Smart Pills: Do they really exist?
28 January 2020
What if you could simply take a pill that would instantly make you more intelligent? One that would enhance your cognitive capabilities including attention, memory, focus, motivation and other higher executive functions? If you have ever seen the movie Limitless, you have an idea of what this would look like—albeit the exaggerated Hollywood version. The movie may be fictional but the reality may not be too far behind.
Nootropics are either used alone or in combination with other nootropics. This is referred to as stacking. Such compounds, which can be natural or synthetic, are more extensively researched than those used alone.
In Silicon Valley, where the Nootropic market is most developed, devotees typically take a cocktail of pills, often mixing natural supplements that are readily available and legal, with lab-designed drugs that may be unregulated in the US, but still easily purchased online and shipped in from other countries, but do these brain-hacking drugs actually make you smarter?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Adderall for only one purpose: to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. However, it’s commonly used off-label as a study aid, and to stay alert and focused in high-pressure jobs. The evidence says 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.
This member of the “racetam” class of nootropic drugs is thought to reduce anxiety and foster creativity. The evidence? A 2012 study in Greece found it can boost cognitive function in adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a type of disorder marked by forgetfulness and problems with language, judgement, or planning that are more severe than average “senior moments,” but are not serious enough to be diagnosed as dementia.
This herbal supplement is used to calm anxiety and increase focus. The evidence? Several small human studies have found it can effectively reduce anxiety, although study size and controls varied.
This supplement is thought to enhance thinking, learning, and memory.The evidence? A 2014 meta-analysis of double-blind, controlled trials found a “potential to improve cognition, particularly speed of attention” in healthy patients and people with dementia.
Acetyl is advertised as supportive of “memory, learning, computation, analysis” and “perception” in the brain-hacking community. The evidence? Studies have not shown that the supplement has any cognitive effect in healthy people. It may improve brain health in people with liver disease, and in people with dementia.
Said to enhance mental function in sleep-deprived adults and generally improve performance on difficult cognitive tasks. The evidence? It has shown promise to help treat cognitive decline, in combination with other therapies, in people with Huntington’s Disease and Parkinson’s.
The drug is said to improve memory and ability to complete complex tasks. The evidence? Donepezil is FDA-approved to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s. In one small, well-known trial, it improved procedural memory—the type that allows us to remember how to do things like walk or ride a bicycle—in healthy pilots.
This supplement is thought to improve short-term memory and long-term cognition by protecting acetylcholine—a neurotransmitter—from degradation. The evidence? A 2013 meta-analysis of clinical studies suggests it may improve memory and mental function in adults with dementia.
This monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) is considered a mood booster and believed to help with attention and planning. The evidence? Used to treat symptoms in early Parkinson’s and is in a family of drugs (MAOIs) that includes a number of last-resort antidepressants. Small studies show it can improve cognitive functioning in stroke patients, and enhance cognitive skills in rats with traumatic brain injury.
Ritalin is a popular study drug taken to stay awake and improve focus and memory. The evidence? Ritalin is FDA-approved to treat ADHD. It has also been shown to help patients with traumatic brain injury concentrate for longer periods, but does not improve memory in those patients, according to a 2016 meta-analysis of several trials. A study published in 2012 found that low doses of methylphenidate improved cognitive performance, including working memory, in healthy adult volunteers, but high doses impaired cognitive performance and a person’s ability to focus. (Since the brains of teens have been found to be more sensitive to the drug’s effect, it’s possible that methylphenidate in lower doses could have adverse effects on working memory and cognitive functions.)
The FDA has approved modafinil for the treatment of narcolepsy, but people without the condition take it to feel more alert, improve motivation and reaction time, and enhance mental function. The evidence? In small studies, healthy people taking modafinil showed improved planning and working memory, and better reaction time, spatial planning, and visual pattern recognition. A 2015 meta-analysis claimed that “when more complex assessments are used, modafinil appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning” without affecting a user’s mood. In a study from earlier this year involving 39 male chess players, subjects taking modafinil were found to perform better in chess games played against a computer.
Nootropic proponents claim that noopept enhances memory retention and learning skills, and increases focus. The evidence? A 2007 study with mice showed that it may enhance cognitive function (and especially spatial reasoning) connected to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Omega 3 supplements—most of which are made from fish oils and contain both EPA and DHA fatty acids—are believed to reduce stress, improve concentration, and speed up reaction time. The evidence? Although everyone can benefit from dietary sources of essential fatty acids, supplementation is especially recommended for people with heart disease. A small study published in 2013 found that DHA may enhance memory and reaction time in healthy young adults. However, a more recent review suggested that there is not enough evidence of any effect from omega 3 supplementation in the general population.
Another member of the “racetam” class of nootropic drugs, piracetam is thought to enhance learning, memory, and concentration by improving blood flow to the brain. The evidence? Found helpful in reducing bodily twitching in myoclonus epilepsy, a rare disorder, but otherwise little studied. Mixed evidence from a study published in 1991 suggests it may improve memory in subjects with cognitive impairment. A meta-analysis published in 2010 that reviewed studies of piracetam and other racetam drugs found that piracetam was somewhat helpful in improving cognition in people who had suffered a stroke or brain injury; the drugs’ effectiveness in treating depression and reducing anxiety was more significant.
To enhance memory, alertness, focus, and ability to solve problems creatively. The evidence? Military studies suggest this supplement may aid memory, focus, and alertness in healthy patients under the extreme stress of military setting. And although working memory is normally hampered in cold environments, taking a tyrosine supplement buffers that effect, according to another small study.