An Introduction to Nootropics, or “What are Smart Drugs, anyway?”
Disclaimer: As usual, please remember that I am not a doctor nor has much of this information been reviewed by a physician except where specifically quoted. This article is intended to serve only as an introduction to another form of dietary supplement, and you should not take anything here as a suggestion of what to put into your body. You are responsible for yourself.
Have you ever seen the movie “Limitless”, with Bradley Cooper? In the movie, Cooper plays a struggling writer who just can’t get his life together until one day a questionable friend gives him a pill that allows him to access 100% of his brain’s potential. A great many shenanigans follow, with Cooper getting into chases, accidentally learning to fight from Bruce Lee movies, and taking on a finance tycoon. It’s an entertaining movie, but that part I found most interesting was the very premise behind the pill:
Is there really something you can eat or inject that would make you smarter, more creative, etc.?
Like any good nerd, I did some research looking for the “magic pill” expecting to find nothing but scams and other crap. And for the most part, I found scams and other crap. It is the internet after all. Undeterred, I expanded my search to look for supplements and other such items that might have even a fraction of the effect the pill in the movie was supposed to have. I know from my undergraduate days in psychology and biology that the whole “we only use 10% of our brains” thing is mostly crap, so I wasn’t looking for something to “unlock” my brain; I was looking for something that maybe, just maybe, could jump start it a little bit.
You think I’m crazy, right? Fair, but if you’ve never had caffeine before and then you down a cup of coffee, what happens? Instant boost, like your nerve endings are on fire and your brain is going 100 miles per hour, and depending on your sensitivity it can last hours. Who says something else doesn’t do that too, but with less dependency?
The Advent of Smart Drugs: Enter the Nootropics
Nootropics (new-TRO-pics), also referred to as smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers, and intelligence enhancers, are drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve one or more aspects of mental function, such as working memory, motivation, and attention. The word “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by the Romanian Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, derived from the Greek words nous, or “mind”, and trepein meaning “to bend or turn”. A nootropic is any substance that has the ability to “bend the mind” or, in more common terms, provide a beneficial effect on the ability of the consumer to think, reason, be creative, or remember things. The most common type of these substances is, as mentioned above, caffeine. People drink coffee, Red Bull, and a host of other caffeinated things to help them wake up in the morning, stay functional when tired, or just power through something mentally/physically taxing like exams or work projects. Chances are, you’ve done it too.
What Are They?
In the definition above I said that a nootropic can be one of many things, as long as the effect is an enhancement to some mental/cognitive process. Lets break down the different types out on the market today.
These are the pharmaceutical-grade substances that are generally being created to support treatment of a disease, but this isn’t always true. Some examples (and their purported effects) are:
Adderall – Benefits to cognitive control and working memory have been seen in healthy adults, and the drug is intended to help treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) patients, where it helps with overall focus on tasks as well benefits to memory retention. This is a class-II substance, meaning it’s prone to abuse, and studies suggest that about 25% of college kids on competitive campuses may be using it to cram.
Methylphenidate – This works much like Adderall, with improvements to working memory, cognitive control, episodic memory, and task focus. At optimal levels it’s also shown to help with tasks that require a great deal of mental effort, like difficult mathematics. But at higher doses, the drug causes your neurons to fire so strongly that it actually has the opposite effect, making you a little loopy and unable to focus.
Modafinil – This is a wakefulness promoter, typically prescribed to people suffering from narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and people who aren’t awake enough due to sleep apnea complications. It also improves alertness in these same populations, but the downsides include headache, migraine, anxiety, and a host of other potential crap.
Xanthines – These are stimulants, with the most notable being caffeine. They tend to promote wakefulness, alertness, and attention, with some studies also showing they help with memory. The downsides include quick addiction and dependence, as well as nausea and headaches when you get too much in your system. Some studies suggest that you become addicted to caffeine is as little as two weeks of regular consumption, after which point you’re really just drinking it to get back to baseline.
These are exactly what you think they are: stuff you can find at GNC or Vitamin Shoppe in one of many isles filled with multivitamins and protein bars. In general, a “supplement” is anything that is intended to add something to your diet that you may otherwise get from food if your diet is perfect.
Some examples that also show nootropic tendencies are:
L-Theanine – Found in green tea, mushrooms, and sold as a dietary supplement in the U.S. According to some studies, it’s been found to affect the levels of some neurotransmitters, to prevent beta-amyloid-induced brain dysfunction, and to protect against stroke. It’s even said to improve sleep quality in boys with ADHD. Several small studies indicate a combination of L-theanine and caffeine can improve cognitive performance, particularly in the areas of focus and alertness. Apparently, though, the effects may not be long-lasting.
DHA – An omega-3 fatty acid found in fish and seaweed. Various studies of patients with major depression have found depleted omega-3 fatty acid levels, and one larger study found that symptoms were higher amongst those with lower fis diets. That being said, no study has actually shown beneficial effects from taking omega-3 supplements on depression, but some data suggests it may help delay the onset of depressive disorders (or delay their progression). Whether or not omega-3 supplementation will help adults is a little on the fence, but there is some positive correlation between omega-3 consumption and reduction in Alzheimer’s and other conditions affecting the brain.
Choline – This is a B-complex essential nutrient that forms the basis for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for memory and muscle control. Studies have shown that choline supplementation can improve performance on memory tests as well as social behavior. Choline also plays a key role in the production of new brain cells.
This category includes anything that you can eat or drink that has beneficial nootropic effects on the human brain. Most of these aren’t technically “dietary supplements” because you don’t really need them in your diet. Their ingestion is based more on the desired effects of eating them, so they would more accurately be called “dietary additives”. Some examples are:
Panax Ginseng – Multiple RCTs in healthy volunteers have indicated increases in accuracy of memory, speed in performing attention tasks and improvement in performing difficult mental arithmetic tasks, as well as reduction in fatigue and improvement in mood.
Salvia Officinalis (“common sage”) – Although some evidence is suggestive of cognition benefits, the study quality is so poor that no conclusions can be drawn from it.
Ginkgo Biloba – Different reviews come to different conclusions. A 2009 Cochrane review found not enough evidence to make conclusions in those with dementia. Another review stated “there is consistent evidence that chronic administration improves selective attention, some executive processes and long-term memory for verbal and non-verbal material.
These are lab-created substances that are in a family by themselves. They are artificial, much like pharmaceuticals, but they aren’t as strictly controlled as things like Adderall because their mechanism of action (how they work) and effects are still a little new to the community. People aren’t dying from them, and some research suggests they may have a large range of nootropic benefits if taken correctly. All of these share the same basic structure, with varying affects attributed to each. Some examples are:
Piracetam – Improves general cognition and working memory, increases oxygen utilization and glucose metabolism in the brain, slows signs of aging and reverses some forms of neuron damage, and enhances cellular membrane fluidity and exerts a neuroprotective effect.
Aniracetam – Enhances cognitive function in impaired individuals, increases levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, exhibits anxiolytic properties and an increase in social interaction, reduces signs of depression and impulsive behaviors, and exerts a neuroprotective effect.