Zack and Casey Lynch are a young couple who, in 2005, launched NeuroInsights, a company that advises investors on developments in brain-science technology. (Since then, they've also founded a lobbying group, the Neurotechnology Industry Organization.) Casey and Zack met as undergraduates at UCLA; she went on to get a master's in neuroscience and he became an executive at a software company. Last summer I had coffee with them in San Francisco and they both spoke with casual certainty about the coming market for neuroenhancers. Zack, whose book, The Neuro Revolution, was published in July, said: "We live in an information society. What's the next form of human society? The neuro-society." In coming years, he said, scientists will understand the brain better, and we'll have improved neuroenhancers that some people will use therapeutically, others because they are "on the borderline of needing them therapeutically" and others purely "for competitive advantage".

A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.
It’s that time of the year again. It’s Blue Monday. We’re halfway into January, trudging through the deepest and darkest of the winter months, as we try to keep our heads high after the Christmas festivities with the motivation of our New Year’s resolutions. Some of you may have never heard of Blue Monday and let’s just say you’re not exactly missing out.

You’ve no doubt heard that we’re now entering a new golden age of psychedelics, and microdosing with LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and other compounds previously placed in the realm of party animals and rave enthusiasts is now commonplace for CEO’s, the Navy SEALs, famous authors and beyond. You no longer have to be a tree-hugging, anti-war rebel to achieve the many positive health benefits of psychedelics. My own personal experience with these compounds has spanned several years of quarterly heavy psilocybin and DMT dosages for personal self-discovery, weekly LSD microdoses for creativity and productivity, and iboga microdosing for a pre-workout boost.


I can’t try either of the products myself – I am pregnant and my doctor doesn’t recommend it – but my husband agrees to. He describes the effect of the Nootrobox product as like having a cup of coffee but not feeling as jittery. “I had a very productive day, but I don’t know if that was why,” he says. His Nootroo experience ends after one capsule. He gets a headache, which he is convinced is related, and refuses to take more. “It is just not a beginner friendly cocktail,” offers Noehr.
Lisa Mosconi has a web and media presence and a book Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power. She claims, “There is increasing evidence that implementing the lifestyle changes described in this book has the potential to prevent Alzheimer’s from developing and also to help slow down or even halt progression of the disease.” What’s more, “eating for your brain…actually helps you achieve peak performance in every part of your life.”

The amphetamine mix branded Adderall is terribly expensive to obtain even compared to modafinil, due to its tight regulation (a lower schedule than modafinil), popularity in college as a study drug, and reportedly moves by its manufacture to exploit its privileged position as a licensed amphetamine maker to extract more consumer surplus. I paid roughly $4 a pill but could have paid up to $10. Good stimulant hygiene involves recovery periods to avoid one’s body adapting to eliminate the stimulating effects, so even if Adderall was the answer to all my woes, I would not be using it more than 2 or 3 times a week. Assuming 50 uses a year (for specific projects, let’s say, and not ordinary aimless usage), that’s a cool $200 a year. My general belief was that Adderall would be too much of a stimulant for me, as I am amphetamine-naive and Adderall has a bad reputation for letting one waste time on unimportant things. We could say my prediction was 50% that Adderall would be useful and worth investigating further. The experiment was pretty simple: blind randomized pills, 10 placebo & 10 active. I took notes on how productive I was and the next day guessed whether it was placebo or Adderall before breaking the seal and finding out. I didn’t do any formal statistics for it, much less a power calculation, so let’s try to be conservative by penalizing the information quality heavily and assume it had 25%. So \frac{200 - 0}{\ln 1.05} \times 0.50 \times 0.25 = 512! The experiment probably used up no more than an hour or two total.
Took full pill at 10:21 PM when I started feeling a bit tired. Around 11:30, I noticed my head feeling fuzzy but my reading seemed to still be up to snuff. I would eventually finish the science book around 9 AM the next day, taking some very long breaks to walk the dog, write some poems, write a program, do Mnemosyne review (memory performance: subjectively below average, but not as bad as I would have expected from staying up all night), and some other things. Around 4 AM, I reflected that I felt much as I had during my nightwatch job at the same hour of the day - except I had switched sleep schedules for the job. The tiredness continued to build and my willpower weakened so the morning wasn’t as productive as it could have been - but my actual performance when I could be bothered was still pretty normal. That struck me as kind of interesting that I can feel very tired and not act tired, in line with the anecdotes.

