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.
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%.
l-theanine (Examine.com) is occasionally mentioned on Reddit or Imminst or LessWrong33 but is rarely a top-level post or article; this is probably because theanine was discovered a very long time ago (>61 years ago), and it’s a pretty straightforward substance. It’s a weak relaxant/anxiolytic (Google Scholar) which is possibly responsible for a few of the health benefits of tea, and which works synergistically with caffeine (and is probably why caffeine delivered through coffee feels different from the same amount consumed in tea - in one study, separate caffeine and theanine were a mixed bag, but the combination beat placebo on all measurements). The half-life in humans seems to be pretty short, with van der Pijl 2010 putting it ~60 minutes. This suggests to me that regular tea consumption over a day is best, or at least that one should lower caffeine use - combining caffeine and theanine into a single-dose pill has the problem of caffeine’s half-life being much longer so the caffeine will be acting after the theanine has been largely eliminated. The problem with getting it via tea is that teas can vary widely in their theanine levels and the variations don’t seem to be consistent either, nor is it clear how to estimate them. (If you take a large dose in theanine like 400mg in water, you can taste the sweetness, but it’s subtle enough I doubt anyone can actually distinguish the theanine levels of tea; incidentally, r-theanine - the useless racemic other version - anecdotally tastes weaker and less sweet than l-theanine.)
Pyritinol: Pyritinol has anti-oxidant effects for supporting the long-term health of the brain. But its primary benefit is aiding glucose uptake for periods of extended mental strain. If you are studying or working for a long period of time, your brain will start to diminish its glucose (sugar) stores which are the primary way that the brain derives its energy.
Mercury, as well as other heavy metals such as lead, can accumulate in brain tissue, as well as in the spinal cord, as they are fat-soluble - meaning that they can hide itself in fat tissue, which is abundant in both the brain and the spine. Once there, they can displace important nutrients for brain health such as zinc and iron, which are needed for neurotransmitter production, as well as induce an inflammatory process called oxidative stress among other things.
Clarke and Sokoloff (1998) remarked that although [a] common view equates concentrated mental effort with mental work…there appears to be no increased energy utilization by the brain during such processes (p. 664), and …the areas that participate in the processes of such reasoning represent too small a fraction of the brain for changes in their functional and metabolic activities to be reflected in the energy metabolism of the brain… (p. 675).
A large review published in 2011 found that the drug aids with the type of memory that allows us to explicitly remember past events (called long-term conscious memory), as opposed to the type that helps us remember how to do things like riding a bicycle without thinking about it (known as procedural or implicit memory.) The evidence is mixed on its effect on other types of executive function, such as planning or ability on fluency tests, which measure a person’s ability to generate sets of data—for example, words that begin with the same letter.
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 you may or may not know, curcumin has become a darling of the nutrition world in the last several years, thanks to a flurry of research that indicates the turmeric derivative can do everything from support the brain to reduce painful body-wide inflammation to even support positive mood. You can learn more about the research behind curcumin here:
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:
The BoredAt websites - which allow college students to chat idly while they're ostensibly studying - are filled with messages about Adderall. Posts like these, from the BoredAtPenn site, are typical: "I have some Adderall - I'm sitting by room 101.10 in a grey shirt and headphones"; "I have Adderall for sale 20mg for $15"; "I took Adderall at 8pm, it's 6:30am and I've barely blinked." On the Columbia site one poster complains that her friends take Adderall "like candy", adding: "I don't want to be at a disadvantage to everyone else. Is it really that dangerous? My grades weren't that great this year and I could do with a bump." A Columbia student responds: "It's probably not a good idea if you're not prescribed", but offers practical advice anyway: "Keep the dose normal and don't grind them up or snort them." Occasional dissenters ("I think there should be random drug testing at every exam") are drowned out by testimonials like this one, from the BoredAtHarvard site: "I don't want to be a pusher or start people on something bad, but Adderall is amazing."
The price is not as good as multivitamins or melatonin. The studies showing effects generally use pretty high dosages, 1-4g daily. I took 4 capsules a day for roughly 4g of omega acids. The jar of 400 is 100 days’ worth, and costs ~$17, or around 17¢ a day. The general health benefits push me over the edge of favoring its indefinite use, but looking to economize. Usually, small amounts of packaged substances are more expensive than bulk unprocessed, so I looked at fish oil fluid products; and unsurprisingly, liquid is more cost-effective than pills (but like with the powders, straight fish oil isn’t very appetizing) in lieu of membership somewhere or some other price-break. I bought 4 bottles (16 fluid ounces each) for $53.31 total (thanks to coupons & sales), and each bottle lasts around a month and a half for perhaps half a year, or ~$100 for a year’s supply. (As it turned out, the 4 bottles lasted from 4 December 2010 to 17 June 2011, or 195 days.) My next batch lasted 19 August 2011-20 February 2012, and cost $58.27. Since I needed to buy empty 00 capsules (for my lithium experiment) and a book (Stanovich 2010, for SIAI work) from Amazon, I bought 4 more bottles of 16fl oz Nature’s Answer (lemon-lime) at $48.44, which I began using 27 February 2012. So call it ~$70 a year.
-Raw cacao is rich in theobromine, a powerful antioxidant known to support cellular aging and reduce the risk of heart disease. Its effects are similar to those of caffeine, as they both are vasodilators and improve blood flow to the brain [except cacao won’t give you jitters]...You can use raw cacao to make cacao tea, or in your smoothies. Dark chocolate with cocoa content of 80% or higher is also rich in theobromine and natural antioxidants. Besides, chocolate makes you happy. I have a small piece of high-quality dark chocolate, like 85% or 90% dark, every day.
There are many studies that suggest that Creatine helps in treating cognitive decline in individuals when combined with other therapies. It also helps people suffering from Parkinsons and Huntingtons disease. Though there are minimal side effects associated with creatine, pretty much like any nootropic, it is not absolutely free of side-effects. An overdose of creatine can lead to gastrointestinal issues, weight gain, stress and anxiety.
Alpha GPC + AC-11 + Bacopa Monniera + Huperzine: This combination is found in the supplement Alpha Brain, created by the company Onnit. According to a clinical trial that was conducted by the Boston Center for Memory, this combination has demonstrated a notable increase in cognitive performance for healthy individuals and shows particular potential to boost the memory and learning capacity of users. AC-11 is derived from a rainforest herb, and studies have found that it may be able to help people in a variety of ways such as slowing the growth of cancer due to its DNA repairing antioxidant properties. This stack seems to work best if you take it daily for at about two weeks. After that, effects become more pronounced over time, so, similar to the Gingko, Bacopa, Lion’s Mane stack above you need to allow this blend to build up in your system before you judge its overall effectiveness.
These little chemicals prompt the immune system to kick in and fight back against the stress through inflammation, as though stress is an infection. While inflammation helps protect us against illnesses and repairs the body when you do something like cut yourself, chronic inflammation is a different animal. It’s been linked to autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, anxiety, high blood pressure and more. (2)