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What Are Nootropics (“Smart Drugs”)?

Nootropics or “smart drugs” are substances that serve to enhance cognition, sometimes to a significant extent. The word “nootropic” originated in 1972 from Dr. Corneliu E. Girugea and consists of the Greek words “nous” (translating to “mind”) and “trepein” (translating to “bend”); in other words, “mind-bending.” There are many types of nootropics, some of which are controlled pharmaceutical substances, while others come in the form of supplements.

Most usage of nootropics is done for a competitive advantage in academics or occupational settings such as in high-performance job markets. Since many nootropics are under-researched and a new trend in society, the long term effects and general safety profiles of these substances aren’t well-established. As a result, many are considered unscheduled drugs in the United States.

Currently there are only a few substances that have been medically proven to enhance certain aspects of cognition. Since many of these substances are relatively new or in development, research that confirms or disproves efficacy will inevitably surface. In general, the most frequently used class of nootropic substances is that of psychostimulants (such as Adderall).

Why do people use nootropics?

There are several reasons why people use nootropics. They are most often used for medical conditions such as ADHD and are regulated substances. But non-ADHD medications and supplements are more frequently used for performance enhancement. Many individuals use these drugs for performance enhancement and/or to gain some sort of competitive edge in academics or occupational work.

1. Medical treatment: Nootropics are often used to treat a variety of medical conditions ranging from ADHD to wakefulness disorders. Those who receive various forms of nootropics for medical conditions arguably need them in order to properly function.

  • ADHD: Those who are diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder generally are prescribed various forms of psychostimulant medications. These medications improve many aspects of cognition including: memory, concentration, and organization of thoughts.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome: In some cases, people with CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) need medication so that they can function. Energy drinks only help these individuals to a certain extent. Therefore a psychostimulant or medication like NuVigil is often prescribed.
  • Neurodegenerative disorders: Many nootropics have been suggested to provide benefit for those with various neurodegenerative disorders such as: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and dementia. Some have even been investigated to help treat the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia.
  • Sleep wakefulness disorders: People with conditions such as: narcolepsy, excessive daytime sleepiness, and shift-work disorder often benefit from stimulating drugs, many of which are considered nootropics.
  • Treatment-resistant depression: Some people are able to obtain a prescription for various nootropics as a result of having treatment-resistant depression. For example, some psychiatrists may consider prescribing Adderall for depression as an antidepressant augmentation strategy.

2. Performance enhancement: Nootropics are also commonly used for the purposes of gaining an edge on the competition. Using nootropics could be thought of as being analogous to a bodybuilder taking steroids. In this case it allows an individual to surpass their natural genetic limitations.

  • Academic advantage: In academics, students are using nootropics to help them remember more and study more efficiently. Students are taking these drugs to help improve scores on various tests and to write papers. Let’s face it, academics is becoming more competitive than in years past, and any mental edge that a student has on the competition will help them get into a good college and/or build an optimal academic resume.
  • Occupational performance: Some people may use these for a competitive advantage on certain cognitively-demanding jobs. For example, a person who needs to crunch numbers all day and critical thinking as part of their job may benefit from using nootropics.
  • Sports: Many nootropics are known to improve the performance of athletes. They can increase focus, spatial orientation, and allow an athlete to surpass their natural genetic limitations.

3. Biohacking: Individuals may want to try nootropics as a means of biohacking. Usually people who are drawn to these substances are individuals looking to alter their natural biological state of functioning. Many people put themselves through nootropic “trials” in order to determine how their mental functioning improves as a result. As a result, there are many intriguing reports surfacing on the internet from people that have used nootropics.

  • Concentration: These substances are known to increase concentration, but many vary in their effects. Some people are taking these in varying amounts to self-experiment ant determine the degree to which they help people concentrate.
  • Motivation: Some nootropics are known to increase overall levels of motivation. This is a very common effect when a person begins using stimulants – their motivation skyrockets and they get more done.
  • Memorization: In addition to improving concentration, many also boost memory functions. If a person needs to boost their memory function,
  • Productivity: Others are taking these drugs just to see how much they can accomplish. Those who are looking to increase their productivity in all aspects of life may experiment with nootropics.
  • Less sleep: Those who want to get more done and sleep less, may take a nootropic like NuVigil (which promotes wakefulness). This allows the person to accomplish quite a bit throughout the day without any fatigue.

How many people use nootropics?

It is currently unknown what percentage of the general population uses nootropics, but the number is still relatively low. However, with increased marketing efforts and coupled with the fact that many people are just finding out about these substances, usage is likely to considerably increase in the coming years. Many students who aren’t satisfied with their performance and/or want to achieve as much as possible, will likely create many “nootropic stacks” or combinations of these substances to optimize their performance.

It is also thought that those in cognitively-demanding occupations where achievement is rewarded may consider using these drugs to increase productivity and efficiency. Some independent data has surmised that just under 10% of students have tried stimulants to gain an advantage, but other reports have suggested that on certain campuses, approximately 1 out of 5 students (20%) uses.

Some experts believe that the more competitive the college, the more likely students are doing whatever it takes to gain an edge and achieve more. Students at elite universities are more likely to have taken these substances than those who aren’t under as much pressure to perform at the highest-possible level.

Potential problem with Nootropics: Crash and burn

Many nootropics can be used successfully for extended periods of time. For example, someone may use a psychostimulant for several years and get great benefits from the substance. However, eventually the nootropic is likely to catch up to the person. Inevitably, a person will become tolerant to the constant performance-enhancing effects that are derived from the substance. That person will require more of the drug/supplement for the same enhanced functioning.

Once the individual becomes highly-tolerant and is on high doses, they may start experiencing unwanted side effects or realize that their usage has gotten out of hand. At some point, the individual may attempt to withdraw from the nootropic, but realize that they can barely function without it. The cognitive functions that were previously enhanced when a person initially began the nootropic may become significantly impaired during discontinuation.

Some users have reported that coming off nootropics is difficult because they do eventually “crash.” The cognitive enhancement is unlikely to be maintained for a long-term period of several years. A person may then experience a depression, “brain fog,” and/or frustration associated with cognitive slowing. Eventually a person’s brain functioning will reset itself to homeostasis, but it can take a significant amount of time – especially if dopamine stores were depleted.

Verdict: Use nootropics at your own risk

The fact that the long-term effects of nootropics are poorly established should be a cause of concern. Although many of these substances significantly boost mental performance in the short-term, there aren’t many studies supporting their efficacy over a long-term (i.e. years). Therefore if you are considering any of these drugs or supplements, you are doing so at your own risk.

It is also important to note that even the natural nootropics in the form of supplements are not void of side effects. Like all drugs, these can have potentially unwanted side effects that emerge from consistent usage. Sure nootropics may provide a significant short-term advantage if used properly, but further research is warranted to establish the safety of these substances over the long-term.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Sandra January 7, 2016, 11:34 pm

    I don’t think there should really be any crash associated with nootropics because they aren’t stimulants… but perhaps I’m mistaken? Maybe it just depends on which nootropic you’re talking about. I mean if you’re referring to modafinil or adderall or something then yeah there’s gonna be a crash, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone going through a “piracetam crash”.

    • GLOOM January 9, 2016, 4:59 am

      Maybe they didn’t classify it as a “crash”… but there are reports of piracetam users that’ve discontinued and struggled with cognitive tasks for an extended term after stopping. While this experience may be subject to interindivdiual variation, this “interindivdiual variation” of experience could be said to apply to any nootropic/smart drug; some Adderall users claim to experience no crash when stopping – doesn’t mean this claim is accurate.

      Over time, the brain will adjust to any “smart drug” or nootropic and neurochemical modifications will ensue as a result of regular administration. Assuming piracetam provides some sort of neurobiologic free lunch (even with choline) and/or is neuroprotective when administered over a long-term may be a mistake. While piracetam may be fairly benign, its classification as a bonafide “nootropic” in humans is subject to significant debate.

      Savvy nootropic marketers have managed to convince the layperson that piracetam provides nothing but benefit – this is totally off-base. They gloss over the evidence from piracetam studies suggesting altered monoaminergic concentrations, increases in hippocampal oxidative stress, and reductions in acetylcholine. Although I’m not suggesting piracetam is harmful when used properly, there remains insufficient evidence from human trials to conclude that it is devoid of deleterious effects and is completely safe.

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