After a month of testing nootropics, I’m not ready to commit to them permanently. They’re simply too untested, and while “move fast and break things” might be a good approach to building software, it’s not what I want for my brain. Still, I think we’ll likely hear more about nootropics, especially as recreational users of more powerful prescription drugs like Adderall and modafinil look for less harsh alternatives. Sometimes, when you’re working, you don’t want to put your brain on jet fuel—a little unleaded gas will do. And for those moments, nootropics could be a fertile testing ground for the intrepid body-hacker.
Bacopa Monnieri: Also known as “waterhyssop,” this herb grows in wetlands around the world. It has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. It is a powerful antioxidant which had demonstrated protective effects on cells. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is believed to play a major role in the development of dementia. Additionally, this herb boosts blood flow to the brain and activates choline acetyltransferase, a key enzyme which is necessary to synthesize the neurotransmitter cetylcholine.
Methylfolate and methyl B12 work together to control methylation reactions that repair your DNA and regenerate brain cells. The methylated forms are particularly important brain food — you have about three times as much methylfolate in your cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid around your brain and spine) as you do in your blood, where it’s working tirelessly to maintain your nerve connections and repair DNA mutations. Folate and B12 are particularly important for brain anti-aging.
Its high levels of collagen help reduce intestinal inflammation, and healing amino acids like proline and glycine keep your immune system functioning properly and help improve memory. Bone broth is what I prescribe most frequently to my patients because it truly helps heal your body from the inside out. You’ll also be surprised at how simple and economical it is to make at home with my Beef Bone Broth Recipe.
Is lifestyle truly important, though? According to Dr. Lisa, "genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger." As someone who grew up very aware of my genetic predisposition (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer — you name it and someone in my family has it), I always thought that this weighed heavily on whether or not someone manifests an illness. But, groundbreaking research on epigenetics actually states the contrary.
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).
Working memory has been likened to a mental scratch pad: you use it to keep relevant data in mind while you're completing a task. (Imagine a cross-examination, in which a lawyer has to keep track of the answers a witness has given and formulate new questions based on them.) In one common test subjects are shown a series of items - usually letters or numbers - and then presented with challenges: was this number or letter in the series? Was this one? In the working-memory tests, subjects performed better on neuroenhancers, though several of the studies suggested that the effect depended on how good a subject's working memory was to begin with: the better it was, the less benefit the drugs provided.
The third category was cognitive control - how effectively you can check yourself in circumstances where the most natural response is the wrong one. A classic test is the Stroop Task, in which people are shown the name of a colour (let's say orange) written in a different colour (let's say purple). They're asked to read the word (which is easy, because our habitual response to a word is to read it) or to name the ink colour (which is harder, because our first impulse is to say "orange"). These studies presented a more mixed picture, but overall they showed some benefit "for most normal healthy subjects" - especially for people who had inherently poorer cognitive control.
Be patient. Even though you may notice some improvements right away (sometimes within the first day), you should give your brain supplement at least several months to work. The positive effects are cumulative, and most people do not max out their brain potential on a supplement until they have used it for at least 90 days. That is when the really dramatic effects start kicking in!
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.)
Qualia Mind, meanwhile, combines more than two dozen ingredients that may support brain and nervous system function – and even empathy, the company claims – including vitamins B, C and D, artichoke stem and leaf extract, taurine and a concentrated caffeine powder. A 2014 review of research on vitamin C, for one, suggests it may help protect against cognitive decline, while most of the research on artichoke extract seems to point to its benefits to other organs like the liver and heart. A small company-lead pilot study on the product found users experienced improvements in reasoning, memory, verbal ability and concentration five days after beginning Qualia Mind.
Since my experiment had a number of flaws (non-blind, varying doses at varying times of day), I wound up doing a second better experiment using blind standardized smaller doses in the morning. The negative effect was much smaller, but there was still no mood/productivity benefit. Having used up my first batch of potassium citrate in these 2 experiments, I will not be ordering again since it clearly doesn’t work for me.
Alex remains enthusiastic about Adderall, but he also has a slightly jaundiced critique of it. "It only works as a cognitive enhancer insofar as you are dedicated to accomplishing the task at hand," he said. "The number of times I've taken Adderall late at night and decided that, rather than starting my paper, hey, I'll organise my entire music library! I've seen people obsessively cleaning their rooms on it." Alex thought that generally the drug helped him to bear down on his work, but it also tended to produce writing with a characteristic flaw. "Often I've looked back at papers I've written on Adderall, and they're verbose. They're labouring a point, trying to create this airtight argument. I'd produce two pages on something that could be said in a couple of sentences." Nevertheless, his Adderall-assisted papers usually earned him at least a B. They got the job done. As Alex put it: "Productivity is a good thing."
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:
“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!”
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!”
Nootropics aren’t new—the word was coined in 1972 by a Romanian doctor, Corneliu E. Giurgea—but the Silicon Valley-led body-hacking movement, epitomized by food replacements like Soylent and specialized supplements like Bulletproof Coffee, seems to have given them new life. There are dozens of online forums, including an active subreddit, where nootropics users gather to exchange stack recipes and discuss the effects of various combinations of compounds. And although their "brain-enhancing" effects are still generally unproven, nootropics proponents point to clinical studies showing that certain compounds can increase short-term memory, reduce reaction time, and improve spatial awareness.
Took pill 1:27 PM. At 2 my hunger gets the best of me (despite my usual tea drinking and caffeine+piracetam pills) and I eat a large lunch. This makes me suspicious it was placebo - on the previous days I had noted a considerable appetite-suppressant effect. 5:25 PM: I don’t feel unusually tired, but nothing special about my productivity. 8 PM; no longer so sure. Read and excerpted a fair bit of research I had been putting off since the morning. After putting away all the laundry at 10, still feeling active, I check. It was Adderall. I can’t claim this one either way. By 9 or 10 I had begun to wonder whether it was really Adderall, but I didn’t feel confident saying it was; my feeling could be fairly described as 50%.
The blood half-life is 12-36 hours; hence two or three days ought to be enough to build up and wash out. A week-long block is reasonable since that gives 5 days for effects to manifest, although month-long blocks would not be a bad choice either. (I prefer blocks which fit in round periods because it makes self-experiments easier to run if the blocks fit in normal time-cycles like day/week/month. The most useless self-experiment is the one abandoned halfway.)
Jump up ^ Sattler, Sebastian; Mehlkop, Guido; Graeff, Peter; Sauer, Carsten (February 1, 2014). "Evaluating the drivers of and obstacles to the willingness to use cognitive enhancement drugs: the influence of drug characteristics, social environment, and personal characteristics". Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. BioMed Central Ltd. p. 8. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-9-8. ISSN 1747-597X. Retrieved April 5, 2014.