A third of participants in clinical trials on Modafinil have reported crippling headaches.  An additional 11% experienced nausea, while others reported an array of other side-effects ranging from nervousness to diarrhea.  Dizziness and insomnia may also result from Modafinil use.   I can attest that the side effects are very real.  In fact, I had to stop using Modafinil after 2 days when my headaches became so intense I ended up at the ER.

It’s not clear that there is much of an effect at all. This makes it hard to design a self-experiment - how big an effect on, say, dual n-back should I be expecting? Do I need an arduous long trial or an easy short one? This would principally determine the value of information too; chocolate seems like a net benefit even if it does not affect the mind, but it’s also fairly costly, especially if one likes (as I do) dark chocolate. Given the mixed research, I don’t think cocoa powder is worth investigating further as a nootropic.
The Nootroo arrives in a shiny gold envelope with the words “proprietary blend” and “intended for use only in neuroscience research” written on the tin. It has been designed, says Matzner, for “hours of enhanced learning and memory”. The capsules contain either Phenylpiracetam or Noopept (a peptide with similar effects and similarly uncategorised) and are distinguished by real flakes of either edible silver or gold. They are to be alternated between daily, allowing about two weeks for the full effect to be felt. Also in the capsules are L-Theanine, a form of choline, and a types of caffeine which it is claimed has longer lasting effects.

A week later: Golden Sumatran, 3 spoonfuls, a more yellowish powder. (I combined it with some tea dregs to hopefully cut the flavor a bit.) Had a paper to review that night. No (subjectively noticeable) effect on energy or productivity. I tried 4 spoonfuls at noon the next day; nothing except a little mental tension, for lack of a better word. I think that was just the harbinger of what my runny nose that day and the day before was, a head cold that laid me low during the evening.


The Neurohacker Collective is a group of scientists, academics, and creatives who, among other things, sell nootropics. One of its premier products is Qualia Original Stack (OS), which has 41 ingredients. The large print says it improves focus, mood, and energy within 30 minutes and “supports long-term brain health.” A 22-dose supply costs $129. Such stacks operate on the idea that synergies among ingredients yield additional benefits.

The available literature on cognitive enhancing practices at times appears to lump together nootropics and “smart drugs.” Smart drugs are not officially defined, but references to this group generally include Provigil (modafinil), Adderall and Ritalin. Any confusion about the addiction potential of different brain-enhancing drugs can spread misinformation about the individual drugs. There are many nootropics on the market, so the best practice is to focus on the addiction potential of each nootropic of interest or concern.

There is no official data on their usage, but nootropics as well as other smart drugs appear popular in the Silicon Valley. “I would say that most tech companies will have at least one person on something,” says Noehr. It is a hotbed of interest because it is a mentally competitive environment, says Jesse Lawler, a LA based software developer and nootropics enthusiast who produces the podcast Smart Drug Smarts. “They really see this as translating into dollars.” But Silicon Valley types also do care about safely enhancing their most prized asset – their brains – which can give nootropics an added appeal, he says.
The soft gels are very small; one needs to be a bit careful - Vitamin D is fat-soluble and overdose starts in the range of 70,000 IU36, so it would take at least 14 pills, and it’s unclear where problems start with chronic use. Vitamin D, like many supplements, follows a U-shaped response curve (see also Melamed et al 2008 and Durup et al 2012) - too much can be quite as bad as too little. Too little, though, is likely very bad. The previously cited studies with high acute doses worked out to <1,000 IU a day, so they may reassure us about the risks of a large acute dose but not tell us much about smaller chronic doses; the mortality increases due to too-high blood levels begin at ~140nmol/l and reading anecdotes online suggest that 5k IU daily doses tend to put people well below that (around 70-100nmol/l). I probably should get a blood test to be sure, but I have something of a needle phobia.

Lost confidence.  If you can’t find your keys, much less get through your workday in a timely fashion without a slew of mistakes, you are going to lose confidence in both your brain and yourself.  When you cannot remember where you put things and it takes an absurd amount of effort just to do a simple task, you might question your very sanity.  As your confidence continues to nose-dive, you just end up making more and more mistakes.  It turns into a vicious cycle.


