Can Drugs Increase Your Intelligence?

More and more drugs, herbs, and nutrients have been shown to improve learning, memory, and concentration--and they’re readily available over the internet.

In 1993 I was a guest on the Montel Williams television show that discussed the potential of “smart drugs,” or cognitive enhancers, drugs that have the potential to improve memory and enhance intelligence. At the time, Montel didn’t seem terribly open-minded about the subject, or in hearing about the scientific studies that had been done with this new class of relatively safe pharmaceuticals--as, at the time, he was strong supporter of the War on Drugs--and he told us that there wasn’t such a thing as a “smart drug.” 

I found it interesting that years later Montel had a complete turnaround, and has since become a leading spokesperson for the benefits of medical marijuana, which has helped him treat the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. In my last column I discussed the scientific evidence that cannabis enhances creativity, and many people claim that it can also elevate certain aspects of intelligence. Now that Montel has expanded his mind with cannabis, I wonder if he might be more open to hearing about smart drugs now?

The term “smart drugs” was coined by John Morgenthaler, who coauthored two books on the subject, and unleashed a powerful meme into popular culture. Over the past twenty years a whole range of new drugs, technically known as “nootropics” or “cognitive enhancers,” have been developed that improve learning and memory, problem-solving abilities, verbal articulation, and even scores on standard I.Q. tests. 

A substantial subculture of optimal health seekers, and self-described “transhumanists,” have been experimenting with these substances for years, posting their reports on websites like Erowid and Bluelight, and there is a wealth of information available to anyone interested in exploring this subject.

Many of these drugs were initially developed to treat memory disorder problems, and age-related cognitive decline, but a lot of healthy people interested in maximizing their cognitive abilities have discovered that nootropics can improve their mental performance too.

Nootropics are drugs, herbs, and nutritional supplements that reportedly improve mental functions, such as concentration, memory consolidation, cognition, motivation, attention, and other traits associated with intelligence. The word “nootropic” was coined by Romanian researcher Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972, and although the term is not meant to describe psychedelics, it literally means “mind bender.” The word is derived from the Greek words “nous” (or “mind”), and “trepein (meaning “to bend” or “to turn”).

Nootropics are thought to improve mental performance by increasing the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals or oxygen, by enhancing communication between different regions of the brain, or by stimulating “neurogenesis,” new neural growth and more dendritic connections between neurons. 

Three of the nootropics that I’ve personally found most useful are Hydergine, Piracetam, and Deprenyl.

Hydergine was invented by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who also discovered LSD, and like LSD, Hydergine is derived from the ergot fungus, although it doesn’t have any psychedelic properties. Studies indicate that Hydergine has the ability to enhance memory and learning. It improves a range of cognitive abilities, such as concentration and recall, and helps to prevent damage to brain cells from insufficient oxygen. A number of studies even suggest that Hydergine may be able to help reverse existing damage to brain cells. I’ve personally found it to have both mentally-clarifying properties and antidepressant qualities. It is available in this country by prescription, although a three-month personal supply can be legally ordered without a prescription from overseas pharmacies.

Albert Hofmann’s intuition about ergot turned out to be extremely fruitful. This remarkable fungus has proven to be a gold mine of medicinal treasures; Hydergine and LSD are only two of the numerous drugs to be derived from ergot. Some of the other ergot-derived cognitive enhancers include the more potent pharmaceutical bromocriptine and the recently developed pharmaceutical nicergoline. 

Deprenyl has been shown to have many uses as a cognitive enhancer. It is a moderate-level stimulant and antidepressant that has been shown to improve memory, protect the brain against cell damage, alleviate depression, extend the life span of laboratory animals, and heighten sexual desire in both men and women. This impressive substance is available by prescription in the U.S., and although it is primarily prescribed to help people with Parkinson’s disease, memory disorder problems, and sometimes depression, a lot of healthy people also use deprenyl to improve their mental performance. Like Hydergine, a three-month personal supply of Deprenyl can be ordered from European pharmacies without a prescription. 

I’ve personally been using Deprenyl as an antidepressant and cognitive enhancer for over ten years, and I can attest to its powerful brain-boosting effects. It improves my mental performance so dramatically that I’ve used it before every public talk that I’ve given since 1995. 

