Not long ago I met Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania, in his office at the labyrinthine Penn hospital complex. Chatterjee's main research interests are in subjects like the neurological basis of spatial understanding, but in the past few years, as he has heard more about students taking cognitive enhancers, he has begun writing about the ethical implications of such behaviour. In 2004 he coined the term "cosmetic neurology" to describe the practice of using drugs developed for recognised medical conditions to strengthen ordinary cognition. Chatterjee worries about cosmetic neurology, but he thinks that it will eventually become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery; in fact with neuroenhancement it's harder to argue that it's frivolous. As he notes in a 2007 paper: "Many sectors of society have winner-take-all conditions in which small advantages produce disproportionate rewards." At school and at work, the usefulness of being "smarter", needing less sleep and learning more quickly is "abundantly clear". In the near future, he predicts, some neurologists will refashion themselves as "quality-of-life consultants" whose role will be "to provide information while abrogating final responsibility for these decisions to patients". The demand is certainly there: from an ageing population that won't put up with memory loss; from overwrought parents bent on giving their children every possible edge; from anxious employees in an efficiency-obsessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture where work never really ends.
I asked him if piracetam made him feel smarter, or just more alert and confident - a little better equipped to marshal the resources he naturally had. "Maybe," he said. "I'm not sure what being smarter means, entirely. It's a difficult quality to measure. It's the Gestalt factor, all these qualities coming together - not only your ability to crunch some numbers, or remember some figures or a sequence of numbers, but also your ability to maintain a certain emotional state that is conducive to productive intellectual work. I do feel I'm more intelligent with the drugs, but I can't give you a number of IQ points."
Farah told me: "These drugs will definitely help some technically normal people - that is, people who don't meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD or any kind of cognitive impairment." But, she emphasised, "They will help people in the lower end of the ability range more than in the higher end." One explanation for this phenomenon might be that the more adept you are at a given task, the less room you have to improve. Farah has a hunch that there may be another reason that existing drugs - so far, at least - don't offer as much help to people with greater intellectual abilities. Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall work in part by elevating the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is something you want just enough of: too little, and you may not be as alert and motivated as you need to be; too much, and you may feel overstimulated. Neuroscientists have discovered that some people have a gene that leads the brain to break down dopamine faster, leaving less of it available; such people are generally a little worse at certain cognitive tasks. People with more available dopamine are generally somewhat better at the same tasks. It makes sense, then, that people with naturally low dopamine would benefit more from an artificial boost.
The benefit of sequential analysis here is being able to stop early, conserving pills, and letting me test another dosage: if I see another pattern of initial benefits followed by decline, I can then try cutting the dose by taking one pill every 3 days; or, if there is a benefit and no decline, then I can try tweaking the dose up a bit (maybe 3 days out of 5?). Since I don’t have a good idea what dose I want and the optimal dose seems like it could be valuable (and the wrong dose harmful!), I can’t afford to spend a lot of time on a single definitive experiment.
More photos from this reportage are featured in Quartz’s new book The Objects that Power the Global Economy. You may not have seen these objects before, but they’ve already changed the way you live. Each chapter examines an object that is driving radical change in the global economy. This is from the chapter on the drug modafinil, which explores modifying the mind for a more productive life.
Began double-blind trial. Today I took one pill blindly at 1:53 PM. at the end of the day when I have written down my impressions and guess whether it was one of the Adderall pills, then I can look in the baggy and count and see whether it was. there are many other procedures one can take to blind oneself (have an accomplice mix up a sequence of pills and record what the sequence was; don’t count & see but blindly take a photograph of the pill each day, etc.) Around 3, I begin to wonder whether it was Adderall because I am arguing more than usual on IRC and my heart rate seems a bit high just sitting down. 6 PM: I’ve started to think it was a placebo. My heart rate is back to normal, I am having difficulty concentrating on long text, and my appetite has shown up for dinner (although I didn’t have lunch, I don’t think I had lunch yesterday and yesterday the hunger didn’t show up until past 7). Productivity wise, it has been a normal day. All in all, I’m not too sure, but I think I’d guess it was Adderall with 40% confidence (another way of saying placebo with 60% confidence). When I go to examine the baggie at 8:20 PM, I find out… it was an Adderall pill after all. Oh dear. One little strike against Adderall that I guessed wrong. It may be that the problem is that I am intrinsically a little worse today (normal variation? come down from Adderall?).
A big part is that we are finally starting to apply complex systems science to psycho-neuro-pharmacology and a nootropic approach. The neural system is awesomely complex and old-fashioned reductionist science has a really hard time with complexity. Big companies spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to separate the effects of just a single molecule from placebo – and nootropics invariably show up as “stacks” of many different ingredients (ours, Qualia , currently has 42 separate synergistic nootropics ingredients from alpha GPC to bacopa monnieri and L-theanine). That kind of complex, multi pathway input requires a different methodology to understand well that goes beyond simply what’s put in capsules.
By blending proven natural cognitive enhancers and naturally occurring smart brain health supporting amino acids like Cordyceps-Sinensis Extract , Coenzyme Q10 , Chlorella (from Green Algae) and Omega-3 Extract to maximize acetylcholine levels with other essential brain health supporting vitamins and amino acids, our powerful and effective brain health supplement assists in elevating serotonin and GABA levels, crucial components to remaining calm, alert, focused and mentally driven while under pressure or stress.
Before you try nootropics, I suggest you start with the basics: get rid of the things in your diet and life that reduce cognitive performance first. That is easiest. Then, add in energizers like Brain Octane and clean up your diet. Then, go for the herbals and the natural nootropics. Use the pharmaceuticals selectively only after you’ve figured out your basics.
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."
I was contacted by the Longecity user lostfalco, and read through some of his writings on the topic. I had never heard of LLLT before, but the mitochondria mechanism didn’t sound impossible (although I wondered whether it made sense at a quantity level14151617), and there was at least some research backing it; more importantly, lostfalco had discovered that devices for LLLT could be obtained as cheap as $15. (Clearly no one will be getting rich off LLLT or affiliate revenue any time soon.) Nor could I think of any way the LLLT could be easily harmful: there were no drugs involved, physical contact was unnecessary, power output was too low to directly damage through heating, and if it had no LLLT-style effect but some sort of circadian effect through hitting photoreceptors, using it in the morning wouldn’t seem to interfere with sleep.
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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.
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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.