There are a number of smart drugs on the market, the most well-known of which are probably Adderall and Ritalin. Both are technically known as psychostimulants, which means that they stimulate increased activity of the central nervous system: the brain and spinal cord. There are also two other common smart drugs, specifically Modafinil and a class of something called “ampakines”. You’re about to learn how each of them works and the benefits and potential risks therein.
That study is also interesting for finding benefits to chronic piracetam+choline supplementation in the mice, which seems connected to a Russian study which reportedly found that piracetam (among other more obscure nootropics) increased secretion of BDNF in mice. See also Drug heuristics on a study involving choline supplementation in pregnant rats.↩
Pop this pill and improve your memory. Swallow that one and reduce your cognitive decline. We see ads for such products all the time and I suspect they will increase as the baby boomers reach senior citizenhood. The most popular brain boosting supplements are fish oil pills and they are also probably the best studied ones. The results are not encouraging. When all the studies are pooled, we are left with the possibility of a barely significant improvement in recalling lists of words soon after they have been learned, but the effect does not last. Extracts of the ginkgo biloba tree are also popular, and here the prospects are even dimmer. There is no impact on memory, despite claims of increased circulation in the brain. And ginkgo can interfere with the action of anticoagulants and has also been shown to be an animal carcinogen.
Looking at the prices, the overwhelming expense is for modafinil. It’s a powerful stimulant - possibly the single most effective ingredient in the list - but dang expensive. Worse, there’s anecdotal evidence that one can develop tolerance to modafinil, so we might be wasting a great deal of money on it. (And for me, modafinil isn’t even very useful in the daytime: I can’t even notice it.) If we drop it, the cost drops by a full $800 from $1761 to $961 (almost halving) and to $0.96 per day. A remarkable difference, and if one were genetically insensitive to modafinil, one would definitely want to remove it.
According to Dr. Cohen, there’s no incentive for these companies to conduct trials to determine if their products actually do anything, so few of them do. In fact, he says he isn’t aware of any studies on nootropics that meet the research gold standard: double-blind, placebo-controlled, comparing meaningful numbers of healthy adults (not laboratory mice or rats) in terms of relevant measures of cognitive enhancement.
Zack explained that he didn't really like the term enhancement: "We're not talking about superhuman intelligence. No one's saying we're coming out with a pill that's going to make you smarter than Einstein! What we're really talking about is enabling people." He sketched a bell curve on the back of a napkin. "Almost every drug in development is something that will take someone who's working at, like, 40% or 50%, and take them up to 80," he said.

The original magnesium l-threonate caused me no apparent problems by the time I finished off the powder and usage correlated with better days, further supporting the hypothesis that magnesium helps it. But l-threonate would be difficult to cap (and hence blind self-experiment) and is ruinously expensive on a per-dose basis. So I looked around for alternatives for the followup; one of the most common compounds suggested was the citrate form because it is reasonably well-absorbed and causes fewer digestive problems, so I could just take that. Magnesium oxide is widely available it looks cheap, but the absorption/bioavailability problem makes it unattractive: at a 3:5 ratio, an estimate of 4% absorption, a ZMA formulation of an impressive-sounding 500mg would be 500 \times \frac{3}{5} \times 0.04 = 12mg or a small fraction of RDAs for male adults like 400mg elemental. (Calcium shouldn’t be a problem since I get 220mg of calcium from my multivitamin and I enjoy dairy products daily.)
There’s been a lot of talk about the ketogenic diet recently—proponents say that minimizing the carbohydrates you eat and ingesting lots of fat can train your body to burn fat more effectively. It’s meant to help you both lose weight and keep your energy levels constant. The diet was first studied and used in patients with epilepsy, who suffered fewer seizures when their bodies were in a state of ketosis. Because seizures originate in the brain, this discovery showed researchers that a ketogenic diet can definitely affect the way the brain works. Brain hackers naturally started experimenting with diets to enhance their cognitive abilities, and now a company called HVMN even sells ketone esters in a bottle; to achieve these compounds naturally, you’d have to avoid bread and cake. Here are 6 ways exercise makes your brain better.

