While performance-enhancing and the recreational drug culture is nothing new, you may have heard of a recently-trending class of drugs called “nootropics.”
Sometimes called a “smart drug,” these over-the-counter and prescription supplements are touted to boost brain performance, cognition, and memory skills.
College students cramming for exams, dementia patients, and active professionals hoping for a promotion might see great benefits in the possibilities here.
There is, however, a lot of conflicting information surrounding these drugs. So, what are they and how do they work? And, most importantly, can they really help with focus and cognitive enhancement?
What are nootropics?
The word “nootropic” is derived from two Greek words. “Nous,” which means mind, and “tropein,” which means to bend or turn.
They are currently defined as a substance that enhances cognition and memory and facilitates learning.
The term nootropic originally referred to synthetic substances that were purported to enhance mental abilities. But the name is now being used in a broader sense to apply to anything that supports cognitive function – including herbs and vitamins in dietary supplements.
A brief history of nootropics
Despite their recent upsurge in popularity, nootropics are nothing new.
The term was originally coined by a Romanian chemist and psychologist, Dr. Corneliu Giurgea. This was decades ago, when he was trying to synthesize a new and improved sleeping pill.
Instead, he accidentally invented piracetam, which he labelled a nootropic.
Dr. Giurgea’s guidelines for what should be considered a nootropic are far more specific than current trends tend to include. He specified 5 factors that make a nootropic:
- Enhance memory
- Improve behavior under adverse conditions
- Protect the brain from injury by physical or chemical means
- Improve tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms
- Demonstrate a low toxicity and side-effect profile
Many of the “nootropics” on the market today would not meet the criteria he laid out 40 years ago. This is mostly due to the associated side effects and lack of demonstrable efficacy.
Although their effects are more subtle, vitamins and supplements might actually be more likely candidates for the term “nootropic” than their prescription cousins, due to their lack of withdrawal symptoms and long-term dependency.
Types of nootropics
While caffeine gives you more access to several chemicals (neurotransmitters) in your brain such as acetylcholine, which helps with short-term memory and learning, most people looking for brain stimulation or cognitive enhancement are not simply sticking to coffee and tea.
There are a number of different types of substances that fall within the broad category of nootropics. Some have higher proven efficacy than others.
- Caffeine: in coffee, tea, or pill form
- Vitamins, Herbs, & Supplements: Bacopa Monnieri, Rhodiola Rosea, Panax Ginseng, Ginkgo Biloba, Nicotine
- Amino Acids: L-Theanine, Creatine
- Synthetic: Noopept, Piracetam, Phenotropil
- Prescription “smart drugs”: Modafinil (Provigil), Amphetamines (Adderall), Methylphenidate (Ritalin), Memantine (Axura)
Traditionally, many of the vitamins and botanicals on this list boasted substantial cognitive benefits. However, a 2015 study showed that there was no compelling evidence in favor of cognitive enhancement by any of the vitamins or supplements in this category.
It may be a failure of US regulation of the supplement industry, allowing for ineffective formulas or containing low-doses of the active ingredients.
Modafinil is intended to sustain “wakefulness” in people with narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, or shift work disorder, according to the FDA.
But when people without those conditions take it, it has been linked with improvements in alertness, energy, focus and decision-making.
A 2017 study found evidence that modafinil may enhance some aspects of brain connectivity, which could further explain these benefits.
Do nootropics work?
The way nootropics function in humans is by causing a shift in the brain’s levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters. It’s not entirely clear that the effects are uniform in all users or that they are any more effective than a placebo.
While some young people have reported a significant “brain boost” with the use of Modafinil, there is no current consensus on what effects these shifts may have on a person’s health in the long run.
Also, some research on young people who use modafinil has found changes in brain plasticity, which could contribute to poor cognition down the road.
Because there are so many different supplements in the broader category of “nootropics,” it’s hard to give a definitive answer to the question of whether or not nootropics actually work.
The lack of widespread research on over-the-counter nootropics prohibits experts from confidently asserting the efficacy of these drugs improve thinking or brain function. Or that everyone can safely use them.
Not a magic pill
The idea that nootropics will magically make you smarter or increase your odds at a casino are sadly, unfounded.
Slots and online casino players, in general, won’t necessarily benefit from the use of nootropics. But they can increase their chances by utilizing free spin offers that require no real money risk to them.
There are, of course, serious side effects associated with nootropics. These include headaches, anxiety, insomnia, hallucinations, seizures, heart trouble, and even sudden death.
Therefore, nootropics should be taken with extreme care. While nootropics can (and do) provide many benefits for some users, anyone considering taking them should consult with a doctor before starting any new regimen.