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For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for researchers to know just how common the “smart drug” or “neuro-enhancing” lifestyle is. However, a few recent studies suggest cognition hacking is appealing to a growing number of people. A survey conducted in 2016 found that 15% of University of Oxford students were popping pills to stay competitive, a rate that mirrored findings from other national surveys of UK university students. In the US, a 2014 study found that 18% of sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Ivy League colleges had knowingly used a stimulant at least once during their academic career, and among those who had ever used uppers, 24% said they had popped a little helper on eight or more occasions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pharmacological enhancement is also on the rise within the workplace, where modafinil, which treats sleep disorders, has become particularly popular.
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).
Modafinil is a eugeroic, or ‘wakefulness promoting agent’, intended to help people with narcolepsy. It was invented in the 1970s, but was first approved by the American FDA in 1998 for medical use. Recent years have seen its off-label use as a ‘smart drug’ grow. It’s not known exactly how Modafinil works, but scientists believe it may increase levels of histamines in the brain, which can keep you awake. It might also inhibit the dissipation of dopamine, again helping wakefulness, and it may help alertness by boosting norepinephrine levels, contributing to its reputation as a drug to help focus and concentration.
There are also premade ‘stacks’ (or formulas) of cognitive enhancing superfoods, herbals or proteins, which pre-package several beneficial extracts for a greater impact. These types of cognitive enhancers are more ‘subtle’ than the pharmaceutical alternative with regards to effects, but they work all the same. In fact, for many people, they work better than smart drugs as they are gentler on the brain and produce fewer side-effects.
I decided to try out day-time usage on 2 consecutive days, taking the 100mg at noon or 1 PM. On both days, I thought I did feel more energetic but nothing extraordinary (maybe not even as strong as the nicotine), and I had trouble falling asleep on Halloween, thinking about the meta-ethics essay I had been writing diligently on both days. Not a good use compared to staying up a night.
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.
 In most cases, cognitive enhancers have been used to treat people with neurological or mental disorders, but there is a growing number of healthy, "normal" people who use these substances in hopes of getting smarter. Although there are many companies that make "smart" drinks, smart power bars and diet supplements containing certain "smart" chemicals, there is little evidence to suggest that these products really work. Results from different laboratories show mixed results; some labs show positive effects on memory and learning; other labs show no effects. There are very few well-designed studies using normal healthy people.

A record of nootropics I have tried, with thoughts about which ones worked and did not work for me. These anecdotes should be considered only as anecdotes, and one’s efforts with nootropics a hobby to put only limited amounts of time into due to the inherent limits of drugs as a force-multiplier compared to other things like programming1; for an ironic counterpoint, I suggest the reader listen to a video of Jonathan Coulton’s I Feel Fantastic while reading.
Depending on where you live, some nootropics may not be sold over the counter, but they are usually available online. The law regarding nootropics can vary massively around the world, so be sure to do your homework before you purchase something for the first time. Be particularly cautious when importing smart drugs, because quality control and regulations abroad are not always as stringent as they are in the US. Do not put your health at risk if all you are trying to do is gain an edge in a competitive sport.

This world is a competitive place. If you’re not seeking an advantage, you’ll get passed by those who do. Whether you’re studying for a final exam or trying to secure a big business deal, you need a definitive mental edge. Are smart drugs and brain-boosting pills the answer for cognitive enhancement in 2019? If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying, right? Bad advice for some scenarios, but there is a grain of truth to every saying—even this one.
The Trail Making Test is a paper-and-pencil neuropsychological test with two parts, one of which requires shifting between stimulus categories. Part A simply requires the subject to connect circled numbers in ascending order. Part B requires the subject to connect circled numbers and letters in an interleaved ascending order (1, A, 2, B, 3, C….), a task that places heavier demands on cognitive control. Silber et al. (2006) analyzed the effect of d-AMP on Trails A and B and failed to find an effect.
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Caffeine (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) is of course the most famous stimulant around. But consuming 200mg or more a day, I have discovered the downside: it is addictive and has a nasty withdrawal - headaches, decreased motivation, apathy, and general unhappiness. (It’s a little amusing to read academic descriptions of caffeine addiction9; if caffeine were a new drug, I wonder what Schedule it would be in and if people might be even more leery of it than modafinil.) Further, in some ways, aside from the ubiquitous placebo effect, caffeine combines a mix of weak performance benefits (Lorist & Snel 2008, Nehlig 2010) with some possible decrements, anecdotally and scientifically:

