Back home, I contacted Aubrey Marcus, whose company Onnit Labs produces Alpha Brain. He attributed my lucid dreaming to increased levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which enhances REM dreaming. Alpha Brain has two ingredients that boost acetylcholine levels: GPC choline, which the body converts to acetylcholine, and Huperzine A, an alkaloid derived from Chinese club moss, also known as Huperzia serrata. "Huperzine A disarms the enzyme that naturally breaks down acetylcholine," Marcus said. "So while the GPC choline is being converted to acetylcholine, the Huperzine A is keeping it from disappearing. It's like plugging the drain and turning on the faucet."
Professor David O Kennedy published a book in 2014 called Plants and the Human Brain. In his book he summarizes the last 15 years of research into cognitive nutrition, including the work he's done with colleagues at the Brain Performance Nutrition Research Center at Northumbria University. It's a great read and a good guide to what sorts of herbs and other plants to include in our weekly diet and it is all based on hard science rather than mere assertion or trendy but unsubstantiated beliefs.
Herbs and plants have been used for cognitive enhancement for at least 5,000 years in Indian and Chinese medicine, long before the first synthetic nootropic was created. The practice of Indian Ayurvedic medicine includes the use of a group of nootropic plants known as Medhya Rasayana, the four primary plants of which are Mandukaparni, Yastimadhu, Duduchi and Shankhapushpi, though other lesser known plants are also used. One of the most common supplements in Ayurvedic medicine is Brahmi, known scientifically as “Bacopa monnieri” or “B. monnieri “ and more commonly as water hyssop, Thyme-leaved Gratiola, herb of grace or Indian pennywort. It is named after Lord Brahma, the creator God and originator of Ayurveda, and has been used for centuries to treat disorders ranging from pain and epilepsy to inflammation and memory dysfunction. The exact mechanism behind its action is not fully understood, but it is believed to promote antioxidant activity as well as protect neurons in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and corpus striatum against cytotoxicity and DNA damage associated with Alzheimer’s. The prefrontal cortex is critical in rational, social and personality behavior, the hippocampus is believed to be the seat of memory and the autonomic nervous system and the striatum play a role in the reward system of action, so the protection Brahmi provides is extremely helpful in preventing the degeneration of many important cognitive faculties. An effective dose ranges from 300 to 450 mg per day. Winter cherry (ashwagandha) is another well-known Ayurvedic supplement that can promote improved cognitive development, memory and intelligence and reduce the effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. The optimal dose is 6,000 mg per day divided into three 2,000 mg doses. Aloeweed (shankhpushpi) is also used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve memory and intellect as well as treat hypertension, epilepsy and diabetes. Effective doses for most neuroenhancing benefits range as high as 40 g per day.
Not long ago I met Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania, in his office at the labyrinthine Penn hospital complex. Chatterjee's main research interests are in subjects like the neurological basis of spatial understanding, but in the past few years, as he has heard more about students taking cognitive enhancers, he has begun writing about the ethical implications of such behaviour. In 2004 he coined the term "cosmetic neurology" to describe the practice of using drugs developed for recognised medical conditions to strengthen ordinary cognition. Chatterjee worries about cosmetic neurology, but he thinks that it will eventually become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery; in fact with neuroenhancement it's harder to argue that it's frivolous. As he notes in a 2007 paper: "Many sectors of society have winner-take-all conditions in which small advantages produce disproportionate rewards." At school and at work, the usefulness of being "smarter", needing less sleep and learning more quickly is "abundantly clear". In the near future, he predicts, some neurologists will refashion themselves as "quality-of-life consultants" whose role will be "to provide information while abrogating final responsibility for these decisions to patients". The demand is certainly there: from an ageing population that won't put up with memory loss; from overwrought parents bent on giving their children every possible edge; from anxious employees in an efficiency-obsessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture where work never really ends.
The important factors seem to be: #1/MR6 (Creativity.self.rating, Time.Bitcoin, Time.Backups, Time.Blackmarkets, Gwern.net.linecount.log), #2/MR1 (Time.PDF, Time.Stats), #7/MR7 (Time.Writing, Time.Sysadmin, Time.Programming, Gwern.net.patches.log), and #8/MR8 (Time.States, Time.SRS, Time.Sysadmin, Time.Backups, Time.Blackmarkets). The rest seem to be time-wasting or reflect dual n-back/DNB usage (which is not relevant in the LLLT time period).
One thing I notice looking at the data is that the red magnesium-free days seem to dominate the upper ranks towards the end, and blues appear mostly at the bottom, although this is a little hard to see because good days in general start to become sparse towards the end. Now, why would days start to be worse towards the end, and magnesium-dose days in particular? The grim surmise is: an accumulating overdose - no immediate acute effect, but the magnesium builds up, dragging down all days, but especially magnesium-dose days. The generally recognized symptoms of hypermagnesemia don’t include effect on mood or cognition, aside from muscle weakness, confusion, and decreased reflexes…poor appetite that does not improve, but it seems plausible that below medically-recognizable levels of distress like hypermagnesemia might still cause mental changes, and I wouldn’t expect any psychological research to have been done on this topic.
Some supplement blends, meanwhile, claim to work by combining ingredients – bacopa, cat's claw, huperzia serrata and oat straw in the case of Alpha Brain, for example – that have some support for boosting cognition and other areas of nervous system health. One 2014 study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggested that huperzia serrata, which is used in China to fight Alzheimer's disease, may help slow cell death and protect against (or slow the progression of) neurodegenerative diseases. The Alpha Brain product itself has also been studied in a company-funded small randomized controlled trial, which found Alpha Brain significantly improved verbal memory when compared to adults who took a placebo.
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people. It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks. At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.