How to double-blind test nootropics on yourself

Reviving a long-time interest, I recently dove back into the world of brain-enhancing drugs — nootropics. The definition can range anywhere from coffee to exotic supplements to Adderall.

Most supplements don’t work. I understand now, after having bought powders in bulk, how these “smart drugs” supplements are bulked up with cheap fillers and marketed as all-in-one wonders. 

My current stack is simple*:

  • Choline bitartrate - 1g/day
    Found in things like pastured egg yolks, it claims many nootropic effects like memory, but the scientific community is still digging into exactly what nootropic effects this supplement has. In my experience it succeeds in one critical function: preventing headaches from Adrafinil/Noopept/racetams/etc.
  • Adrafinil - 600mg/day
    An eugeroic, aka a “wakefulness promoting agent”. It’s a pre-metabolized version of Provigil that’s unscheduled in the US.

I wanted to test 15mg/day of vinpocetine (memory enhancement, neuroprotective) and 30mg/day of noopept (a very popular racetam-like nootropic from Russia which has an unknown mechanism of action) in the blend. Scientific minds know that double-blind testing is a basic building block of any study — otherwise the placebo effect kicks in. So, how to double-blind test yourself?

I created 15 capsules of the choline/adrafinil combo, and 15 capsules that added the vinpocetine and noopept. To the latter, I added a small dot with a marker to the end (Sharpie is non-toxic, and I won’t be ingesting much… but you could also use food coloring).

Every time I need to take a capsule, I put one of each into my hand, and after rolling them around, close my eyes to select and take one of the capsules. Without looking in my hand, the other capsule goes into a safe spot where I won’t see it. Then, when I want to check on the results, I simply check which capsule is left and know which one I’ve taken.

I’ll post the results in a week or so!

* Other supplements I take that also impact brain/body function: fish oil (inflammation and others), vitamin D (actually a hormone), curcumin (inflammation), vitamin B complex (hair & nails, and the occasional hangover), green tea extract (a good caffeine option with l-theanine already included), and 5-HTP (helps with sleep, appetite, potentially serotonin levels).

so provigil takes a few hours to start working on me but today was the complete opposite of how I felt yesterday?? it actually makes me happy and more talkative than normal and it keep me awake! if I sit still for too long I get really jittery and anxious (so much anxiety anyway always) but I think that comes with any stimulant and I just have to deal. no feelings of hopelessness or impending doom so that’s gr8.

For some portion of the students whose exams I’m grading this week, study drugs, stimulants, and cognitive enhancement are as much a part of finals as all-nighter and bluebooks. Exactly how many completed exams are coming to me via Adderall or Provigil is impossible to pin down. But we do know that studies have found past-year, nonprescribed stimulant use rates as high as 35% among students. We know, according to HHS, that full-time students use nonprescribed Adderall at twice the rate of non-students. We can suspect, too, that academics aren’t so different in this regard from their students. In unscientific poll, 20% of the readers of Nature acknowledged off-label use of cognitive enhancement drugs (CEDs).

If this sounds like the windup to a drug-panic piece, it’s not. The use of cognitive enhancement drugs concerns me much less than the silence surrounding their use. At universities like Columbia, cognitive enhancement exists in something of an ethical gray zone: technically against rules that are mostly unenforced; an open conversation topic among students in the library at 2 a.m., but a blank spot in “official” academic culture. That blank in itself is worth our concern. CEDs aren’t going away–but more openness about their use could teach us something valuable about the kind of work we do here, and anywhere else focus-boosting pills are popped.

In fact, much of the anti-cognitive enhancement drug literature dwells on the ethics of work, on the question of how much credit we can and should take for our “enhanced” accomplishments. (In focusing on these arguments, I’m setting to one side any health concerns raised by off-label drug use. I’m doing that not because those concerns are unimportant, but because the most challenging bioethics writing on the topic is less about one drug or another than about the promises and limits of cognitive enhancement in general–up to and including drugs that haven’t been invented yet.) In Beyond Therapy, the influential 2003 report on enhancement technologies from the President’s Council on Bioethics, the central argument against CED use had to do with the kind of work we can honestly claim as our own: “The attainment of [excellence] by means of drugs…looks to many people (including some Members of this Council) to be ‘cheating’ or ‘cheap.’” Work done under the influence of CEDs “seems less real, less one’s own, less worthy of our admiration.”

Is that a persuasive argument for keeping cognitive enhancement drug use in the closet, or even for taking stronger steps to ban it on campus? I’m not so sure it is. This kind of anti-enhancement case rests on an assumption about authorship, which I call the individual view. It claims that the dignity and authenticity of our accomplishments lie largely in our ability to claim individual credit for our work. In a word, it’s producer-focused, not product-focused.

That’s a reasonable way to think about authorship–but much of the weight of the anti-cognitive enhancement drug case rests on the presumption that it’s the only way to think about authorship. In fact, there’s another view that’s just as viable: call it the collaborative view. It’s an impersonal way of seeing accomplishment; it’s a product-focused view; it’s less concerned with allocating ownership of our accomplishments and it’s less likely to emphasize originality as the most important mark of quality. It is founded on the understanding that all work, even the most seemingly original, is subject to influences and takes place in a social context.