Price discrimination is aided by barriers such as ignorance and oligopolies. An example of the former would be when I went to a Food Lion grocery store in search of spices, and noticed that there was a second selection of spices in the Hispanic/Latino ethnic food aisle, with unit prices perhaps a fourth of the regular McCormick-brand spices; I rather doubt that regular cinnamon varies that much in quality. An example of the latter would be using veterinary drugs on humans - any doctor to do so would probably be guilty of medical malpractice even if the drugs were manufactured in the same factories (as well they might be, considering economies of scale). Similarly, we can predict that whenever there is a veterinary drug which is chemically identical to a human drug, the veterinary drug will be much cheaper, regardless of actual manufacturing cost, than the human drug because pet owners do not value their pets more than themselves. Human drugs are ostensibly held to a higher standard than veterinary drugs; so if veterinary prices are higher, then there will be an arbitrage incentive to simply buy the cheaper human version and downgrade them to veterinary drugs.
However, as a result of the efficacy of this type of stacking, the supplement world is saturated with brain-boosting blends, and it can be difficult to cut through the confusion and figure out what really works and what could be a waste of time and money, or downright dangerous. The fact is, when creating your own stack, you must carefully think about your specific needs and goals. For example, if you want to reduce anxiety and depression, but don’t necessarily care to enhance your cognitive performance or get through a day of work in a sleep-deprived state, you could just stick to a single nootropic that increases dopamine levels, such as Mucuna pruriens or tryptophan. Or if you wanted to reduce anxiety and depression while simultaneously improving your memory because you’re studying for a school or work exam, you could add Bacopa monnieri to the mucuna or tryptophan. Then, let’s say you want long-term cognitive performance to the mix that lasts an entire day: in this case, you’d add a racetam, and to avoid an end of day crash, a touch of choline or DHA. It’s a bit like cooking in the kitchen, isn’t it?
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The difference in standard deviations is not, from a theoretical perspective, all that strange a phenomenon: at the very beginning of this page, I covered some basic principles of nootropics and mentioned how many stimulants or supplements follow a inverted U-curve where too much or too little lead to poorer performance (ironically, one of the examples in Kruschke 2012 was a smart drug which did not affect means but increased standard deviations).
I take my piracetam in the form of capped pills consisting (in descending order) of piracetam, choline bitartrate, anhydrous caffeine, and l-tyrosine. On 8 December 2012, I happened to run out of them and couldn’t fetch more from my stock until 27 December. This forms a sort of (non-randomized, non-blind) short natural experiment: did my daily 1-5 mood/productivity ratings fall during 8-27 December compared to November 2012 & January 2013? The graphed data29 suggests to me a decline:
Taurine (Examine.com) was another gamble on my part, based mostly on its inclusion in energy drinks. I didn’t do as much research as I should have: it came as a shock to me when I read in Wikipedia that taurine has been shown to prevent oxidative stress induced by exercise and was an antioxidant - oxidative stress is a key part of how exercise creates health benefits and antioxidants inhibit those benefits.
Apkarian and colleagues imaged the brains of 68 participants and gave them personality tests. The researchers then randomly assigned the participants to groups that either received no treatment, sugar pills or a pain-killing drug. Those given pills were not told if they received a placebo or an active drug. Participants took the treatment for two weeks, stopped for one week and then repeated this cycle.
Taking these drugs without a doctor’s supervision can be dangerous. There are interactions and contraindications that can cause serious problems. These drugs should not be used if you drink alcohol or take an antidepressant. (50) The possibility of adverse drug reactions should not be taken lightly. By some calculations, adverse drug reactions are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US. (51)
Using neuroenhancers, Seltzer said, "is like customising yourself - customising your brain". For some people, he added, it was important to enhance their mood, so they took antidepressants; but for people like him it was more important "to increase mental horsepower". He said: "It's fundamentally a choice you're making about how you want to experience consciousness." Whereas the 1990s had been about "the personalisation of technology", this decade was about the personalisation of the brain - what some enthusiasts have begun to call "mind hacking".

Also known as Arcalion or Bisbuthiamine and Enerion, Sulbutiamine is a compound of the Sulphur group and is an analogue to vitamin B1, which  is known to pass the blood-brain barrier very easily. Sulbutiamine is found to circulate faster than Thiamine from blood to brain. It is recommended for patients suffering from mental fatigue caused due to emotional and psychological stress. The best part about this compound is that it does not have most of the common side effects linked with a few nootropics.
As for newer nootropic drugs, there are unknown risks. “Piracetam has been studied for decades,” says cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Hill, the founder of a neurofeedback company in Los Angeles called Peak Brain Institute. But “some of [the newer] compounds are things that some random editor found in a scientific article, copied the formula down and sent it to China and had a bulk powder developed three months later that they’re selling. Please don’t take it, people!”
…It is without activity in man! Certainly not for the lack of trying, as some of the dosage trials that are tucked away in the literature (as abstracted in the Qualitative Comments given above) are pretty heavy duty. Actually, I truly doubt that all of the experimenters used exactly that phrase, No effects, but it is patently obvious that no effects were found. It happened to be the phrase I had used in my own notes.

Professor David O Kennedy published a book in 2014 called Plants and the Human Brain. In his book he summarizes the last 15 years of research into cognitive nutrition, including the work he's done with colleagues at the Brain Performance Nutrition Research Center at Northumbria University. It's a great read and a good guide to what sorts of herbs and other plants to include in our weekly diet and it is all based on hard science rather than mere assertion or trendy but unsubstantiated beliefs.
Starting from the studies in my meta-analysis, we can try to estimate an upper bound on how big any effect would be, if it actually existed. One of the most promising null results, Southon et al 1994, turns out to be not very informative: if we punch in the number of kids, we find that they needed a large effect size (d=0.81) before they could see anything:
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