Do Nootropics Actually Make You Smarter?
An inside look at the world of biohacking, nootropics, and cognitive enhancing drugs.
Image Credit: Nadia Mokadem
Nootropics are substances that improve cognitive functions, such as memory, creativity, focus, and motivation. They affect the central nervous system to boost chemical activity in the brain, usually dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.¹ They are not addictive, but they have adverse effects when used for a long time. Nootropics can also be detrimental when used with alcohol and other drugs.
University students self-medicate with non-prescribed medication, such as Adderall, to study and prepare for tests. Doctors and pilots take medications to stay awake and focused, since their job requires so much of them. Professionals in other industries choose to take them to be more competitive in the workforce and enhance their productivity. Silicon Valley especially has a tendency towards biohacking using these substances.
These cognitive enhancing drugs get their popularity from its misuse. There are ethical implications when neurologically healthy people use medication that is intended for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Alzheimer’s. Despite their controversy, cognitive-enhancing drugs are a billion-dollar company.
It is relatively easy to get nootropic products approved by the FDA. They are often sold as dietary supplements with warnings that they do not treat or cure conditions. Nootropic pill sites often cite their own research, promising very positive results of brain improvement.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration), along with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), have warned these companies against fraud and false advertising for the supplements.²
What are the most used kinds of nootropics? Do these substances truly improve brain function? What research is being done on nootropics?
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Most popular Nootropics
The most important aspect of nootropics is that they impact brain plasticity- the brain growing and strengthening of brain cells. Brain plasticity is the key contributor to learning and memory.
In low doses, these substances stimulate the central nervous system in ways that occur naturally in the human body, just not as much. There are natural and synthetic ways to improve cognitive performance and slow decline.
Caffeine: Caffeine is a non-controversial substance found in coffee, tea, and energy drinks. Digesting caffeine blocks adenosine receptors.³
Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that is usually released during bedtime, causing cells to slow down and for people to get sleepy. Caffeine is very similar in molecular structure to adenosine and blocks its transmission. It does not create energy, rather prevents slowdown of brain activity.
The downsides of caffeine is that too much can be bad, both in the short and long run. Some people may be too sensitive to caffeine, causing overwhelming anxiety and restlessness. It can negatively affect sleep, cause dizziness, or induce headaches.
Dependency on caffeine is possible if it is consumed regularly. Withdrawal can negatively impact performance.¹¹
Methylphenidate: Also known as Ritalin, this chemical was originally used for treating chronic fatigue or depression. It is currently being used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy (overwhelming drowsiness and surprise sleep attacks)⁴ A lot of its misuse actually is recreational, rather than to improve performance.⁵
Research shows that it blocks dopamine and norepinephrine uptake in brain cells. This means that neurons can send more of these chemicals to each other, instead of being reabsorbed by each brain cell after transmission. More dopamine and norepinephrine means better attention and alertness.
This is a dangerous substance to misuse. Abuse of methylphenidate leads to symptoms similar to cocaine usage. ¹² It can severely impact the mood, appetite, vision, and sleep of people who use it for recreational purposes.
It is safe to consume when it is prescribed. When it is safely used to treat a disorder such as ADHD, depression, and cognitive disorders, the side effects are insomnia, headache, stomachache, and anorexia. These side effects can be reduced with therapy.¹³
Modafinil: Also known as Provigil, they are less easy to come by than methylphenidate. They are used to wake people up. Its mechanism is not entirely known. What is known is that it works in a similar manner to methylphenidate. It blocks dopamine reuptake, promoting wakefulness and preventing sleepiness.⁶
Its intended use is to treat depression, ADHD, and schizophrenia.¹⁴ Common possible side effects are cold symptoms and anxiety. It can possibly affect blood pressure and mood changes, but these are rare.
Modafinil is less likely to be abused, since it is not really something people can smoke or inject.¹⁵ One negative effect is that it can possibly worsen psychosis for people who are being treated for schizophrenia. This is pretty rare.
Piracetam: Piracetam treats twitch disorders, epilepsy, and dementia. It is not approved as a dietary supplement. The way it works is also not completely understood. It is thought to improve acetylcholine⁷, the brain chemical responsible for muscle movement and motivation. Piracetam possibly improves brain function because it increases fluid in brain cells to allow them to share signals more easily.¹⁶
Its side effects include diarrhea, hyperactivity, dysphoria, and rashes. Some have even claimed to not feel any cognitive improvement.¹⁷ Withdrawal can increase symptoms of the condition that it is being used to treat.
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Do they make you smarter?
The answer to this lies in the definition of intelligence and cognitive function.
Clinical trials test whether substances affect cognitive function, the brain’s ability to remember, pay attention, process information, and practice restraint.
Intelligence can be defined as someone’s ability to solve problems and reason. In other words, figure out “what you use when you don’t know what to do.”⁸
Take it this way: cognitive functions are like tools, and improving them is like getting newer, more innovative tools. These tools have a better grip, can fix things faster, and perform more efficiently. Intelligence is the ability to encounter a problem and know what tool to use, and how to use it.
The future of nootropics
Research has not fully explained the effects of these substances. In fact, research is just now starting to take off this year. Yet people still use them to get ahead, especially those ages 18-25. Companies have taken notice. North America is the biggest market for nootropics (They are 37% of consumers as of 2018).⁹
Edible plants are being researched in their ability to improve cognitive health. Coffee, tea, and cocoa have been widely known to enhance certain cognitive functions. They provide clarity, focus, and energy. Sages and tomatoes have come into the playing field as well.
Recent clinical studies show that rosemary (an herb in the sage family) can improve the speed of remembering. Also, a type of tomato extract is being tested as it can possibly improve cognitive performance in stressed-out people.¹⁰
There will be a continued demand to enhance brain performance. There are plenty of safe, controlled substances available. While there will always be people looking for quick fixes and magic potions, simpler solutions are worth looking into. Exercise, mindfulness, stress management techniques, and sleeping right are scientifically-backed methods to improving brain health.
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Ribeiro, J. A., & Sebastião, A. M. (2010). Caffeine and Adenosine. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 20(s1), S3–S15. https://doi.org/10.3233/jad-2010-1379
Wilms, W.,Woźniak-Karczewska, M., Corvini, P. F.-X., & Chrzanowski, Ł. (2019).Nootropic drugs: Methylphenidate, modafinil and piracetam – Population use trends, occurrence in the environment, ecotoxicity and removal methods – A review. Chemosphere, 233, 771–785. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2019.06.016
(Carton et al., 2018)
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