Such competitive anxieties are already being felt in the workplace. Recently an advice column in Wired featured a question from a reader worried about "a rising star at the firm" who was "using unprescribed modafinil to work crazy hours. Our boss has started getting on my case for not being as productive." And on internet forums such as ImmInst (Immortality Institute), whose members share a nerdy passion for tweaking their cognitive function through drugs and supplements, people trade advice about dosages and "stacks" - improvised combinations - of neuroenhancers ("Cut a tablet into fourths and took 25mg every four hours, four times today, and had a great and productive day - with no side-effects"). In one recent post a 52-year-old - who was working full time, studying for an advanced degree at night and "married, etc" - wrote that after experimenting with modafinil he had settled on two daily doses of 100mg each. He believed that he was "performing a little better", adding: "I also feel slightly more animated when in discussion."


The human drive to be smarter is a familiar theme on the big screen. In 2011, Oscar-nominated actor Bradley Cooper played struggling writer Eddie Morra in the sci-fi thriller Limitless. In the film, Morra acquires a (fictitious) nootropic NZT-48 that allows him to access 100 percent of his mind. Although he finds himself in lots of trouble, his use of the nootropic transforms him from a desperate writer to a multimillionaire who ultimately runs for the U.S. Senate. The film is a testament to a dream deeply entrenched in the American psyche – that an everyman can become superhuman and lead an extraordinary life.
My first impression of ~1g around 12:30PM was that while I do not feel like running around, within an hour I did feel like the brain fog was lighter than before. The effect wasn’t dramatic, so I can’t be very confident. Operationalizing brain fog for an experiment might be hard: it doesn’t necessarily feel like I would do better on dual n-back. I took 2 smaller doses 3 and 6 hours later, to no further effect. Over the following weeks and months, I continued to randomly alternate between potassium & non-potassium days. I noticed no effects other than sleep problems.
Takao Hensch, a Harvard professor of cellular biology and part of a Boston Children’s Hospital team, found that the drug encouraged the brain to learn new skills as quickly as the sponge-like brain of an infant in her patient Shannon, an otherwise normal 14-year-old girl who suffers from extremely poor eyesight brought on by amblyopia, commonly known as lazy eye. In a matter of months, the drug helped Shannon’s brain relearn how to use her eye which resulted in markedly improved vision.

Some nootropics are more commonly used than others. These include nutrients like Alpha GPC, huperzine A, L-Theanine, bacopa monnieri, and vinpocetine. Other types of nootropics are still gaining traction. With all that in mind, to claim there is a “best” nootropic for everyone would be the wrong approach since every person is unique and looking for different benefits.
Woo understands that when selling brain drugs, skepticism comes with the territory. "The typical first reaction is, this is bullshit, you guys are snake-oil salesmen," he says. "We're not medical doctors nor biochemistry experts, but we are experts in building teams and building products. Like how Elon Musk attacks rockets and electric cars from 'first principles,' we see ourselves as applying Silicon Valley aesthetics and operational know-how to the murky world of nootropics."

By which I mean that simple potassium is probably the most positively mind altering supplement I’ve ever tried…About 15 minutes after consumption, it manifests as a kind of pressure in the head or temples or eyes, a clearing up of brain fog, increased focus, and the kind of energy that is not jittery but the kind that makes you feel like exercising would be the reasonable and prudent thing to do. I have done no tests, but feel smarter from this in a way that seems much stronger than piracetam or any of the conventional weak nootropics. It is not just me – I have been introducing this around my inner social circle and I’m at 7/10 people felt immediately noticeable effects. The 3 that didn’t notice much were vegetarians and less likely to have been deficient. Now that I’m not deficient, it is of course not noticeable as mind altering, but still serves to be energizing, particularly for sustained mental energy as the night goes on…Potassium chloride initially, but since bought some potassium gluconate pills… research indicates you don’t want to consume large amounts of chloride (just moderate amounts).
Certain B vitamins - B6, B12 and folic acid - are known to reduce levels of a compound called homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risk of stroke, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. A study of a group of elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment found that after two years of intervention with high doses of B6, B12 and folic acid there was significantly less brain shrinkage compared to a subset given placebo treatment. Opt for B-rich foods like eggs, chicken, fish and leafy greens.

