Thanks to NZT in Limitless (based on Alan Glynn’s book) and CPH4 in Lucy smart drugs have been thrust into the limelight. I’ll begin this post by shattering the myth that both these fictional drugs and the premise of the films rely on.
Myth: Humans only use 10% of their brains.
The implication of this is that if you have the right training or drugs, you’ll be able to access all of it and significantly improve your memory, cognition and nearly any mental ability. While I’d love this to be true, it’s unfortunately very false. Neurologist, Barry Gordon stated that:
We use virtually every part of the brain, and that (most of) the brain is active almost all the time.
Further to this, Barry Beyerstein, also a neurologist, demonstrated why the myth was false by highlighting the following;
- The most important being brain damage sufferers experience significant adverse effects on their mental abilities. If we were only using 10% of our brains, then damage to the other 90% shouldn’t impact our mental performance at all. However, it’s been shown that damaging any part of the brain impacts our mental capacity – even the smallest damage can have significant negative effects.
- MRI scans show that we use the majority of our brain, most of the time, but different areas show increased activity depending on the situation. Even during sleep when our bodies are inactive our brain still shows activity throughout. Different sections of the brain are responsible for different functions and MRI scans haven’#t found a single area in the brain which doesn’t appear to do anything.
- Our bodies evolved to be incredibly efficient. The brain is the biggest resource hog, accounting for over 20% of the body’s energy expenditure. If only 10% of the brain is used, this makes it an incredibly inefficient organ and we would be throwing 18% of our body’s resources away – a sure-fire way to become extinct very quickly. Additionally, the large human brain causes the biggest problems in childbirth, larger brains and larger heads cause more complications. Natural selection would have quickly culled any unnecessary brain size hundreds of thousands of years ago.
- The brain has a “use or it lose it” policy in regard to maintaining synaptic links. If 90% of the brain were unused, this would have become obvious decades ago in post-mortems and autopsies as 90% of the brain would have degenerated.
So now we’ve got the myth out of the way, what are the realities of smart drugs, surely with our decades of medical and drug research we’d have designed something similar to NZT by now?
The Reality: Nootropics
These drugs DO exist, but don’t expect the god-like abilities that you’d get from following in Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper’s footsteps. There has been significant research and development into drugs that seek to improve cognitive function, but none will have effects anywhere close to what is demonstrated in Limitless or Lucy.
Nootropics target neuron’s metabolism and oxygen within the brain. The effects are often minimal but noticeable. They affect mood, motivation, reaction time, memory enhancement, attention, excitability, alertness, and focus.
The long-term risks and benefits of nootropics are widely unknown, but there is a lot of evidence to support the short-term advantages. Most brains are not fully developed before the age of 25, so nootropics are likely to be harmful to anyone under that age limit, especially young children.
I can’t stress how important it is to ensure you fully understand the laws and regulations regarding nootropics in your country/state and additionally, if you choose to test out some nootropics, decide what area needs improvement: anxiety, mood, focus, attention, reasoning, etc. Do your research well and don’t just take anything and everything – have a specific goal in mind and only consider nootropics that directly affect that area. Also, make sure your nootropic of choice has a certificate of analysis (COA); this proves that it is authentic and pure. Some off-labels include toxic substances such as mycotoxin, so avoid those.
Stacking refers to using more that one nootropic at once. Please understand that nootropics and stacking will ultimately impact the neurotransmitters in your brain, which can have adverse effects of depression, anxiety, mania, and withdrawal.
Although you won’t have superpowers like those portrayed on television taking these can certainly provide some benefits. Here is a list of the nootropics to consider:
This is the most popular nootropic of all. In fact, most of us consume caffeine on a daily basis and we’re well aware of its benefits. It increases alertness, focus, attention, and energy. However as with all drugs, it has downsides. Caffeine consumption can increase anxiety, mania, blood pressure, give you a headache and make you feel nauseous. Long-term, moderate consumption of caffeine has been known to reduce the risk of dementia, depression, and diseases related to the heart. Caffeine can be found in found in soft drinks, energy drinks, coffee, tea, and chocolate.
Found naturally in tea since it performs best when stacked with caffeine. This reduces mild anxiety and enhances attention while promoting relaxed attention. The main side effect is headaches. It’s worth noting that you won’t build up a tolerance or get addicted to this. Give it 30 minutes to kick in.
Piracetam deserves the credit for the term nootropic: it was coined in reference to piracetam’s ability to boost one’s energy, focus, mood, and motivation. It’s the oldest nootropic and the most thoroughly researched. Studies have shown it may increase the memory of the elderly, but may increase decline in cognition over time. It may cause headaches or stomach pain. Some people choose to stack this with choline to reduce the headaches.
Bodybuilders and fitness fanatics are the largest consumers of creatine. Creatine enhances executive functioning best in those populations because the brain uses creatine to keep energy levels high. It helps the body to workout for longer. If you are sleep-deprived, a vegetarian, or vegan, this is the nootropic to consider. C Minimal side effects include nausea, stomach pains, or diarrhoea.
Omega-3 (EPA & DHA)
Seafood provides adequate amounts of omega-3, another nootropic you’re probably familiar with. These are considered cognitive enhancers because they are neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory. You can obtain these in your diet from plants, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, or algae supplements.
Do you remember learning about this mineral in high school science class? It is found in nuts (almonds, cashews, brazil nuts), chard, and kale. If you have a magnesium deficiency, you likely feel fatigued, irritable, experience insomnia and have muscle twitching. Increasing magnesium can improve memory and learning abilities. Don’t go crazy with magnesium though, or you’re sure to experience dizziness, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
Medicinally used in China and India, curcumin is extracted from turmeric. The many benefits of this have been intently studied recently: increased alertness, better working memory, improving cognition in the elderly, antidepressant effects, plus works as an anti-inflammatory. Be aware of body rashes, headaches, swelling, yellow stool, upset stomach, and tightness in your chest while using. It stacks best with piperine.
St. John’s Wort (hypericum perforatum)
Another common nootropic, St. John’s Wort’s active ingredient, hyperfornin, inhibits the uptake of multiple neruotransmitters, enhancing mood and acting as an anti-depressant. A recent study recognized that this sometimes works as effectively as traditional anti-depressants but without the many side effects. Expect possible headaches, restlessness, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, upset stomach, or diarrhoea.
After 8 weeks of use, this provides memory enhancement, especially in older adults. It was historically used as a medicinal herb but may cause nausea, cramps, fatigue of muscles, drowsiness, or lethargy.
This is best known as an anxiety reducer that was found in India over 3000 years ago. There is only one known side effect: hyperthyroidism.
Known in the southern Pacific for years, this may help to reduce anxiety, benefit sexual functions for women, with few side effects such as drowsiness. A link between kava and liver toxicity has been discovered so caution should be taken if you have a liver condition or drink alcohol regularly.
This increases norepinephrine and dopamine within the brain and works best as a memory enhancer, often prescribed for people with ADHD. Be cautious of the addictive qualities, insomnia, loss of appetite, heart palpitations, nausea, anxiety, and irritability.
Mixed Amphetamine Salts (Adderall)
Another commonly known nootropic, Adderall enhances cognition for those needing improvement, but actually impairs high-performers. Like methylphenidate, be aware of its addictive qualities, insomnia, loss of appetite, heart palpitations, nausea, anxiety, irritability, plus changes in mood, euphoria, increased blood pressure, paranoia, mania, and tolerance.
Associated with treatment for Parkinson’s disease by increasing dopamine and phenethylamine. It may improve learning and lift your mood, plus it is also suggested that it could reduce mild depression. Rodents had a longer lifespan when taking this, but unfortunately, there isn’t evidence of this in humans yet. If stacked with tyramine, it may increase blood pressure and get flagged on drug tests. High doses could require dietary restrictions. The short-term side effects are dry mouth, euphoria, insomnia, and an increase in libido. Note: the mixture of oral contraceptives and the standard dose of L-deprenyl may be dangerous.
Tyrosine naturally occurs within the body, plus in turkey, avocados, and some dairy products. It’s known to improve energy, creative thinking, and decrease symptoms of depression. It works best when you are under stress, but the effects are not typically long-lasting. May increase risk of side effects if taken with MAO inhibitors.
This increases available dopamine and energy (ATP) within the brain. Some evidence suggests that attention is increased in the elderly and teens, attention increases in low performing individuals, and performance is impaired in normal or high functioning people. It’s neuroprotective properties make it extremely safe and helpful to those with cerebral disorders. Leg swelling, headaches and anxiety could be expected as side effects.
Best known for stimulating wakefulness and improving effects of sleep deprivation. May also improve reaction time. Possible side effects include increased blood pressure, irritability, or anxiety. If you’re a high performer, then this is likely to work best for you.
One of the oldest known modafinil drugs for providing energy, alertness, increased concentration, and productivity. But the risk of harming your liver (plus anxiety, increased blood pressure, and irritability) may outweigh the benefits, which is why it is not allowed in many countries.
If you’re a big time fitness guru, then phenylpiracetam may interest you. It’s on the Olympic sports banned substances list because it seems to be the most stimulatory drug in the Racetam family. It has the potential to increase your stamina and tolerance during workouts, enhance cognition functions, improve your memory, or alleviate symptoms of depression.
This may help executive functioning in healthy individuals, but it mainly prescribed for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Unusual dreams, depression, nausea or diarrhea may be side effects.
Known for enhancing memory, attention, learning capacity by increasing alpha and beta brain waves. Headaches, irritability, high blood pressure are the slight symptoms one may experience.
Want to increase your joy and improve your mind? Ampalex allows for a long-term state of excitement that enhances memory. Side effects include insomnia, stomach pain, heartburn, fatigue, and rashes.
This is used to treat major depression and promote a sense of well-being and mental clarity. It can include symptoms of abuse and withdrawal. It is recommended not to exceed proper dosing, as this can cause significant effects, such as nausea, vomiting, hepatitis, dizziness, abdominal pain, weight loss, liver toxicity, anorexia, itching, loss of appetite, and possibly death.
This is a compound found to be a cognitive enhancer and antidepressant. Because of it’s combative effect on hippocampus atrophy, it may be of benefit to soldiers post-war.
Based on two studies, Alpha Brain has been shown to improve verbal learning, and claims to enhance memory and learning. Headaches, irritability, and anxiety are possible side effects of this well-known and safe nootropic.
On the whole, Nootropics are considered safe when taken properly. The negative side effects are often minimal and few, but the benefits are generally noticeable and beneficial. So, although you may not end up like the characters in Limitless or Lucy, you will probably end up with a better version of yourself that can think clearer, remember better, and be more excited about life.