Another personal favorite is Piracetam, and other related “racetam” drugs, such as Pramiracetam, Oxiracetam, and Aniracetam. Scientific studies on Piracetam indicate that the nootropic drug increases performance on a variety of cognitive tasks, which may reflect its enhancement of cross-hemispheric communication in the brain, and of improving cognitive function in general. Piracetam also seems to inhibit brain damage caused by a variety of factors, including hypoxia and excessive alcohol consumption. I’ve noticed a strong sense of mental clarity from taking it, and I sometimes use it with my writing. Piracetam is unregulated in the U.S., and  three-month personal supply of it can be ordered from European pharmacies.

Some other popular cognitive enhancers include the herb Gingko Biloba, the pharmaceutical medications Galantamine and Lucidril (Centrophenoxine), the hormone Vasopressin, and new cognitive enhancers are being developed all the time. The most recent are a class of non-amphetamine stimulants that allow people to retain mental clarity for long periods of time without needing sleep. These “eugeroic” (“wakefulness enhancers”) drugs include Adrafinil, Armodafinil, and Modafinil (Provigil).

My experience with these cognitive enhancers over the past twenty years--and the reports from many others--suggest that these generally safe and effective pharmacological tools have incredible potential for enhancing memory, accelerating intelligence, and improving concentration.

To learn more about cognitive enhancers see John Morgenthaler and Ward Dean’s books Smart Drugs and Nutrients (volumes 1 and 2). To order these products see: www.antiaging-systems.com/

If you enjoy my column, and want to learn more about psychedelic and cannabis culture, “like” my Facebook page:


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Don Wright April 15, 2012 at 11:42 PM
In a word, "Yes". Be afraid, very afraid. Listen to big brother MAL who knows all and has experienced all. Trust uncle pharmaceutical industry. Trust father Government. Trust mother medical industry and Be Afraid. Be very Afraid. Thank you David Jay Brown. I miss Santa Cruz.
David Jay Brown April 16, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Michael. It seems to me that you're confusing curiosity for advocacy and passionate inquiry for advertising. Although no one should ever put anything into their body without carefully researching the consequences, most nootropic substances have remarkable safety records. I think that providing scientifically-accurate information is generally a good idea and that censorship should be avoided. Although it depends on how one defines the word "intelligence," certainly scientific studies have confirmed that some drugs, herbs, and nutrients can indeed enhance mental functions that most people associate with intelligence--memory, recall, comprehension, attention, problem-solving abilities, etc. Also, my column is not "disguised as journalism," except in the "gonzo journalism" sense. Journalism is defined as "writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events, without an attempt at interpretation." This is opinion piece.
Michael A. Lewis April 16, 2012 at 02:53 AM
Do 'smart drugs' really make us brainier? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-12922451 Taking Modafinil may help people do tiring jobs but it will not turn anyone into Albert Einstein overnight. "If you're not a genius before, you won't be afterwards. They don't make you brainier," says Prof Harris. The long-term implications of taking smart drugs have not been studied, principally because no-one is sure who is using them as "neuroenhancers". They are only available via the internet for this purpose and so it is difficult to know how many users exist. "You can never be fully aware of what you are buying, you can't know what's in them or what adverse reactions they might cause or how they fit with other drugs you might be taking," says a DrugScope spokesman. There are potential side effects and the risks for a young person taking them over a long period is unknown. Internet pharmacies are also a very risky and unregulated source. Limitless brain power may be attractive but there are always risks and complications.
Michael A. Lewis April 16, 2012 at 03:08 AM
Warning over online 'smart drugs' that can kill http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9196039/Warning-over-online-smart-drugs-that-can-kill.html An increase in the use of 'smart drugs' to boost intelligence, lose weight, improve mood and increase fitness has prompted experts to warn they often contain harmful banned substances that can cause serious side effects.
Michael A. Lewis April 16, 2012 at 03:13 AM
Illegal 'smart drugs' bought online by teenagers before exams could have catastrophic effect on their health http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1256481/Illegal-smart-drugs-bought-online-teenagers-exams-catastrophic-effect-health.html#ixzz1sAYOoez2 'It's dangerous to experiment with medicines and the side effects of cognitive enhancement drugs are significant - they can cause abdominal pain, nausea, heart problems and changes in blood pressure. 'These side- effects are dose dependent - the more you take, the greater your risk of being affected and seriously harmed.' "There are other, less risky yet proven remedies for improving brain function: sleep, exercise and a healthy diet.
Jean April 16, 2012 at 03:32 AM
Why take them at all? Why not go with the simplest, free daily regimen: nutritious food (ya'll know what that is), good sleep and daily activity (aka exercise...remember a 2 mile brisk walk counts as exercise). A healthy immune system, the result of this daily regimen, is what our bodies need to have healthy organs, healthy eyes, healthy brains. Good ahead: buy stuff you "believe in." Make someone rich, while you toss your coin away. Eat nutritious food, get good sleep and be active. Too simple, I guess for those who cannot fathom getting through the day without some enhancer.
Joni Russell April 16, 2012 at 03:41 AM
If you're not advertising, what is that photo about?
Torrey Peacock April 16, 2012 at 04:25 AM
Comments specifically about Modafinil have extremely limited relevance to the larger issues here. The article clumps it together with Ritalin, and while Modafinil is much safer, it is still a stimulant. The true nootropics like Piracetam are an entirely new class of pharmaceuticals. There are literally hundreds of published studies on the racetams alone, the clinical experience is vast and goes back decades. In the USA it is common for new medications to be approved, and then used by millions on an indefinite basis, based on a few WEEKS of clinical testing. The nootropics have a extraordinary record of safe use, and have been studies extensively for many years. Another false statement from this misleading article is that purchasing them online means you don't know what you are getting. If you purchase the brand name products, as I do, then you most certainly DO know what is in them. This is just more sensationalism and scare tactics. There is a risk in using any medication. Look at the evidence, and think for yourself.
Torrey Peacock April 16, 2012 at 04:39 AM
Again, Modafinil and Ritalin are two quite different drugs, but they are both stimulants. Its true that Modafinil was mentioned in passing, but David Jay Brown's column was NOT about stimulants, it was about nootropics. Its like all the political rhetoric about "drugs" and the "drug problem". Unless you specify WHICH drugs you are talking about, the discussion is meaningless. Nootropics like Hydergine and Piracetam will NOT cause ANY of those side-effects, are NOT dangerous, and HAVE been studied and used in clinical medicine in Europe for decades.
Maria Grusauskas April 16, 2012 at 06:47 AM
I'd say a better caption would be "Scantily clad Local Santa Cruz student displays her hip bones, uplifted pelvis region, and favorite procrastination aid for higher learning." Nice article, but the photo trashes all prestige.
David Jay Brown April 16, 2012 at 07:54 AM
Many thanks for the thoughtful words and the clever caption. Honestly, I don't care much about "prestige," but I do appreciate your honest feedback. For the record, I'm primarily interested in reaching as many readers as possible, and spreading my core message as far and wide as I can. I'm glad that the beautiful photo of my dear friend Veronika was powerful enough to attract even more attention than my controversial words alone would have, and I'm not sure that everyone agrees with your ("trashes") assessment about it. You may want to check out Douglas Rushkoff's wonderful book Media Virus for more information on this important subject. And despite what you may think about the model in the photo "procrastinating," she's actually a pre-med student at Stanford, who does genuinely study effectively with cannabis. Interestingly, most of the drugs and nutrients that improve learning and memory also tend to enhance sexuality. Sexual enhancement through drugs will be the subject of a future column.
