Last spring, 100 people showed up at a Peak Performance event where psychedelic psychologist James Fadiman said the key to unleashing the cognition-enhancing effects of LSD — which he listed as less anxiety, better focus, improved sleep, greater creativity — was all in the dosage. He recommended a tenth of a “party dose” — enough to give you “the glow” and enhance your cognitive powers without “the trip.”
Speaking of addictive substances, some people might have considered cocaine a nootropic (think: the finance industry in Wall Street in the 1980s). The incredible damage this drug can do is clear, but the plant from which it comes has been used to make people feel more energetic and less hungry, and to counteract altitude sickness in Andean South American cultures for 5,000 years, according to an opinion piece that Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales Ayma, wrote for the New York Times.
"Instead of messing it up, we should be appreciating something that nature has taken years to optimize," Dr. Lisa mentions. But, we aren't messing it up voluntarily or, at the very least, on any conscious or malicious level. She attributes our disregard for neuro-nutrition to a series of factors, which include the portion size of meals, how parents don't have the time to cook or teach children how to eat healthily, the big influence of cafeteria food, and our "always on the go" culture. According to her, this leads us to unconsciously choose meals which are poor quality and high in sugars, a deathly combination for our brains.
Research on animals has shown that intermittent fasting — limiting caloric intake at least two days a week — can help improve neural connections in the hippocampus and protect against the accumulation of plaque, a protein prevalent in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Research has also shown that intermittent fasting helped reduce anxiety in mice.
Ampakines are structurally derived from a popular nootropic called “aniracetam”. Their basic function is to activate AMPA glutamate receptors (AMPARs). Glutamate (a neurotransmitter) is the primary mediator of excitatory synaptic transmission in mammalian brains, which makes it crucial for synaptic plasticity (the adaptation of synapses, the space between neurons across which information is sent), learning and memory, so when you activate or stimulate glutamate receptors, you can trigger many of these functions. AMPARs are distributed across the central nervous system and are stimulated by incoming glutamate to begin the neuroenhancing benefits they’re often used for. But it is possible to have too much glutamate activity. When excess glutamate is produced, accumulates and binds to AMPARs, the result is excitotoxicity, which is a state of cell death (in the case of the central nervous system and your brain, neuron death) resulting from the toxic levels of excitatory amino acids. Excitotoxicity is believed to play a major role in the development of various degenerative neurological conditions such as schizophrenia, delirium and dementia.
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."
Caffeine keeps you awake, which keeps you coding. It may also be a nootropic, increasing brain-power. Both desirable results. However, it also inhibits vitamin D receptors, and as such decreases the body’s uptake of this-much-needed-vitamin. OK, that’s not so bad, you’re not getting the maximum dose of vitamin D. So what? Well, by itself caffeine may not cause you any problems, but combined with cutting off a major source of the vitamin - the production via sunlight - you’re leaving yourself open to deficiency in double-quick time.
The makeup of the brain is about 29% fat, most of which is located in myelin (which itself is 70–80% fat). Specific fatty acid ratios will depend in part on the diet of the animal it is harvested from. The brain is also very high in cholesterol. For example, a single 140 g (5 oz) serving of "pork brains in milk gravy" can contain 3500 mg of cholesterol (1170% of the USRDA).
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:
Brain consumption can result in contracting fatal transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and other prion diseases in humans and mad cow disease in cattle. Another prion disease called kuru has been traced to a funerary ritual among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in which those close to the dead would eat the brain of the deceased to create a sense of immortality.
Alex was eager to dispel the notion that students who took Adderall were "academic automatons who are using it in order to be first in their class". In fact, he said, "it's often people" - mainly guys - "who are looking in some way to compensate for activities that are detrimental to their performance". He explained, "At Harvard, at the most basic level, they aim to do better than they would have otherwise. Everyone is aware that if you were up at 3am writing this paper it isn't going to be as good as it could have been. The fact that you were partying all weekend, or spent the last week being high, watching Lost - that's going to take a toll."
A cup of coffee before a big exam can help your brain perform at its best. That’s because caffeine improves short-term memory and speeds up reaction times, according to New Scientist. Researchers from the National Institute on Aging found that individuals who drank more caffeine had better scores on memory tests, which explains why has been linked to a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It can also help prevent Parkinson’s disease and relieve headache pain. But don’t overdo it—too much caffeine can make you jumpy or irritable. Look out for the signs that you’re drinking too much coffee.
Panax ginseng – A review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "there is a lack of convincing evidence to show a cognitive enhancing effect of Panax ginseng in healthy participants and no high quality evidence about its efficacy in patients with dementia." According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "[a]lthough Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb."