Are Nootropics And “Smart Drugs” Really Effective?

December 19th, 2017

Majority of us are continually challenging ourselves to excel in our daily endeavors and push beyond our capacity to achieve the ultimate goals. The fast-paced era has forced us to discover ways to make us stronger, faster and smarter to stay abreast with the break-neck speed of evolution.

There are numerous ways to enhance our physical form and cognitive functioning, but most of them require extensive training that is time-consuming. We live in a world of “hacks” and, thus, scientists have been in a search for a magic substance that can make us more efficient in our physical and mental performance by just popping a pill. Even though we can trace the search back to mid to late century, there has not been much success, until recently.

However, times have changed. Terms like nootropics and smart drugs are gaining traction. Moreover, a small but significant percentage of human beings are experimenting with them, albeit without completely understanding their benefits and risks.

What are nootropics and smart drugs?

Nootropics and smart drugs are substances that enhance the cognitive function in one way or the other. These mind-augmenting substances can be natural in the form of herbs or high-dose vitamins or synthetically manufactured by pharmaceuticals. These drugs are becoming increasingly popular to boost the performance of the brains.

According to a Telegraph report, 25% of the students of leading UK universities have experimented with prescription smart drugs, most prominently Modafinil.

Furthermore, in 2015 alone, the nootropics business gathered over 1 billion dollars in revenues.

There has been promising research about the benefits of using nootropics for specific purposes like optimizing memory, motivation, and focus. Conversely, frivolous use of nootropics and smart drugs is still a hotly debated topic amongst medical researchers and doctors. There have been widespread concerns regarding the possible adverse effects of these drugs because of long-term use.

Difference between nootropics and smart drugs

Nootropics and smart drugs are substances used to improve brain function, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, there are widespread misconceptions that they are the same things. In fact, both are different categories of stimulant drugs that have different mechanisms and safety levels.

A smart drug is most commonly a prescribed medication or off-label drug used to treat a medical condition like a cognitive disorder. The most common smart drugs, Adderall (amphetamine) or Ritalin (methylphenidate), treat symptoms pertinent to ADHD.

However, recreational use of these drugs is also widespread. While they may boost energy and amplify focus, the majority of them have drastic effects on the mind and body.

They produce spikes of dopamine and norepinephrine, which leads to habit formation, addiction, and tolerance. Adverse effects of increased use of smart drugs of the stimulant class include an increase in stress levels, mood swings, lack of appetite, and declining cardiac functions. They are also more dangerous for teens and young adults, who can experience sleep disorders, irritability, anxiety, and other emotional regulation problems with extended use.

As opposed to smart drugs, nootropics are non-prescribed compounds including herbs, vitamins, and other natural or synthetic supplements that can improve cognition. They also have positive effects on focusing power, optimize attention, and influence aging and cellular metabolism.

Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea coined the term, nootropics, in 1972 in a research article. He also described the distinctive features of a substance that makes it eligible as a nootropic:

  1. It should function as a brain stimulant
  2. It should possess protective properties that shield the brain against harmful substances
  3. It should augment cognitive performance under stress
  4. It should “increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain” (Source)
  5. It should have no side effects and should be non-toxic

The new context considers nootropics as substances that provide a boost in our daily functioning while simultaneously protecting the brain from long-term risks. Moreover, nootropics are mostly made up of natural ingredients.

In short, the core purpose of supplementing with nootropics is to improve cognition efforts without deteriorating the physical mechanism.

Are smart drugs safe?

Currently, the most prominent smart drugs are stimulant modafinil, amphetamines sold by the name of Adderall and methylphenidate that has the brand name Ritalin.

Adderall can cause psychosis with extended use and, rebound fatigue and depression at low-level dosages.  Adderall, as an amphetamine also acts as a reuptake inhibitor. It blocks the uptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, which functions as neurotransmitters.

The brain has several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which is responsible for reward-behavior, while norepinephrine, produced in the nuclei, mobilizes the mind for action.

When Adderall inhibits the reuptake of neurotransmitters from synapse into the pre-synapse neuron, the extracellular concentration increases which lead to a more alert mind. However, in addition to enhancing focus, this class of drug also has some severe side effects. Moreover, there is not adequate research on the benefits of Adderall on short-term memory or cognition to justify their usage.

Methylphenidate functions like amphetamines, i.e., increase the concentration of neurotransmitters. It is usually prescribed to patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as it has positive effects on memory performance. However, there is not enough evidence that it also helps with learning and focusing. In fact, methylphenidate can actually diminish the brainpower of high performers by weakening their short-term memory. Furthermore, Ritalin can be habit-forming, particularly for people with a history of addiction and drug abuse.

Modafinil is touted as the most famous smart drug, as it is a potent cognitive enhancer, which boosts wakefulness. The side effects of modafinil are rare, albeit life-threatening. It is a prescription drug used for sleeping disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, and narcolepsy.

Modafinil is potentially addictive and has only a handful of long-term studies, so it is unsure how this drug affects the brain and body with prolonged use.

Are nootropics effective?

The most authentic nootropics, as per the definition of Dr. Giurgea, do not cause neurotransmitter depletion, are not addictive, and do not cause any adverse effects on the physical or cognitive performance. Giurgea designed piracetam, the first nootropics, in 1964 and developed the specific set of the criteria based on his invention.

Nootropics mechanism works by enhancing the structural connectivity of the brain, optimizing blood flow and oxygenation, and protecting the brain from harmful chemicals. They alter the supply of enzymes, hormones, and neurochemicals to the brain, to enhance learning acquisition and improve executive processing over an extended period. However, there are many supplements classified as nootropics and, thus, do not have a single, definitive working mechanism.

They also possess low-dose toxicity levels, much lower than caffeine and sugar that are widely popular stimulants.

Bottom line

Smart drugs and nootropics may have similar benefits, but their range of effects on the brain and the body is very different and incomparable. They also have unique operational mechanisms, varying safety hazards, and completely different side effects.

Smart drugs have potentially dangerous side effects, especially when used without an authentic prescription, and should be avoided unless you suffer from a mental impairment that has been diagnosed by a doctor.

On the other hand, nootropics will not turn you into a cognitive super-human, like depicted in the movie Limitless. However, they have the potential to supplement the performance of your brain in moderate levels.

It is critical to understand that even the most natural substances alter the hormones and chemicals of the brain to improve its functioning. Therefore, ensure the safety of the drug and consult a doctor before using it.

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