Bacopa Monnieri is probably one of the safest and most effective memory and mood enhancer nootropic available today with the least side-effects. In some humans, a majorly extended use of Bacopa Monnieri can result in nausea. One of the primary products of AlternaScript is Optimind, a nootropic supplement which mostly constitutes of Bacopa Monnieri as one of the main ingredients.
Texas-based entrepreneur and podcaster Mansal Denton takes phenylpiracetam, a close relative of piracetam originally developed by the Soviet Union as a medication for cosmonauts, to help them endure the stresses of life in space. “I have a much easier time articulating certain things when I take it, so I typically do a lot of recording [of podcasts] on those days,” he says.

An additional complexity, related to individual differences, concerns dosage. This factor, which varies across studies and may be fixed or determined by participant body weight within a study, undoubtedly influences the cognitive effects of stimulant drugs. Furthermore, single-unit recordings with animals and, more recently, imaging of humans indicate that the effects of stimulant dose are nonmonotonic; increases enhance prefrontal function only up to a point, with further increases impairing function (e.g., Arnsten, 1998; Mattay et al., 2003; Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). Yet additional complexity comes from the fact that the optimal dosage depends on the same kinds of individual characteristics just discussed and on the task (Mattay et al., 2003).
At this point, I began thinking about what I was doing. Black-market Adderall is fairly expensive; $4-10 a pill vs prescription prices which run more like $60 for 120 20mg pills. It would be a bad idea to become a fan without being quite sure that it is delivering bang for the buck. Now, why the piracetam mix as the placebo as opposed to my other available powder, creatine powder, which has much smaller mental effects? Because the question for me is not whether the Adderall works (I am quite sure that the amphetamines have effects!) but whether it works better for me than my cheap legal standbys (piracetam & caffeine)? (Does Adderall have marginal advantage for me?) Hence, I want to know whether Adderall is better than my piracetam mix. People frequently underestimate the power of placebo effects, so it’s worth testing. (Unfortunately, it seems that there is experimental evidence that people on Adderall know they are on Adderall and also believe they have improved performance, when they do not5. So the blind testing does not buy me as much as it could.)

That it is somewhat valuable is clear if we consider it under another guise. Imagine you received the same salary you do, but paid every day. Accounting systems would incur considerable costs handling daily payments, since they would be making so many more and so much smaller payments, and they would have to know instantly whether you showed up to work that day and all sorts of other details, and the recipients themselves would waste time dealing with all these checks or looking through all the deposits to their account, and any errors would be that much harder to track down. (And conversely, expensive payday loans are strong evidence that for poor people, a bi-weekly payment is much too infrequent.) One might draw a comparison to batching or buffers in computers: by letting data pile up in buffers, the computer can then deal with them in one batch, amortizing overhead over many items rather than incurring the overhead again and again. The downside, of course, is that latency will suffer and performance may drop based on that or the items becoming outdated & useless. The right trade-off will depend on the specifics; one would not expect random buffer-sizes to be optimal, but one would have to test and see what works best.