l-Theanine – A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that concurrent caffeine and l-theanine use had synergistic psychoactive effects that promoted alertness, attention, and task switching;[29] these effects were most pronounced during the first hour post-dose.[29] However, the European Food Safety Authority reported that, when L-theanine is used by itself (i.e. without caffeine), there is insufficient information to determine if these effects exist.[34]

Sometimes called smart drugs, brain boosters, or memory-enhancing drugs, the term "nootropics" was coined by scientist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, who developed the compound piracetam as a brain enhancer, according to The Atlantic. The word is derived from the Greek noo, meaning mind, and trope, which means "change" in French. In essence, all nootropics aim to change your mind by enhancing functions like memory or attention.
Exercise is also important, says Lebowitz. Studies have shown it sharpens focus, elevates your mood and improves concentration. Likewise, maintaining a healthy social life and getting enough sleep are vital, too. Studies have consistently shown that regularly skipping out on the recommended eight hours can drastically impair critical thinking skills and attention.
The best of the old world combined with the science of the new. Huntington Labs offers a Focus, Memory and Clarity supplement that delivers a targeted and specifically stacked combination of nootropics, or “brain enhancers.” Specially chosen extracts, herbs and substances work together to boost attention, creativity, flexibility, focus, speed, memory and clarity. Green Tea Extract: Traditional supplement for mental performance. Promotes better brain function naturally. Huperzine A: Boosts alertness and enhances memory; extracted from Fir moss. Bacopa Monniera: Contains Bacosides which improve cognitive function and memory. L-Glutamine: An essential amino acid that builds protein and aids memory. Huntington Labs pays special attention to the “stacking” benefits of all of these natural nootropic brain boosters, and hopes that you will experience the max benefits from your daily recommended dose. We guarantee it or your money back!
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.
Because modafinil works in a manner similar to methylphenidate, it also bears similar risks. The improper dosage or abuse of modafinil may lead to the disrupted development of executive controls like decision-making and working memory. Modafinil’s effects may also depend upon the IQ of the taker. Two university studies determined that in a test of sustained attention, modafinil only improved cognition in the group with “lower” IQs. Although safer than other stimulants due to its milder effect on neurotransmitter levels, there are still risks associated with any kind of drug that affects dopaminergic neurotransmission, mostly because this can lead to addiction and, similar to a pornography user who needs increasingly fringe porn to achieve the same effect, can produce a resistance or lowered sensitivity to dopamine.
This looks interesting: the Noopept effect is positive for all the dose levels, but it looks like a U-curve - low at 10mg, high at 15mg, lower at 20mg, and even lower at 30mg 48mg and 60mg aren’t estimated because they are hit by the missingness problem: the magnesium citrate variable is unavailable for the days the higher doses were taken on, and so their days are omitted and those levels of the factor are not estimated. One way to fix this is to drop magnesium from the model entirely, at the cost of fitting the data much more poorly and losing a lot of R2:
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).
After informally testing various formulas of Qualia OS on themselves and friends, Collective founders did an unblinded pilot study with nine volunteers that Dr. Stickler says showed significant benefits in cognitive function and stress response in eight of the subjects. Still, he admits this isn’t airtight scientific proof that the product works. He says the Collective is hoping to do a placebo-controlled study, but in the meantime, he’s confident the stack works because of the results he’s seen in patients.
For the moment, people looking for that particular quick fix have a limited choice of meds. But given the amount of money and research hours being spent on developing drugs to treat cognitive decline, Provigil and Adderall are likely to be joined by a bigger pharmacopoeia. Among the drugs in the pipeline are ampakines, which target a type of glutamate receptor in the brain; it is hoped that they may stem the memory loss associated with diseases like Alzheimer's. But ampakines may also give healthy people a palpable cognitive boost. A 2007 study of 16 healthy elderly volunteers found that 500mg of one particular ampakine "unequivocally" improved short-term memory, though it appeared to detract from episodic memory - the recall of past events. Another class of drugs, cholinesterase inhibitors, which are already being used with some success to treat Alzheimer's patients, have also shown promise as neuroenhancers. In one study the drug donepezil strengthened the performance of pilots on flight simulators; in another, of 30 healthy young male volunteers, it improved verbal and visual episodic memory. Several pharmaceutical companies are working on drugs that target nicotine receptors in the brain in the hope that they can replicate the cognitive uptick that smokers get from cigarettes.
As a student Seltzer used both Adderall and piracetam. Now, after a hiatus of several years, he has recently resumed taking neuroenhancers. In addition to piracetam, he took a stack of supplements that he thought helped his brain to function: fish oils, five antioxidants, a product called ChocoMind and a number of others, all available at the health-food store. He was thinking about adding modafinil, but hadn't yet. For breakfast every morning he concocted a slurry of oatmeal, berries, soy milk, pomegranate juice, flaxseed, almond meal, raw eggs and protein powder. The goal behind the recipe was efficiency: to rely on "one goop you could eat or drink that would have everything you need nutritionally for your brain and body. I wanted to be able to keep it down - that was it." (He told me this in the kitchen of his apartment; he lives with a roommate, who walked in while we were talking, listened perplexedly for a moment, then put a frozen pizza in the oven.)

