monnieri dosage helps in activating choline acetyltransferase and inhibiting acetylcholinesterase which enhances the levels of acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that is also associated in improving memory and attention.
“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.
The evidence? In small studies, healthy people taking modafinil showed improved planning and working memory, and better reaction time, spatial planning, and visual pattern recognition. A 2015 meta-analysis claimed that “when more complex assessments are used, modafinil appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning” without affecting a user’s mood. In a study from earlier this year involving 39 male chess players, subjects taking modafinil were found to perform better in chess games played against a computer.
As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩

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I posted a link to the survey on my Google+ account, and inserted the link at the top of all gwern.net pages; 51 people completed all 11 binary choices (most of them coming from North America & Europe), which seems adequate since the 11 questions are all asking the same question, and 561 responses to one question is quite a few. A few different statistical tests seem applicable: a chi-squared test whether there’s a difference between all the answers, a two-sample test on the averages, and most meaningfully, summing up the responses as a single pair of numbers and doing a binomial test:

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With this experiment, I broke from the previous methodology, taking the remaining and final half Nuvigil at midnight. I am behind on work and could use a full night to catch up. By 8 AM, I am as usual impressed by the Nuvigil - with Modalert or something, I generally start to feel down by mid-morning, but with Nuvigil, I feel pretty much as I did at 1 AM. Sleep: 9:51/9:15/8:27
…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.
Fortunately for me, the FDA decided Smart Powder’s advertising was too explicit and ordered its piracetam sales stopped; I was equivocal at the previous price point, but then I saw that between the bulk discount and the fire-sale coupon, 3kg was only $99.99 (shipping was amortized over that, the choline, caffeine, and tryptophan). So I ordered in September 2010. As well, I had decided to cap my own pills, eliminating the inconvenience and bad taste. 3kg goes a very long way so I am nowhere close to running out of my pills; there is nothing to report since, as the pills are simply part of my daily routine.
Most people I talk to about modafinil seem to use it for daytime usage; for me that has not ever worked out well, but I had nothing in particular to show against it. So, as I was capping the last of my piracetam-caffeine mix and clearing off my desk, I put the 4 remaining Modalerts pills into capsules with the last of my creatine powder and then mixed them with 4 of the theanine-creatine pills. Like the previous Adderall trial, I will pick one pill blindly each day and guess at the end which it was. If it was active (modafinil-creatine), take a break the next day; if placebo (theanine-creatine), replace the placebo and try again the next day. We’ll see if I notice anything on DNB or possibly gwern.net edits.
Metabolic function smart drugs provide mental benefits by generally facilitating the body’s metabolic processes related to the production of new tissues and the release of energy from food and fat stores. Creatine, a long-time favorite performance-enhancement drug for competitive athletes, was in the news recently when it was found in a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial to have significant cognitive benefits – including both general speed of cognition and improvements in working memory. Ginkgo Biloba is another metabolic function smart drug used to increase memory and improve circulation – however, news from recent studies raises questions about these purported effects.
The concept of neuroenhancement and the use of substances to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals, is certainly not a new one. In fact, one of the first cognitive enhancement drugs, Piracetam, was developed over fifty years ago by psychologist and chemist C.C. Giurgea. Although he did not know the exact mechanism, Giurgia believed the drug boosted brain power and so began his exploration into "smart pills", or nootropics, a term he coined from the Greek nous, meaning "mind," and trepein, meaning "to bend.  
The question of whether stimulants are smart pills in a pragmatic sense cannot be answered solely by consideration of the statistical significance of the difference between stimulant and placebo. A drug with tiny effects, even if statistically significant, would not be a useful cognitive enhancer for most purposes. We therefore report Cohen’s d effect size measure for published studies that provide either means and standard deviations or relevant F or t statistics (Thalheimer & Cook, 2002). More generally, with most sample sizes in the range of a dozen to a few dozen, small effects would not reliably be found.
In contrast to the types of memory discussed in the previous section, which are long-lasting and formed as a result of learning, working memory is a temporary store of information. Working memory has been studied extensively by cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists because of its role in executive function. It has been likened to an internal scratch pad; by holding information in working memory, one keeps it available to consult and manipulate in the service of performing tasks as diverse as parsing a sentence and planning a route through the environment. Presumably for this reason, working memory ability correlates with measures of general intelligence (Friedman et al., 2006). The possibility of enhancing working memory ability is therefore of potential real-world interest.

Either way, if more and more people use these types of stimulants, there may be a risk that we will find ourselves in an ever-expanding neurological arm’s race, argues philosophy professor Nicole Vincent. But is this necessarily a bad thing? No, says Farahany, who sees the improvement in cognitive functioning as a social good that we should pursue. Better brain functioning would result in societal benefits, she argues, “like economic gains or even reducing dangerous errors.”

Swanson J, Arnold LE, Kraemer H, Hechtman L, Molina B, Hinshaw S, Wigal T. Evidence, interpretation and qualification from multiple reports of long-term outcomes in the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children With ADHD (MTA): Part II. Supporting details. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2008;12:15–43. doi: 10.1177/1087054708319525. [PubMed] [CrossRef]
Amphetamine – systematic reviews and meta-analyses report that low-dose amphetamine improved cognitive functions (e.g., inhibitory control, episodic memory, working memory, and aspects of attention) in healthy people and in individuals with ADHD.[21][22][23][25] A 2014 systematic review noted that low doses of amphetamine also improved memory consolidation, in turn leading to improved recall of information in non-ADHD youth.[23] It also improves task saliency (motivation to perform a task) and performance on tedious tasks that required a high degree of effort.[22][24][25]
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