Eliminating foggy-headedness seems to be the goal of many users of neuroenhancers. But can today's drugs actually accomplish this? I recently posed this question to Chatterjee's colleague Martha Farah, who is a psychologist at Penn and the director of its Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. She is deeply fascinated by, and mildly critical of, neuroenhancers, but basically in favour - with the important caveat that we need to know much more about how these drugs work. While Farah does not take neuroenhancers, she had just finished a paper in which she reviewed the evidence on prescription stimulants as neuroenhancers from 40 laboratory studies involving healthy subjects. Most of the studies looked at one of three types of cognition: learning, working memory, and cognitive control. A typical learning test asks subjects to memorise a list of paired words; an hour, a few days, or a week later, they are presented with the first words in the pairs and asked to come up with the second. Neuroenhancers did improve retention, especially where subjects had been asked to remember information for several days or longer.
The U. S. nootropics industry was valued at more than $1.3 billion in 2015 and is projected to reach $6 billion by 2024. This growth is due in part to slick marketing from biohacking “experts” such as Dave Asprey (founder of Bulletproof) and Josiah Zayner, Ph.D. (CEO of the Odin), who’ve built big social-media and podcast followings as well as customer bases. At the grassroots level, there are meetups across the country like the one at Idea Coffee, plus a vibrant online community.
For this batch, I tried out NOW Foods Magnesium Citrate Powder ($7 for 227g); the powder was still a bit sticky but much easier to work with than the Solgar pills, and the 227g made 249 gel capsule pills. The package estimates 119 serving of 315mg elemental magnesium, so a ratio of 0.315g magnesium for 1.9g magnesium citrate, implying that each gel cap pill then contains 0.152g magnesium (\frac{(119\times315)}{249}=150) and since I want a total dose of 0.8g, I need 5 of the gel cap pills a day or 35 per block.
In my SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine (text available online) I reviewed the video series “Awakening from Alzheimer’s,” in which a journalist interviews numerous “experts” and claims that Alzheimer’s is for the most part preventable and can be reversed in 9 out of 10 patients! The recommendations of those “experts” are all over the map. There is nothing even remotely approaching a scientific consensus. They claim the main cause of Alzheimer’s is everything from gluten to obesity to lack of sleep to chronic Lyme disease to toxins spewed by “leaky gut” syndrome. They claim to have reversed Alzheimer’s with a wide variety of treatments: everything from coconut oil to a ketogenic diet to probiotics to strenuous exercise to various long lists of dietary supplements to psychological interventions that are considered successful if they make patients cry. There is no satisfactory evidence to support any of their claims.
Of course the idea behind mind hacking isn't exactly new. Sir Francis Bacon consumed everything from tobacco to saffron in the hope of goosing his brain. Balzac reputedly fuelled 16-hour bouts of writing with copious servings of coffee, which, he wrote, "chases away sleep and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects". Sartre dosed himself with speed in order to finish Critique of Dialectical Reason. Seltzer and his interlocutors on the ImmInst forum are just the latest members of a seasoned cohort, even if they have more complex pharmaceuticals at their disposal.
This calculation - reaping only \frac{7}{9} of the naive expectation - gives one pause. How serious is the sleep rebound? In another article, I point to a mice study that sleep deficits can take 28 days to repay. What if the gain from modafinil is entirely wiped out by repayment and all it did was defer sleep? Would that render modafinil a waste of money? Perhaps. Thinking on it, I believe deferring sleep is of some value, but I cannot decide whether it is a net profit.
Fish oil (Examine.com, buyer’s guide) provides benefits relating to general mood (eg. inflammation & anxiety; see later on anxiety) and anti-schizophrenia; it is one of the better supplements one can take. (The known risks are a higher rate of prostate cancer and internal bleeding, but are outweighed by the cardiac benefits - assuming those benefits exist, anyway, which may not be true.) The benefits of omega acids are well-researched.

“Most people assume that because it’s a supplement, it can’t be bad for you because it’s natural,” says Louis Kraus, M.D., a psychiatrist with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. In 2016, he chaired a committee that investigated nootropics for the American Medical Association. After reviewing the science, the committee found little to no evidence to support the efficacy or safety of nootropics.

10:30 AM; no major effect that I notice throughout the day - it’s neither good nor bad. This smells like placebo (and part of my mind is going how unlikely is it to get placebo 3 times in a row!, which is just the Gambler’s fallacy talking inasmuch as this is sampling with replacement). I give it 60% placebo; I check the next day right before taking, and it is. Man!
Today was the first day that I tried this, and it definitely works as far as what the description for the product says. I am studying for a very important exam and I thought judging by the reviews left by previous users that this would be something worth trying, and I totally agree. Its a great substitute if you don't like the feeling of adderrall, which for me I didn't like because my heart would be racing and I couldn't sleep, and just overall was irritable. With this product you get the focus you need and youre mentally ready for what task needs to be done. I will continue to take it and will write another review on an update after how I feel after this. The only thing is I would really appreciate if this product was FDA approved and researched more.
the larger size of the community enables economies of scale and increases the peak sophistication possible. In a small nootropics community, there is likely to be no one knowledgeable about statistics/experimentation/biochemistry/neuroscience/whatever-you-need-for-a-particular-discussion, and the available funds increase: consider /r/Nootropics’s testing program, which is doable only because it’s a large lucrative community to sell to so the sellers are willing to donate funds for independent lab tests/Certificates of Analysis (COAs) to be done. If there were 1000 readers rather than 23,295, how could this ever happen short of one of those 1000 readers being very altruistic?
I asked Marcus which nootropic he would want if he were stranded on a desert island. "I guess it would depend on the challenges I was facing on the island. If staying healthy was the biggest challenge, then I'd choose AC-11," he said. "If I needed to stay motivated to rebuild the village, I would choose Mucuna [pruriens]. If I was hunting, I'd choose Huperzia serrata, for mental acuity and speed."
She provides many examples of observational studies where lower intakes of a certain nutrient were correlated with cognitive impairment. Obviously, if someone is deficient in a vitamin or other nutrient, the deficiency should be corrected. But she doesn’t have any evidence from prospective interventional studies showing that, in practice, altering diet significantly improves cognition for people who are deficient, much less in people who are not deficient.
"Over the years, I have learned so much from the work of Dr. Mosconi, whose accomplished credentials spanning both neuroscience and nutrition are wholly unique. This book represents the first time her studies on the interaction between food and long-term cognitive function reach a general audience. Dr. Mosconi always makes the point that we would eat differently and treat our brains better if only we could see what we are doing to them. From the lab to the kitchen, this is extremely valuable and urgent advice, complete with recommendations that any one of us can take."
And if you obtain your vitamin C from a multivitamin, you receive other key nutrients that many studies over the years have linked to healthy brain function, including beta carotene, iron, zinc, B12 and folic acid. In the June 1999 issue of the Journal of Biology and Psychiatry, for instance, researchers at Sweden's Gotenborg University reported that older people were more likely to score poorly on word memory tests if they had low levels of folic acid.
A recent study at the University of Innsbruck in Austria found that participants that drank two cups of coffee per day improved memory, reaction time, and neuron signaling, more than the control. More notably, the 676 daily coffee drinker participants experienced less mental decline than nondrinkers over a ten-year period. In other words, bottoms up on your cup of Joe!
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But, thanks to the efforts of a number of remarkable scientists, researchers and plain-old neurohackers, we are beginning to put together a “whole systems” model of how all the different parts of the human brain work together and how they mesh with the complex regulatory structures of the body. It’s going to take a lot more data and collaboration to dial this model in, but already we are empowered to design stacks that can meaningfully deliver on the promise of nootropics “to enhance the quality of subjective experience and promote cognitive health, while having extremely low toxicity and possessing very few side effects.” It’s a type of brain hacking that is intended to produce noticeable cognitive benefits.
He first took up the game in 1995, when he was in college. He recalled: "It was very mathematical, but you could also inject yourself into the game and manipulate the other guy with words" - more so than in a game like chess. Phillips soon felt that he had mastered the strategic aspects of poker. The key variable was execution. At tournaments he needed to be able to stay focused for 14 hours at a stretch, often for several days, but he found it difficult to do so. In 2003, a doctor gave him a diagnosis of ADHD and he began taking Adderall. Within six months, he had won $1.6m at poker - far more than he'd won in the previous four years. Adderall not only helped him concentrate, it also helped him resist the impulse to keep playing losing hands out of boredom. In 2004, Phillips asked his doctor to give him a prescription for Provigil, which he added to his Adderall regimen. He took 200-300mg of Provigil a day, which he felt helped him settle into an even more serene and objective state of mindfulness; as he put it, he felt "less like a participant than an observer - and a very effective one". Though Phillips sees neuroenhancers as essentially steroids for the brain, they haven't yet been banned from poker competitions.
Similar delicacies from around the world include Mexican tacos de sesos.[1] The Anyang tribe of Cameroon practiced a tradition in which a new tribal chief would consume the brain of a hunted gorilla, while another senior member of the tribe would eat the heart.[2] Indonesian cuisine specialty in Minangkabau cuisine also served beef brain in a coconut-milk gravy named gulai otak (beef brain curry).[3][4] In Cuban cuisine, "brain fritters" are made by coating pieces of brain with bread crumbs and then frying them.[5]

Starting from the studies in my meta-analysis, we can try to estimate an upper bound on how big any effect would be, if it actually existed. One of the most promising null results, Southon et al 1994, turns out to be not very informative: if we punch in the number of kids, we find that they needed a large effect size (d=0.81) before they could see anything:

For 2 weeks, upon awakening I took close-up photographs of my right eye. Then I ordered two jars of Life-Extension Sea-Iodine (60x1mg) (1mg being an apparently safe dose), and when it arrived on 10 September 2012, I stopped the photography and began taking 1 iodine pill every other day. I noticed no ill effects (or benefits) after a few weeks and upped the dose to 1 pill daily. After the first jar of 60 pills was used up, I switched to the second jar, and began photography as before for 2 weeks. The photographs were uploaded, cropped by hand in Gimp, and shrunk to more reasonable dimensions; both sets are available in a Zip file.
There are many more steps to help support the optimal functioning of the brain and therefore encourage improved learning and development. However, another key strategy to support brain health is to increase intake of omega 3, an essential fatty acid, that is most abundantly found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. Be sure to choose salmon that has had less exposure to polluted water - visit the Seafood Watch web page to find the best sources. Omega 3 is vital for the brain’s function, particularly one of its components called DHA. This is a key building block for the brain and is what keeps neurons (brain cells) working well and supports proper signalling via neurotransmitters.

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:

All clear? Try one (not dozens) of nootropics for a few weeks and keep track of how you feel, Kerl suggests. It’s also important to begin with as low a dose as possible; when Cyr didn’t ease into his nootropic regimen, his digestion took the blow, he admits. If you don’t notice improvements, consider nixing the product altogether and focusing on what is known to boost cognitive function – eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep regularly and exercising. "Some of those lifestyle modifications," Kerl says, "may improve memory over a supplement."


As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩
It wasn't always helpful, but it does work sometimes. The first two days gave me stomach and head pain, so I began to test with taking before or after food, and with or without food. The bottle says to take before food, but I preferred taking this with food, more food is better. This doesn't go well in the stomach with something like chocolate, so take this with something like bread or a meal. More importantly, stay very hydrated unless you want a headache, these pills are very hydro-demanding. The pills also work better if you get your blood moving, just a short walk is fine. Energy drinks and coffee go very well with these, as I had a very clear minded experience when taking these with a Monster Java, it was like a cool breeze blowing away the mental fog.
That first night, I had severe trouble sleeping, falling asleep in 30 minutes rather than my usual 19.6±11.9, waking up 12 times (5.9±3.4), and spending ~90 minutes awake (18.1±16.2), and naturally I felt unrested the next day; I initially assumed it was because I had left a fan on (moving air keeps me awake) but the new potassium is also a possible culprit. When I asked, Kevin said:

However, normally when you hear the term nootropic kicked around, people really mean a “cognitive enhancer” — something that does benefit thinking in some way (improved memory, faster speed-of-processing, increased concentration, or a combination of these, etc.), but might not meet the more rigorous definition above.  “Smart drugs” is another largely-interchangeable term.


Get plenty of sleep.  It can be a real challenge to get seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night with a busy fulltime work schedule, but rest is essential to optimum brain functioning!  A healthy nootropic pill can help to clear up brain fog and sharpen your concentration, but it cannot work miracles.  If you are trying to power through on four to five hours of sleep each night, nothing is going to cut it.
I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 13 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.
The original magnesium l-threonate caused me no apparent problems by the time I finished off the powder and usage correlated with better days, further supporting the hypothesis that magnesium helps it. But l-threonate would be difficult to cap (and hence blind self-experiment) and is ruinously expensive on a per-dose basis. So I looked around for alternatives for the followup; one of the most common compounds suggested was the citrate form because it is reasonably well-absorbed and causes fewer digestive problems, so I could just take that. Magnesium oxide is widely available it looks cheap, but the absorption/bioavailability problem makes it unattractive: at a 3:5 ratio, an estimate of 4% absorption, a ZMA formulation of an impressive-sounding 500mg would be 500 \times \frac{3}{5} \times 0.04 = 12mg or a small fraction of RDAs for male adults like 400mg elemental. (Calcium shouldn’t be a problem since I get 220mg of calcium from my multivitamin and I enjoy dairy products daily.)
That left me with 329 days of data. The results are that (correcting for the magnesium citrate self-experiment I was running during the time period which did not turn out too great) days on which I happened to use my LED device for LLLT were much better than regular days. Below is a graph showing the entire MP dataseries with LOESS-smoothed lines showing LLLT vs non-LLLT days:
Much of what she says is standard health advice. Avoid trans fats. Eat fresh vegetables and fruit. Avoid processed foods. Limit red meat consumption. It’s better to get your nutrients from food than from supplement pills. Exercise, get adequate sleep, and avoid stress. Since the brain runs on glucose, she wouldn’t agree with the low-carb diet folks; she says we need adequate sources of glucose in our diet, and recommends complex carbs, paying attention to the glycemic index.
But how, exactly, does he do it? Sure, Cruz typically eats well, exercises regularly and tries to get sufficient sleep, and he's no stranger to coffee. But he has another tool in his toolkit that he finds makes a noticeable difference in his ability to efficiently and effectively conquer all manner of tasks: Alpha Brain, a supplement marketed to improve memory, focus and mental quickness.
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