As technology advances, making things like our phone “smarter,” the inevitable question is whether human brain function can also be improved through technology. Non-prescription nootropics are consumer-level supplements that promise to do just that – make us smarter. These supplements are sold in brick-and-mortar stores and online.
According to vendors selling nootropics online, consumers use nootropics because the substances:
- Expand attention span
- Improve focus
- Increase intelligence
- Stimulate motivation
- Give greater mental energy
History of Smart Drugs
The desire to improve cognitive functioning has probably existed since the dawn of human consciousness. Throughout our evolution, increased mental agility has been associated with fitness and improved odds of survival and success. Although concoctions to stimulate brainpower have existed in Chinese and Indian medicine for hundreds of years, Western nootropics were not developed until 1964.
In that year, Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, a Romanian scientist, synthesized piracetam for the first time. Piracetam is classified as a nootropic, although the term nootropic was not used until 1972. Dr. Giurgea coined the term “nootropic” by combining the Greek words for mind (nous) and bend (trepein). Nootropic literally translates into the phrase “mind bender.”
The Limitless Mind
The human drive to be smarter is a familiar theme on the big screen. In 2011, Oscar-nominated actor Bradley Cooper played struggling writer Eddie Morra in the sci-fi thriller Limitless. In the film, Morra acquires a (fictitious) nootropic NZT-48 that allows him to access 100 percent of his mind. Although he finds himself in lots of trouble, his use of the nootropic transforms him from a desperate writer to a multimillionaire who ultimately runs for the U.S. Senate. The film is a testament to a dream deeply entrenched in the American psyche – that an everyman can become superhuman and lead an extraordinary life.
Types of Nootropics
There are six types of non-prescription nootropics presently on the market. Some were developed as long as decades ago and others as recently as a few years ago. The following is a concise overview of the available varieties of nootropics:
includes piracetam and reportedly stimulates the acetylcholine (which is active in the pre-frontal cortex, where abstract thoughts occur) and glutamic receptors in the brain
Synthetic B-vitamin-derived nootropics:
includes pyritinol and sulbutiamine; it is a formulation based on a modification of B vitamins
Choline and acetylcholine intermediates:
includes alpha-GPC and citicoline; thought to produce higher levels of acetylcholine in the brain; this class is sometimes used as a kicker to enhance the effect of racetams
includes sunifiram and unifram; is purportedly stronger acting on glutamic receptors than racetams; this class was only recently created and has not yet been extensively tested.
the top three are huperzine A, vinpocetine, and bacopa monnieri; while some users report they are effective, others find synthetic nootropics to be stronger acting
includes noopept, semax, and cerebrolysin; while these nootropics are considered effective, they require different methods of consumption – by mouth, nose, and injection, respectively
The Top 5 Bestselling Nootropics
According to the vendor site Elite Nootropics, the most popular nootropics are:
Source: Elite Nootropics
Nootropic Abuse Potential
The available literature on cognitive enhancing practices at times appears to lump together nootropics and “smart drugs.” Smart drugs are not officially defined, but references to this group generally include Provigil (modafinil), Adderall and Ritalin. Any confusion about the addiction potential of different brain-enhancing drugs can spread misinformation about the individual drugs. There are many nootropics on the market, so the best practice is to focus on the addiction potential of each nootropic of interest or concern.
As a general class, nootropics are not usually addiction-forming. Two of the strongest hallmarks of addiction-forming drugs is that they cause users to develop dependency and experience withdrawal when the drug use is eliminated or reduced. While there are some reports of nootropic users experiencing brain fog after use is discontinued, these side effects are not considered to be akin to withdrawal effects of addiction-forming drugs.
Some people are concerned that when they discontinue the use of nootropics, they will experience cognitive functioning below that of their normal level; however, this is usually not the case, especially regarding nootropics in the racetam class. Discontinuing nootropics will cause a person to lose any benefits experienced on these drugs. In other words, nootropics do not appear to build up the brain in any long-lasting way; their benefits are directly tied to their use. There is no evidence that nootropics erode one’s natural level of cognitive functioning.
The nootropic sulbutiamine, of the synthetic B-vitamin-derived nootropics family, is generally considered a low-risk supplement; however, some users have reported that the supplement has addictive qualities. While there is no firm evidence of sulbutiamine addiction, the risk may increase at high dosages. For instance, users who consume this supplement for 10 consecutive days may experience withdrawal for two to five days. There are also increased risks when sulbutiamine is taken with antipsychotic medications.
