You’ve probably seen nootropics sold online, sometimes as “smart drugs,” and wondered what they are and how they work. Here’s a brief guide:
A nootropic is a drug that improves mental functioning. Nootropics improve your memory and make you more focused. They have a protective effect, meaning they prevent memory loss and other cognitive defects in people who’ve suffered brain damage – whether chemical, from toxins, such as alcohol, or physical , for example, from an accident or stroke. Nootropics have been used to treat conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
While nootropics were originally designed to treat people with medical problems, today healthy people often use them to improve focus and increase productivity.
Where do they come from?
The first Nootropic was Piracetam. Corneliu E. Giurgea, a scientist working for a Belgian pharmaceutical company called UCB, created it in 1964. Originally, Piracetam was supposed to be a sleeping pill. However, studies in animals and in people showed that it didn’t cause drowsiness.
Nevertheless, it did have unexpected effects. It prevented vertigo, and was prescribed as a cure for motion sickness. Most remarkably, though, it enhanced learning ability in animals and protected animals that had experienced neurological damage, for example, from lack of oxygen, from experiencing memory loss1.
In 1972, Giurgea coined the word nootropic – from the Greek words, noos, mining mind, and tropos, meaning turn, to describe Piracetam and other drugs like it. He defined a nootropic as a drug that
- Has a direct, positive effect on the mind
- Affects the higher, rather than the lower levels of the brain
- Has a restorative affect when used to treat problems with higher brain activity.
Giurgea revised his definition in the 1980s, saying that a nootropic drug
- Enhances learning and memory
- Increases memory retention under conditions, such as electric shock or hypoxia, that tend to cause loss of memory
- Protects the brain from physical or chemical injury
- Improves muscle control
- Has low toxicity, few side effects and does not produce side effects, such as sedation, normally associated with psychotropic drugs.2
Some people consider all substances that improve attention and memory, such as amphetamines, including Adderall, and even caffeine, to be nootropics. However, unlike true nootropics, these substances can be addictive and have strong side effects. Nootropics do not.
Later research showed that Piracetam could help improve cognitive function in older people with memory loss and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease3, and improve brain function in chronic alcoholics.4
Piracetam can also enhance cognition in healthy people. In 1976, a study performed on 16 college students in Cardiff showed that Piracetam can improve memory in healthy young people.5 A 2012 study involving 30 medical college students in Iraq showed that it speeds up reaction times.6
After Piracetam was created, nootropics that were similar in structure but had slightly different properties followed. Piracetam and these other nootropics – which include Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Pramiracetam and Phenylpiracetam – are known as racetams. They are made of molecules that contain a structure called a pyrrolidine nucleus.
Racetams affect the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved with learning and memory.7 The various different racetams can affect other neurotransmitters as well. Some, such as Aniracetam and Oxiracetam, affect dopamine and serotonin levels. Because of this, they can alleviate anxiety and depression.
Which to Choose
You now have many different nootropics to choose from. Do your research to find out which one is best for you. Consider cost, strength, speed at which the drug takes effect and time between doses.
Ask yourself why you want to take a nootropic. Do you simply want to get more out of studying, or are you looking for something that will help you with social anxiety?
It’s recommended that you start with Piracetam, as it’s the oldest and most researched of the nootropics, and it’s not as strong as the more recently created ones. Later on, you can try other nootropics or even take a combination of different nootropics at once (stack them).
Whenever you start taking a new nootropic, begin with the lowest dose possible and slowly work your way up to a higher dose, if necessary. Nootropics take time to build up in the brain, so don’t rush to up your dose if you don’t notice an immediate effect.
1Piracetam and other structurally related nootropics, Brain Research Reviews
2 A Weird Concept with Unusual Fate: Nootropic Drug, Revues des Questions Scientifiques
3 Piracetam and other structurally related nootropics, Brain Research Reviews
4 The efficacy of Piracetam on the mental functional capacity of chronic alcoholics, Medizinische Klinik
5 Increase in the power of human memory in normal man through the use of drugs, Psychopharmacology
6 Piracetam (2-Oxo-Pyrrolidone) Advance and Modulate Central Processing Reaction Time in Normal Healthy Volunteers: Randomized Experimental Study; Single Blind Clinical Trail, Webmed Central Clinical Trials
7 Nootropic drugs and brain cholinergic mechanisms, Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry