Who wouldn’t like to perform better, think more clearly, and have more “cognitive RAM”?
The slightly cheesy film Limitless-recently repurposed into a TV series- appeals to these human desires. Such fantasies of greatness and achievement play a role in getting us motivated to act2.
The premise of Limitless revolves around the limitless pill NZT-48, an absurdly powerful cognitive enhancer.
Watching the protagonist of Limitless gain essentially superhuman powers naturally prompts the audience to wonder whether such a substance might actually exist. Perhaps as a well-kept secret by the ultra-wealthy or the military?
Nootropics enhance cognitive function, although the effects are modest compared with what's portrayed in Limitless.
Why NZT is Biologically Impossible
Here’s one objection I’ve always had to the idea of substances like NZT-48.
If a chemical could so drastically improve cognitive performance, then wouldn’t changes in the structure or function of the brain that mimic the effects of NZT-48 would have already been selected for?
If a neurobiological free lunch existed like the limitless pill, then natural selection would probably have already selected for it. Unless there are evolutionary incentives to being stupid, which isn’t such a radical idea.
That Being Said, The Closest Thing To a Limitless Pill Is:
Phenylpiracetam + Modafinil + Low Dose Nicotine
Phenylpiracetam has psychostimulant-like effects reminiscent of amphetamine (Adderall) without the edginess or sketchy side effect profile.
This nootropic improves verbal fluency and cognitive flexibility, whereas Adderall may actually increase concentration *at the expense *of cognitive flexibility.
Modafinil has gained a lot of attention in the mainstream media as a cognitive enhancer.
I'm skeptical that Modafiil will increase your IQ, but it almost certainly will improve your work ethic, exuberance, and focus. I’ve safely bought modafinil from AfinilExpress for years, and can vouch for their reliability.
I would make the case that enhancing motivation could make you intrinsically smarter, because intelligence is after all an epiphenomenon, an emergent property of the synaptic structure of the brain.
See: g factor
Environmental enrichment promotes synaptogenesis (synapse formation); in turn, fresh, highly organized, well-integrated synapses are what’s going to make those neural networks more efficient!
Some neuroscientists maintain that nicotine is the only substance identified to-date that reliably improves working memory in normal, healthy subjects. Nicotine is also one of the best nootropics, in my opinion.
Nicotine got a bad reputation due to its association with tobacco, but nicotine itself in low doses is relatively safe and an FDA-approved treatment for smoking-cessation. Gwern has an outstanding article on the nootropic potential of nicotine. Despite its benefits, nicotine is not without downside risks.
It's true that coffee is underwhelming because it's so ubiquitous. Over 50% of adults in the US drink coffee every day3.
I still maintain that coffee is a magical concoction of antioxidants that improves energy and has synergistic effects with l-theanine.
What Do All Robust Nootropics Have In Common?
The Holy Grail of nootropics is enhancement of working memory. Working memory is the strongest correlate of general intelligence.
In general, nootropics that modulate (a) acetylcholine and (b) glutamate show the most promise when it comes to working memory enhancement.
Examples of cholinergics include:
- Huperzine A
Examples of glutamate modulators include:
- Modafinil (tends to increase glutamate and suppress GABA which can increase anxiety)
- Most racetams are positive allosteric modulators of AMPA-type glutamate receptors (e.g., piracetam).
Boosting catecholamines (dopamine, norepinephrine) may enhance working memory at the expense of creativity.
Is Adderall Comparable To NZT?
The answer is no, on all fronts.
It's true that Adderall increases motivation and attention. It may even enhance cognitive performance if you have ADHD1:
The effect that treatment with stimulant medication has on the intellectual performance of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was examined. Thirty-one children diagnosed with ADHD were given a WISC-III before any treatment was implemented. At least 1 year later, children were retested. At this time, 24 of the children were taking stimulant medications. Children receiving medications had significant increases in IQ scores, but no changes were found for those not taking medications. Changes in IQ scores were moderately related to parents' perceived efficacy of the medication and parent-reported compliance with medication but were not strongly related to changes in parent-reported ADHD symptoms.
However, Adderall is neurotoxic at sufficiently high doses. Specifically, Adderall damages dopaminergic neurons which are particularly sensitive to oxidative stress.
Gimpel GA, Collett BR, Veeder MA, et al. Effects of stimulant medication on cognitive performance of children with ADHD. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2005;44(5):405-11. ↩
Oettingen G, Pak H, Schnetter K. Self-regulation of goal setting: turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2001;80(5):736-53. ↩