Texas-based entrepreneur and podcaster Mansal Denton takes phenylpiracetam, a close relative of piracetam originally developed by the Soviet Union as a medication for cosmonauts, to help them endure the stresses of life in space. “I have a much easier time articulating certain things when I take it, so I typically do a lot of recording [of podcasts] on those days,” he says.
The use of cognitive enhancers by healthy individuals sparked debate about ethics and safety. Cognitive enhancement by pharmaceutical means was considered a form of illicit drug use in some places, even while other cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine and nicotine, were freely available. The conflict therein raised the possibility for further acceptance of smart drugs in the future. However, the long-term effects of smart drugs on otherwise healthy brains were unknown, delaying safety assessments.
Even if you eat foods that contain these nutrients, Hogan says their beneficial effects are in many ways cumulative—meaning the brain perks don’t emerge unless you’ve been eating them for long periods of time. Swallowing more of these brain-enhancing compounds at or after middle-age “may be beyond the critical period” when they’re able to confer cognitive enhancements, he says.
Another ingredient used in this formula is GABA or Gamma-Aminobutyric acid; it’s the second most common neurotransmitter found in the human brain. Being an inhibitory neurotransmitter it helps calm and reduce neuronal activity; this calming effect makes GABA an excellent ingredient in anti-anxiety medication. Lecithin is another ingredient found in Smart Pill and is a basic compound found in every cell of the body, with cardiovascular benefits it can also help restore the liver. Another effect is that it works with neurological functions such as memory or attention, thus improving brain Effectiveness.
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.
The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.
One often-cited study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology looked at cognitive function in the elderly and showed that racetam helped to improve their brain function.19 Another study, which was published in Psychopharmacology, looked at adult volunteers (including those who are generally healthy) and found that piracetam helped improve their memory.20
In the United States, people consume more coffee than fizzy drink, tea and juice combined. Alas, no one has ever estimated its impact on economic growth – but plenty of studies have found myriad other benefits. Somewhat embarrassingly, caffeine has been proven to be better than the caffeine-based commercial supplement that Woo’s company came up with, which is currently marketed at $17.95 for 60 pills.
Oxiracetam is one of the 3 most popular -racetams; less popular than piracetam but seems to be more popular than aniracetam. Prices have come down substantially since the early 2000s, and stand at around 1.2g/$ or roughly 50 cents a dose, which was low enough to experiment with; key question, does it stack with piracetam or is it redundant for me? (Oxiracetam can’t compete on price with my piracetam pile stockpile: the latter is now a sunk cost and hence free.)
Going back to the 1960s, although it was a Romanian chemist who is credited with discovering nootropics, a substantial amount of research on racetams was conducted in the Soviet Union. This resulted in the birth of another category of substances entirely: adaptogens, which, in addition to benefiting cognitive function were thought to allow the body to better adapt to stress.
Weyandt et al. (2009) Large public university undergraduates (N = 390) 7.5% (past 30 days) Highest rated reasons were to perform better on schoolwork, perform better on tests, and focus better in class 21.2% had occasionally been offered by other students; 9.8% occasionally or frequently have purchased from other students; 1.4% had sold to other students
1 PM; overall this was a pretty productive day, but I can’t say it was very productive. I would almost say even odds, but for some reason I feel a little more inclined towards modafinil. Say 55%. That night’s sleep was vile: the Zeo says it took me 40 minutes to fall asleep, I only slept 7:37 total, and I woke up 7 times. I’m comfortable taking this as evidence of modafinil (half-life 10 hours, 1 PM to midnight is only 1 full halving), bumping my prediction to 75%. I check, and sure enough - modafinil.

Instead of buying expensive supplements, Lebowitz recommends eating heart-healthy foods, like those found in the MIND diet. Created by researchers at Rush University, MIND combines the Mediterranean and DASH eating plans, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart problems. Fish, nuts, berries, green leafy vegetables and whole grains are MIND diet staples. Lebowitz says these foods likely improve your cognitive health by keeping your heart healthy.


It is at the top of the supplement snake oil list thanks to tons of correlations; for a review, see Luchtman & Song 2013 but some specifics include Teenage Boys Who Eat Fish At Least Once A Week Achieve Higher Intelligence Scores, anti-inflammatory properties (see Fish Oil: What the Prescriber Needs to Know on arthritis), and others - Fish oil can head off first psychotic episodes (study; Seth Roberts commentary), Fish Oil May Fight Breast Cancer, Fatty Fish May Cut Prostate Cancer Risk & Walnuts slow prostate cancer, Benefits of omega-3 fatty acids tally up, Serum Phospholipid Docosahexaenonic Acid Is Associated with Cognitive Functioning during Middle Adulthood endless anecdotes.
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.
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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.
With the right lifestyle and the right stack of supplements and nootropics, you can enjoy enhanced mental clarity, easier flow, and better vision. The best nootropics for your needs will depend on how much you want to spend, how often you want to take them, and what you want to take them for. Nutritional supplements should be taken daily, for the cumulative effect, but Smart drugs such as noopept and modafinil are usually taken on an as-needed basis, for those times when you are aiming for hyperfocus, better clarity, and better recall, or the ability to process a huge amount of incoming visual information quickly and accurately and to pick up on details that you might otherwise miss.