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)


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:

Power times prior times benefit minus cost of experimentation: (0.20 \times 0.30 \times 540) - 41 = -9. So the VoI is negative: because my default is that fish oil works and I am taking it, weak information that it doesn’t work isn’t enough. If the power calculation were giving us 40% reliable information, then the chance of learning I should drop fish oil is improved enough to make the experiment worthwhile (going from 20% to 40% switches the value from -$9 to +$23.8).
A young man I'll call Alex recently graduated from Harvard. As a history major, Alex wrote about a dozen papers a term. He also ran a student organisation, for which he often worked more than 40 hours a week; when he wasn't working, he had classes. Weeknights were devoted to all the schoolwork he couldn't finish during the day, and weekend nights were spent drinking with friends and going to parties. "Trite as it sounds," he told me, it seemed important to "maybe appreciate my own youth". Since, in essence, this life was impossible, Alex began taking Adderall to make it possible.
One thing I notice looking at the data is that the red magnesium-free days seem to dominate the upper ranks towards the end, and blues appear mostly at the bottom, although this is a little hard to see because good days in general start to become sparse towards the end. Now, why would days start to be worse towards the end, and magnesium-dose days in particular? The grim surmise is: an accumulating overdose - no immediate acute effect, but the magnesium builds up, dragging down all days, but especially magnesium-dose days. The generally recognized symptoms of hypermagnesemia don’t include effect on mood or cognition, aside from muscle weakness, confusion, and decreased reflexes…poor appetite that does not improve, but it seems plausible that below medically-recognizable levels of distress like hypermagnesemia might still cause mental changes, and I wouldn’t expect any psychological research to have been done on this topic.
I tried taking whole pills at 1 and 3 AM. I felt kind of bushed at 9 AM after all the reading, and the 50 minute nap didn’t help much - I was sleep only around 10 minutes and spent most of it thinking or meditation. Just as well the 3D driver is still broken; I doubt the scores would be reasonable. Began to perk up again past 10 AM, then felt more bushed at 1 PM, and so on throughout the day; kind of gave up and began watching & finishing anime (Amagami and Voices of a Distant Star) for the rest of the day with occasional reading breaks (eg. to start James C. Scotts Seeing Like A State, which is as described so far). As expected from the low quality of the day, the recovery sleep was bigger than before: a full 10 hours rather than 9:40; the next day, I slept a normal 8:50, and the following day ~8:20 (woken up early); 10:20 (slept in); 8:44; 8:18 (▁▇▁▁). It will be interesting to see whether my excess sleep remains in the hour range for ’good modafinil nights and two hours for bad modafinil nights.
Some supplement blends, meanwhile, claim to work by combining ingredients – bacopa, cat's claw, huperzia serrata and oat straw in the case of Alpha Brain, for example – that have some support for boosting cognition and other areas of nervous system health. One 2014 study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggested that huperzia serrata, which is used in China to fight Alzheimer's disease, may help slow cell death and protect against (or slow the progression of) neurodegenerative diseases. The Alpha Brain product itself has also been studied in a company-funded small randomized controlled trial, which found Alpha Brain significantly improved verbal memory when compared to adults who took a placebo.
Ampakines bind to AMPARs to block uptake of glutamate, thereby increasing synaptic responses, and this has indeed been shown to minimize the effects of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Ampakines are also being studied as possible treatments for schizophrenia, depression, ADHD and more. But there is a huge risk associated with ampakine consumption. They are now tightly regulated because if you exceed a safe dosage, you will begin to suffer neuronal damage from glutamate toxicity, which leads to some of the very conditions that ampakines are thought to attenuate. Ampakine consumption can also lead to a decrease in long-term synaptic depression (LTD), a process by which specific synapses (the space between neurons across which information is sent) are intentionally weakened in order to avoid a plateau in the efficiency of your synapses. In other words, it allows your neurons and their connections to continue growing in efficiency. LTD is believed to be necessary for healthy synaptic plasticity (the adaptability of synapses), memory function and motor skills. To be honest, there is debate over whether cognitive functions like motor learning are truly dependent upon LTD, but it is possible that if you were to take a higher-than-recommended dose of an ampakine, the overstimulation that would result may lead to suppressed LTD and consequently to poor memory and motor function.
Adaptogens are also known to participate in regulating homeostasis through helping to beneficially regulate the mechanisms of action associated with the HPA-axis (think back to the importance of proper HPA-axis function which you learned about in my last article on breathwork), including cortisol regulation and nitric oxide regulation. Through these mechanisms, they can protect against chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative cognitive impairment, metabolic disorders, cancer and other aging-related diseases. There are plenty of adaptogens with potent benefits, but the ones you learn about in this article are an excellent start to begin building or expanding your stress-adaptation toolbox.
But Baldino may have been overly modest. In 2002, researchers at Cambridge University gave 60 healthy young male volunteers a battery of standard cognitive tests. One group received modafinil, the other a placebo. The modafinil group performed better on several tasks, such as the "digit span" test, in which subjects are asked to repeat increasingly longer strings of numbers forwards, then backwards. They also did better in recognising repeated visual patterns and at a spatial-planning challenge known as the Tower of London task. (It's not nearly as fun as it sounds.) Writing in the journal Psychopharmacology, the study's authors said the results suggested that "modafinil offers significant potential as a cognitive enhancer".
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.)
Coconut oil was recommended by Pontus Granström on the Dual N-Back mailing list for boosting energy & mental clarity. It is fairly cheap (~$13 for 30 ounces) and tastes surprisingly good; it has a very bad reputation in some parts, but seems to be in the middle of a rehabilitation. Seth Robert’s Buttermind experiment found no mental benefits to coconut oil (and benefits to eating butter), but I wonder.
This continued up to 1 AM, at which point I decided not to take a second armodafinil (why spend a second pill to gain what would likely be an unproductive set of 8 hours?) and finish up the experiment with some n-backing. My 5 rounds: 60/38/62/44/5024. This was surprising. Compare those scores with scores from several previous days: 39/42/44/40/20/28/36. I had estimated before the n-backing that my scores would be in the low-end of my usual performance (20-30%) since I had not slept for the past 41 hours, and instead, the lowest score was 38%. If one did not know the context, one might think I had discovered a good nootropic! Interesting evidence that armodafinil preserves at least one kind of mental performance.

Googling, you sometimes see correlational studies like Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men and Women Is Associated with Better Cognitive Test Performance; in this one, the correlated performance increase from eating chocolate was generally fairly modest (say, <10%), and the maximum effects were at 10g/day of what was probably milk chocolate, which generally has 10-40% chocolate liquor in it, suggesting any experiment use 1-4g. More interesting is the blind RCT experiment Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort11, which found improvements at ~1g; the most dramatic improvement of the 4 tasks (on the Threes correct) saw a difference of 2 to 6 at the end of the hour of testing, while several of the other tests converged by the end or saw the controls winning (Sevens correct). Crews et al 2008 found no cognitive benefit, and an fMRI experiment found the change in brain oxygen levels it wanted but no improvement to reaction times.
Cephalon executives have repeatedly said that they do not condone off-label use of Provigil, but in 2002 the company was reprimanded by the FDA for distributing marketing materials that presented the drug as a remedy for tiredness, "decreased activity" and other supposed ailments. And in 2008 Cephalon paid $425m and pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge relating to its promotion of off-label uses for Provigil and two other drugs. Later this year, Cephalon plans to introduce Nuvigil, a longer-lasting variant of Provigil. Candace Steele, a spokesperson, said: "We're exploring its possibilities to treat excessive sleepiness associated with schizophrenia, bipolar depression, traumatic injury and jet lag." Though she emphasised that Cephalon was not developing Nuvigil as a neuroenhancer, she noted: "As part of the preparation for some of these diseases, we're looking to see if there's improvement in cognition."
Jump up ^ EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies; European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy (2011). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to L-theanine from Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze (tea) and improvement of cognitive function (ID 1104, 1222, 1600, 1601, 1707, 1935, 2004, 2005), alleviation of psychological stress (ID 1598, 1601), maintenance of normal sleep (ID 1222, 1737, 2004) and reduction of menstrual discomfort (ID 1599) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006". EFSA Journal. 9 (6): 2238. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2238.
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