Sean Gherardi April 16, 2012 at 08:22 AM
This Michael Lewis character seems very upset about something. What a pity.
Michael A. Lewis April 16, 2012 at 03:04 PM
This Michael Lewis character is a real human being, unsullied by artificial stimulants.
Michael A. Lewis April 16, 2012 at 03:09 PM
Careful readers will note that the article expressed concern about unregulated purchase of non-brand name pharmaceuticals via the internet. Indeed, there is a risk in consuming any drugs. How many readers of this exchange are qualified to assess that risk, understand conflicting information and make a knowledgable decision about these potentially dangerous drugs? Human beings are animals evolved with a set chemical makeup. Altering that makeup by taking artificial drugs is a dangerous, irresponsible undertaking.
Jean April 16, 2012 at 03:10 PM
You spoke for me also, Maria. I am compelled to notice that the author, with his use of female flesh to titillate the senses (and his honest remark about sexual enhancement effects of some drugs) could be called a purveyor of pelvic region peeking.
Michael A. Lewis April 16, 2012 at 03:34 PM
Hydergine and Piracetam are drugs developed to treat depression and ADHD. Casual, recreational use of these drugs, in combination and in concert with other stimulants, such as coffee, can lead to severe, life-threatening symptoms, such as heart arrhythmia, chest pains and dizziness. Whether or not these drugs are physically addictive, they become a physiological dependence factor in body function. When you stop taking them, say when your source dries up, your body's oxygen metabolism falters, deprived of its accustomed stimulation. In other words, you end up becoming dumber, rather than smarter. There's no free lunch, and no magic "smart" bullet.
Oz April 16, 2012 at 04:06 PM
Jealousy is a pathetic thing. Back to the article....
Steve Premo April 16, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Keep up the good work, David Jay Brown! The answer is more information, not suppressing information in the hopes of keeping people from making choices that others consider dangerous. Be safe, be informed, and make healthy choices. What those choices are for you are up to you. We all are endowed with minds that can think, with the ability to choose, and with the inherent right to pursue happiness as we see fit. Providing good information, as Brown does, helps us all. And the great thing about a blog is that if the information is incorrect, someone can correct it. The adverse effects of overusing stimulants (or "wakefulness enhancers") are well known, and it's good for Michael to point them out. I'd urge anyone considering using these (or any) drugs or supplements to research the effects and side effects before trying them, whether they can be obtained over the counter, by prescription, or by other means. And that goes for any potentially risky behavior, including mountain climbing, driving on a remote dirt road in the desert, surfing, sailing, auto racing, etc. Be informed, be safe, and make good choices.
Brad Kava (Editor) April 16, 2012 at 04:38 PM
There was a picture with that article?
Joni Russell April 16, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Young female, on her back, legs open, bong in hand, gazing at the camera.
Brad Kava (Editor) April 16, 2012 at 06:49 PM
I was so interested in the text i didnt focus on it
George,Kishor, Forson April 16, 2012 at 09:39 PM
I like what Jean said about nutritious diet,exercise and sleep. If you still need to enhance cognition learn to do breathing exercises{pranayama], and meditation. Learning to concentrate is like anything else you learn; it takes practice not drugs. I am not against drugs but we all want freedom not dependence.
Maria Grusauskas April 16, 2012 at 09:46 PM
Ha sure.
Maria Grusauskas April 16, 2012 at 09:51 PM
George,Kishor,Forson i like where you are going with this. 'I am not against drugs but we all want freedom not dependence." I could not agree more. Tell me more about these breathing exercises. I am very interested. You can email me at maria.grusauskas@gmail.com :)
Maria Grusauskas April 16, 2012 at 10:07 PM
No hard feelings DJB. No offense aimed at the subject either, by the word 'trashes,' although I'm sure she would be the first to admit that she has classier photos of herself, for instance maybe one of her when she's actually studying pre-med at Stanford. some open books, maybe some petri dishes in the background. a dash of cleavage never hurt anybody either. Smart women rock.
Selina Reddan April 17, 2012 at 05:52 AM
Thank you so much for clarifying about these different "smart drugs". I have observed them used very successfully in Parkinsons and Dementia, even Alzheimers. I just wish that more people and doctors knew about them.
Selina Reddan April 17, 2012 at 08:24 PM
Remember that not everyone takes these indiscriminately . Deprenyl for example is available in almost every country , even in the U.S. by prescription. These drugs are keeping many people alive and in the case of some Alzheimers patients able to recognise their relatives, and live a lot longer. i know that for myself my brother is still alive becos of these "smart drugs". Many of these people are so ill that they cannot focus on meditation and breathing exercises.
Michael A. Lewis April 17, 2012 at 08:45 PM
The article and comments are not about prescription use of these drugs. We have specifically addressed non-prescription off-label access and use of drugs with known harmful side-effects.
Elizabeth Borelli April 17, 2012 at 08:52 PM
I noticed that too Maria, not particularly relevant to an article about boosting learning potential - thanks for pointing it out!!
Judge Crater July 10, 2012 at 06:38 AM
THE COURT: Mr. Brown, please explain your thoughts on aliens again. MR. BROWN: It appears that DMT has the extraordinary power to open up an interdimensional portal into another universe--often referred to as “hyperspace”--and to reliably allow us to establish contact with the intelligent beings who reside there. THE COURT: Say what? Ms. Court Reporter, did you get all that? COURT REPORTER: Yes, Your Honor. Here’s the link. http://santacruz.patch.com/articles/can-psychedelic-drugs-help-us-speak-to-aliens THE COURT: Bailiff, please take Mr. Brown to the pokey until he beams back to earth. When he rematerializes, instruct NCPD to release him and give him bus fare to Santa Cruz. Under no circumstances is he allowed to eat funny mushrooms. Have Zira escort him at all times he is in the jurisdiction. This whole town’s going to pot. I think it was a mistake for the Long Range Planning Group to hire this gentleman from the Left Coast. This thread is closed. Turn on the exhaust fans. Clear the court.


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