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.”
There are certain risks associated with smart pills that might restrain their use. A smart pill usually leaves the body within two weeks. Sometimes, the pill might get lodged in the digestive tract rather than exiting the body via normal bowel movements. The risk might be higher in people with a tumor, Crohns disease, or some surgery within that area that lead to narrowing of the digestive tract. CT scan is usually performed in people with high-risk to assess the narrowing of the tract. However, the pill might still be lodged even if the results are negative for the CT scan, which might lead to bowel obstruction and can be removed either by surgery or traditional endoscopy. Smart pills might lead to skin irritation, which results in mild redness and need to be treated topically. It may also lead to capsule aspiration, which involves the capsule going down the wrong pipe and entering the airway instead of the esophagus. This might result in choking and death if immediate bronchoscopic extraction is not performed. Patients with comorbidities related to brain injury or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may be at a higher risk. So, the health risks associated with the use of smart pills are hindering the smart pills technology market. The other factors, such as increasing cost with technological advancement and ethical constraints are also hindering the market.
Adaptogens are plant-derived chemicals whose activity helps the body maintain or regain homeostasis (equilibrium between the body’s metabolic processes). Almost without exception, adaptogens are available over-the-counter as dietary supplements, not controlled drugs. Well-known adaptogens include Ginseng, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, St. Johns Wort, and Gotu Kola. Many of these traditional remedies border on being “folk wisdom,” and have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years, and are used to treat everything from anxiety and mild depression to low libido. While these smart drugs work in a many different ways (their commonality is their resultant function within the body, not their chemical makeup), it can generally be said that the cognitive boost users receive is mostly a result of fixing an imbalance in people with poor diets, body toxicity, or other metabolic problems, rather than directly promoting the growth of new brain cells or neural connections.
One often-cited study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology looked at cognitive function in the elderly and showed that racetam helped to improve their brain function.19 Another study, which was published in Psychopharmacology, looked at adult volunteers (including those who are generally healthy) and found that piracetam helped improve their memory.20
One symptom of Alzheimer's disease is a reduced brain level of the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It is thought that an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease might be to increase brain levels of acetylcholine. Another possible treatment would be to slow the death of neurons that contain acetylcholine. Two drugs, Tacrine and Donepezil, are both inhibitors of the enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) that breaks down acetylcholine. These drugs are approved in the US for treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
Unfortunately, cognitive enhancement falls between the stools of research funding, which makes it unlikely that such research programs will be carried out. Disease-oriented funders will, by definition, not support research on normal healthy individuals. The topic intersects with drug abuse research only in the assessment of risk, leaving out the study of potential benefits, as well as the comparative benefits of other enhancement methods. As a fundamentally applied research question, it will not qualify for support by funders of basic science. The pharmaceutical industry would be expected to support such research only if cognitive enhancement were to be considered a legitimate indication by the FDA, which we hope would happen only after considerably more research has illuminated its risks, benefits, and societal impact. Even then, industry would have little incentive to delve into all of the issues raised here, including the comparison of drug effects to nonpharmaceutical means of enhancing cognition.

Certain pharmaceuticals could also qualify as nootropics. For at least the past 20 years, a lot of people—students, especially—have turned to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs like Ritalin and Adderall for their supposed concentration-strengthening effects. While there’s some evidence that these stimulants can improve focus in people without ADHD, they have also been linked, in both people with and without an ADHD diagnosis, to insomnia, hallucinations, seizures, heart trouble and sudden death, according to a 2012 review of the research in the journal Brain and Behavior. They’re also addictive.
Amphetamines have a long track record as smart drugs, from the workaholic mathematician Paul Erdös, who relied on them to get through 19-hour maths binges, to the writer Graham Greene, who used them to write two books at once. More recently, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts in magazines about their widespread use in certain industries, such as journalism, the arts and finance.
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.
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)

The chemical Huperzine-A (Examine.com) is extracted from a moss. It is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor (instead of forcing out more acetylcholine like the -racetams, it prevents acetylcholine from breaking down). My experience report: One for the null hypothesis files - Huperzine-A did nothing for me. Unlike piracetam or fish oil, after a full bottle (Source Naturals, 120 pills at 200μg each), I noticed no side-effects, no mental improvements of any kind, and no changes in DNB scores from straight Huperzine-A.
One thing to notice is that the default case matters a lot. This asymmetry is because you switch decisions in different possible worlds - when you would take Adderall but stop you’re in the world where Adderall doesn’t work, and when you wouldn’t take Adderall but do you’re in the world where Adderall does work (in the perfect information case, at least). One of the ways you can visualize this is that you don’t penalize tests for giving you true negative information, and you reward them for giving you true positive information. (This might be worth a post by itself, and is very Litany of Gendlin.)
One of the most common strategies to beat this is cycling. Users who cycle their nootropics take them for a predetermined period, (usually around five days) before taking a two-day break from using them. Once the two days are up, they resume the cycle. By taking a break, nootropic users reduce the tolerance for nootropics and lessen the risk of regression and tolerance symptoms.
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