How To Research Nootropics With PubMed and Examine
There's lots of misinformation about nootropics online. People love reading wild stories about the latest smart drug that gave them HD vision and eidetic memory (me included!). But we should remind ourselves that testimony provides entertainment value but shouldn't inform whether we take XYZ supplement.
The problem isn't just anecdotal evidence. Blog posts and web copy also cite studies in misleading ways. Even within a primary research paper, sometimes the claims an author makes in the abstract are only tenuously supported by the data in the results section. And finally, many studies in animal models or petri dishes don’t map neatly on to human health. These are reasons that you should start reading primary research articles. In this article, I'm going to show you how I use PubMed and Examine to research the latest and greatest nootropics.
Scientific Literacy is Sexy
Have you ever researched a supplement and wondered whether or not you should take it? This is where scientific literacy proves its worth. You don't need to take supplement claims at face value if you read the primary research literature directly.
Maybe you've tried reading primary research articles and been discouraged by the arcane language. I definitely fall into this camp. But learning to read papers is a skill that can be honed with practice and pays great dividends.
Reasons To Stop Skimming Abstracts
It's tempting to just skim abstracts on PubMed. But Jennifer at Violent Metaphors aptly warns us to "begin by reading the introduction, not the abstract":
The abstract is that dense first paragraph at the very beginning of a paper. In fact, that’s often the only part of a paper that many non-scientists read when they’re trying to build a scientific argument. (This is a terrible practice—don’t do it.). When I’m choosing papers to read, I decide what’s relevant to my interests based on a combination of the title and abstract. But when I’ve got a collection of papers assembled for deep reading, I always read the abstract last. I do this because abstracts contain a succinct summary of the entire paper, and I’m concerned about inadvertently becoming biased by the authors’ interpretation of the results.
Here are are 5 more reasons to remain skeptical about health claims:
- Publish or perish. Researchers are under a lot of pressure to publish - their livelihood depends on it. This can lead scientists to manipulate study results, consciously or unconsciously. For example, if you've run 20 experiments, you could omit the 5 experiments with results that ran contrary to your hypothesis.
- Publication bias. Failing to distribute negative study results disturbs the balance of findings. Researchers only want to publish negative results, not positive ones. This has been a huge problem with antidepressant trials.
- Commercial interests. Nutraceutical companies may cite studies in misleading ways to persuade the consumer that a supplement has a definite benefit.
- Pop science. We live in an age where scientific-sounding explanations have a lot of rhetorical power. Simply referencing a scientific study in web copy - even if it doesn't support the argument - appears to add credibility.
- Human bias. Apophenia is the human proclivity to see meaningful patterns within random data. For example, hearing a ringing phone while in the shower. Statistical analysis is meant to guard agains this, but statistical methods can be misapplied in papers.
A Practical Guide To Researching Nootropics
Let’s get back on track and discuss how to properly research nootropics.
There are two ways to research nootropics:
- Read primary research articles on PubMed
- Read Examine
Examine is secondary literature. It’s best to read primary research literature because you can evaluate how convincing the data is yourself, but Examine is the next best thing. Not everyone wants to do journal club every day so it makes sense sometimes to use Examine.
An Introduction to PubMed
What is PubMed?
PubMed is a search engine for MEDLINE’s database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. The National Library of Medicine at the NIH maintains the database.
Tips For Searching on PubMed
To get started, head over to PubMed.gov. PubMed's home page displays these search features:
- a dropdown, which lets you choose between PubMed and other NCBI databases (default is PubMed)
- an input field where you can enter search terms
- a link to the Advanced search, where you can apply additional filters
When searching for articles, be specific. The more keywords you enter, the fewer irrelevant results will be returned.
Searching for abstracts on PubMed is a little different than doing a Google search. Here are some tips:
- No punctuation (e.g., no quotation marks). PubMed will find phrases for you.
- No operators (e.g., AND). PubMed automatically adds AND between concepts.
- No tags. PubMed will differentiate topic words, journal titles and author names.
Because of PubMed’s automatic term mapping, you can focus on terminology and disregard syntax.
You can actually see how PubMed translates your search by looking at the right sidebar (in the Search Details box).
I searched modafinil nootropic and here's what PubMed returned in the search details box:
("modafinil"[Supplementary Concept] OR "modafinil"[All Fields]) AND ("nootropic agents"[Pharmacological Action] OR "nootropic agents"[MeSH Terms] OR ("nootropic"[All Fields] AND "agents"[All Fields]) OR "nootropic agents"[All Fields] OR "nootropic"[All Fields])
The automatic term mapping syntax is pretty easy to pick up if you need to manually modify the search details box.
By default, the search results will show article titles and not abstracts. You can change the format to show abstracts by clicking Format beneath the search input field.
So you’ve assembled some abstracts to investigate by searching a topic of interest on PubMed.gov.
If you’re a university student or researcher, you’ll have access to most journals. But otherwise, what can you do about the paywall? In that case, your best bet is using Library Genesis (LibGen). Note: if you can't locate a paper on LibGen, check /r/scholar.
Let’s say you wanted access to this paper: Neurobehavioural mechanisms of reward and motivation (1996).
You can search LibGen by inputing the article title, DOI, or PMID. The PMID is provided by PubMed on the abstract page. (An article DOI can be identified by searching the article on Crossref.)
After finding your paper of interest on LibGen, click Libgen beneath the links section (see screenshot). Finally, click the “Download” link in the far right corner of the subsequent page to download a PDF version of the paper.
Warning: I have no idea what the legal repercussions are for circumventing paywalls with LibGen. Tread lightly and maybe use Torr and a VPN.
How To Read A Paper
Here are Jennifer's step-by-step suggestions for reading a reading a research paper:
- Read the introduction first and the abstract last. It's easy to become inadvertently biased by reading the authors interpretation of the results first.
- Identify the big question. What problem is the field trying to tackle?
- Summarize the background in five sentences or less. This forced you to really think about the context of this research. You need to be able to explain why this research has been done in order to understand it.
- Identify the specific questions. What questions were the experiments trying to answer?
How To Research Nootropics on Examine
What is Examine?
Examine is a website that consolidates information from primary sources about supplements and drugs. Examine tries to make research about supplements more accessible, useful, and actionable.
Sifting through study results is a major time investment. Even more challenging is knowing how to interpret study findings.
Examine's Human Effect Matrix
Most people are interested in a nootropic to accomplish specific goals. Maybe they want to improve their working memory, sleep quality, or motivation. Fortunately, this "goal-orientedness" is baked into Examine, since the platform is organized around outcomes. Here are some of the outcomes for piracetam:
The outcome "Cognitive Decline" is a link to a page with a list of other supplements that mitigate cognitive decline. Examine's human effect matrix lets you quickly find supplements that accomplish a goal.
With Google, you can also use a
site: search operator to look for specific nootropics linked to a goal. Here's an example Google search:
site: examine.com "Cognitive Decline"
site: search operator restricts search results to the domain