Nootropics have become the new buzz word for those turning to certain drugs and supplements. Sometimes referred to as “smart drugs,” these supplements and medications promise to do everything from boost brain power to enhance creativity and personality, with additional benefits hyped with what is known as “stacking.” But do they work, and are they safe? The answer depends on who you ask.
The Washington Post described nootropics as “cognition-enhancing drugs.” As for where nootropic users are finding these drugs, sources range from prescription medications to over-the-counter to “a worldwide gray market of private sellers.” And the promises for what these drugs do vary just as much as the sources.
Some nootropics allegedly boost memory, improve the ability to pay attention, enhance creativity, and even motivate users. The term has been in existence since 1972 when it was created from the Greek words for “mind” and “bending” by a Romanian scientist, Corneliu Giurgea.
There are various levels of nootropics, with nicotine and caffeine viewed on the “mild” end of the spectrum and prescription drugs including Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil at the other end when they are used for off-label purposes such as enhancing cognition.
Although micro-doses of LSD are sometimes seen as a way to improve productivity, the term nootropics typically is used for substances with allegedly minimal side effects and reduced toxicity. One common example is piracetam. After Giurgea synthesized it in 1964, it became approved for therapeutic use in a variety of countries, with the exception of the United States.
Piracetam can be sold only for research in the U.S. However, while that’s what is officially allowed, in reality, users outside of the research world contend that piracetam has helped with memory, the immune system, and even improved personalities. That drug, along with aniracetam, phenylpiracetam, and oxiracetam, can be purchased online.
In recent years, more companies have been selling nootropic “stacks.” These formulas contain combinations such as herbal remedies, piracetam, amino acids, and citicoline. In addition to stacking, some self-described “brain hackers” also try methods ranging from low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diets to plunging into cold water to boost their brain power.
As for the answers to the question of whether nootropics are safe and effective, Murali Doraiswamy, leader of several experiments with cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System, told the Washington Post that he understands the appeal of these smart drugs.
“Who doesn’t want to maximize their cognitive ability? Who doesn’t want to maximize their muscle mass?”
In addition to leading the trials at Duke, Doraiswamy has served as an adviser both to manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and supplements and the Food and Drug Administration. He views the popularity of nootropics as resulting from a culture that prizes brain power.
Some trials have uncovered short-term benefits. But as for long-term benefits, no studies have provided evidence that any sort of smart drugs boosts mental agility permanently, according to Doraiswamy. He feels that the hype of these smart drugs goes beyond the reality.
“There’s a sizable demand, but the hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence,” summed up the expert.
Moreover, he cautioned about even the short-term benefits.
“It’s a zero-sum game. That’s because when you up one circuit in the brain, you’re probably impairing another system.”
There’s also a difference between new nootropic drugs and medications that have been researched for years.
“Piracetam has been studied for decades,” cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Hill told the Washington Post.
Founder of a neurofeedback company in Los Angeles named Peak Brain Institute, Hill urges that users be cautious about the newest options.
“Some of [the newer] compounds are things that some random editor found in a scientific article, copied the formula down and sent it to China and had a bulk powder developed three months later that they’re selling,” warned Hill.
“Please don’t take it, people!”
While Hill is cautious, a family practice doctor offered a different view on nootropics. A physician who specializes in hormone therapy, Vinh Ngo told the Washington Post that not only does he have patients who express interest in improving their memory, he’s tried piracetam on himself.
“The first time I tried it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty strong for a supplement,’” recalled Ngo. “In general it was a cognitive enhancer… I found it helpful.”
He also experimented with the neurotransmitter DMEA, which he feels helps those who have challenges in “finishing that last connection in the brain” when it comes to developing ideas.
“You have an idea, it helps you finish the thought.”
However, Ngo also has treated patients who took the use of nootropics too far. He recalled a chief executive who took his use of albuterol to extremes, causing an imbalance of electrolytes.
“People want to find an edge over their competitor — that’s how they got their position in the first place,” noted the doctor. “I’m trying to give them a little more wiggle room — but in a safe way.”
[Featured Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]