New psychiatric drugs have a way of creating markets for themselves. Disorders often become widely diagnosed after drugs come along that can alter a set of suboptimal behaviours. In this way Ritalin and Adderall helped make ADHD a household name, and advertisements for antidepressants have helped define shyness as a malady. If there's a pill that can clear up the wavering focus of sleep-deprived youth or mitigate the tip-of-the-tongue experience of middle age, then those rather ordinary states may come to be seen as syndromes.
“By drawing on more than fifteen years of scientific research and experience, Dr. Mosconi provides expert advice to prevent medical decline and sharpen memory. Her brain healthy recipes will help you maintain peak cognitive performance well into old age and therefore delay and may even prevent the appearance of debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s.”

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).
Caffeine keeps you awake, which keeps you coding. It may also be a nootropic, increasing brain-power. Both desirable results. However, it also inhibits vitamin D receptors, and as such decreases the body’s uptake of this-much-needed-vitamin. OK, that’s not so bad, you’re not getting the maximum dose of vitamin D. So what? Well, by itself caffeine may not cause you any problems, but combined with cutting off a major source of the vitamin - the production via sunlight - you’re leaving yourself open to deficiency in double-quick time.
I find this very troubling. The magnesium supplementation was harmful enough to do a lot of cumulative damage over the months involved (I could have done a lot of writing September 2013 - June 2014), but not so blatantly harmful enough as to be noticeable without a randomized blind self-experiment or at least systematic data collection - neither of which are common among people who would be supplementing magnesium I would much prefer it if my magnesium overdose had come with visible harm (such as waking up in the middle of the night after a nightmare soaked in sweat), since then I’d know quickly and surely, as would anyone else taking magnesium. But the harm I observed in my data? For all I know, that could be affecting every user of magnesium supplements! How would we know otherwise?

Recent findings also suggest that taking extra vitamins could help preserve memory, especially as we age. Researchers at Australia's University of Sydney tested 117 people in a retirement home by putting them through a battery of mental tests that included remembering a string of words, listing as many words as possible that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet, and doing mental addition and subtraction. Those who regularly took vitamin C, they found, scored higher on the tests.
The effect? 3 or 4 weeks later, I’m not sure. When I began putting all of my nootropic powders into pill-form, I put half a lithium pill in each, and nevertheless ran out of lithium fairly quickly (3kg of piracetam makes for >4000 OO-size pills); those capsules were buried at the bottom of the bucket under lithium-less pills. So I suddenly went cold-turkey on lithium. Reflecting on the past 2 weeks, I seem to have been less optimistic and productive, with items now lingering on my To-Do list which I didn’t expect to. An effect? Possibly.

The effects of piracetam on healthy volunteers have been studied even less than those of Adderall or modafinil. Most peer-reviewed studies focus on its effects on dementia or on people who have suffered a seizure or a concussion. Many of the studies that look at other neurological effects were performed on rats and mice. Piracetam's mechanisms of action are not understood, though it may increase levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. In 2008 a committee of the British Academy of Medical Sciences noted that many of the clinical trials of piracetam for dementia were methodologically flawed. Another published review of the available studies of the drug concluded that the evidence "does not support the use of piracetam in the treatment of people with dementia or cognitive impairment", but suggested that further investigation might be warranted. I asked Seltzer if he thought he should wait for scientific ratification of piracetam. He laughed. "I don't want to," he said. "Because it's working."


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".
Using the 21mg patches, I cut them into quarters. What I would do is I would cut out 1 quarter, and then seal the two edges with scotch tape, and put the Pac-Man back into its sleeve. Then the next time I would cut another quarter, seal the new edge, and so on. I thought that 5.25mg might be too much since I initially found 4mg gum to be too much, but it’s delivered over a long time and it wound up feeling much more like 1mg gum used regularly. I don’t know if the tape worked, but I did not notice any loss of potency. I didn’t like them as much as the gum because I would sometimes forget to take off a patch at the end of the day and it would interfere with sleep, and because the onset is much slower and I find I need stimulants more for getting started than for ongoing stimulation so it is better to have gum which can be taken precisely when needed and start acting quickly. (One case where the patches were definitely better than the gum was long car trips where slow onset is fine, since you’re most alert at the start.) When I finally ran out of patches in June 2016 (using them sparingly), I ordered gum instead.

Kratom (Erowid, Reddit) is a tree leaf from Southeast Asia; it’s addictive to some degree (like caffeine and nicotine), and so it is regulated/banned in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Bhutan among others - but not the USA. (One might think that kratom’s common use there indicates how very addictive it must be, except it literally grows on trees so it can’t be too hard to get.) Kratom is not particularly well-studied (and what has been studied is not necessarily relevant - I’m not addicted to any opiates!), and it suffers the usual herbal problem of being an endlessly variable food product and not a specific chemical with the fun risks of perhaps being poisonous, but in my reading it doesn’t seem to be particularly dangerous or have serious side-effects.
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)
Similarly, Mehta et al 2000 noted that the positive effects of methylphenidate (40 mg) on spatial working memory performance were greatest in those volunteers with lower baseline working memory capacity. In a study of the effects of ginkgo biloba in healthy young adults, Stough et al 2001 found improved performance in the Trail-Making Test A only in the half with the lower verbal IQ.

When Giurgea coined the word nootropic (combining the Greek words for mind and bending) in the 1970s, he was focused on a drug he had synthesized called piracetam. Although it is approved in many countries, it isn’t categorized as a prescription drug in the United States. That means it can be purchased online, along with a number of newer formulations in the same drug family (including aniracetam, phenylpiracetam, and oxiracetam). Some studies have shown beneficial effects, including one in the 1990s that indicated possible improvement in the hippocampal membranes in Alzheimer’s patients. But long-term studies haven’t yet borne out the hype.
“In an era of confusion about what we should eat, Brain Food is a shining light. This is the straight story about ‘neuro-nutrition’ firmly rooted in research by a neuroscientist who has a deep understanding of how food affects our cognitive health. Dr. Mosconi gives us advice we can easily implement into our lives and a story about the science behind it that is both delightful and accessible. A must read!”
Bacopa is a supplement herb often used for memory or stress adaptation. Its chronic effects reportedly take many weeks to manifest, with no important acute effects. Out of curiosity, I bought 2 bottles of Bacognize Bacopa pills and ran a non-randomized non-blinded ABABA quasi-self-experiment from June 2014 to September 2015, measuring effects on my memory performance, sleep, and daily self-ratings of mood/productivity. Because of the very slow onset, small effective sample size, definite temporal trends probably unrelated to Bacopa, and noise in the variables, the results were as expected, ambiguous, and do not strongly support any correlation between Bacopa and memory/sleep/self-rating (+/-/- respectively).
So, I have started a randomized experiment; should take 2 months, given the size of the correlation. If that turns out to be successful too, I’ll have to look into methods of blinding - for example, some sort of electronic doohickey which turns on randomly half the time and which records whether it’s on somewhere one can’t see. (Then for the experiment, one hooks up the LED, turns the doohickey on, and applies directly to forehead, checking the next morning to see whether it was really on or off).
With so many different ones to choose from, choosing the best nootropics for you can be overwhelming at times. As usual, a decision this important will require research. Study up on the top nootropics which catch your eye the most. The nootropics you take will depend on what you want the enhancement for. The ingredients within each nootropic determine its specific function. For example, some nootropics contain ginkgo biloba, which can help memory, thinking speed, and increase attention span. Check the nootropic ingredients as you determine what end results you want to see.
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