Sulbutiamine is a good example of how nootropic users should exercise caution when taking this type of supplement. The best practice is to talk with a physician before beginning or discontinuing use.
Rather than cause addiction, the nootropic choline may help to treat this illness. Choline helps to increase dopamine levels. In cocaine users, for instance, dopamine levels are lowered. Taking choline potentially helps those recovering from cocaine abuse to feel better and experience fewer cravings. Research in this area is limited, but it is promising.
Modafinil Addiction Potential
Some people warn of the dangers of modafinil. There are anecdotal personal accounts online of people becoming dependent on this drug. Modafinil is the generic of the brand Provigil, a nootropic. Provigil is FDA-approved to stimulate wakefulness in people suffering from sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea. Initially, Provigil was thought to have a benign, non-addiction-forming profile. As such, the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies Provigil as a Schedule IV drug, a category reserved for drugs with low abuse potential; however, recent research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has found that Provigil may in fact be addictive.
The NIDA research study focused on 10 healthy male participants. The men were subjected to two rounds of PET brain scans after consuming either Provigil (200 mg or 400 mg) or a placebo. The scans demonstrated that the Provigil users had an increase in the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a key neurological messenger in the brain’s reward system. Cocaine and methamphetamine have a similar effect on the brain, but they are more potent and faster-acting than Provigil. As cocaine and amphetamines are addiction-forming, the reasoning here is that Provigil may also be addictive.
But according to Professor David Weinshenker of Emory University, most people who take Provigil do not report euphoria or even a level of stimulation close to the effects of caffeine. For Weinshenker, the addiction potential of Provigil is limited, and it’s used in various treatment contexts. Provigil may be an effective medication therapy for depression, ADHD, autism and other disorders.
While there is a debate as to the pros and cons of Provigil use, this noortropic exemplifies how different people may have widely different experiences with this drug class. Personal accounts of dependence cannot be undermined, so Provigil users should understand that this drug may not be as benign as a vitamin supplement.
Is Adderall a Nootropic?
It is important to keep in mind that while all nootropics are brain function enhancers, not all drugs dedicated to improving cognitive functioning are nootropics. Such is the case with Adderall. This prescription-only drug, used to treat conditions including ADHD, is not a nootropic.
Adderall is composed of a mixture of amphetamine salts – chemical compounds that have numerous potentially positive effects, including increased concentration, awareness and alertness. Amphetamines work, in part, by causing the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable activities like eating. However, an amphetamine-induced release of dopamine occurs automatically – no pleasurable activity needs to occur – but a come-down feeling will likely be experienced eventually, which is associated with feelings of lethargy and mental dullness. Due to this side effect, Adderall cannot be said to be a nootropic.
The drug methylphenidate is marketed as the brand Ritalin and used to treat children and adults with ADHD. As of 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of Americans aged 4-17 were diagnosed with ADHD. The high number of people diagnosed with ADHD means that there is a vast amount of prescription drugs to treat this condition in medicine cabinets across the US. Ultimately, some of these drugs get diverted into the hands of non-prescribed users, such as college students who believe they may be able to improve their studying and performance on exams by taking these drugs.
Research does not support that drugs like Ritalin help students do well in school. Studies show that prescription stimulants do not help to improve learning or thinking in those who do not actually have ADHD. Further, research reveals that students who abuse prescription stimulants have lower GPAs than students who do not abuse the drugs. Although Ritalin improves concentration, this effect is largely misunderstood among non-prescribed users. These illicit users mistakenly believe that they can use a drug out of its prescribed context, thinking they can reap the benefits intended for legitimate users.
Other forms of Ritalin abuse include taking too much of the drug or using it recreationally. Prescription stimulants may cause feelings of euphoria when crushed and snorted or mixed with water and injected. Prescription stimulant abuse is a serious issue and those engaging in this behavior may require intervention.
The Future of Nootropics
Any consideration of the future of nootropics is directly tied into the future of humanity. As long as work productivity demands continue to soar, there will like be a affiliated rise in the desire to increase brain power. As Vice discusses in a thoughtful article providing several insights into why nootropics are popular, it is not surprising that smart drugs and the nootropic industry are ever-expanding. Vice points out that sci-fi writers once warned of people being overtaken by machines, but instead, human beings are becoming machines, taking on unrealistic work levels. Taking nootropic drugs is akin to loading up on premium fuel in an effort to go faster and do better.
To thwart the rise of non-prescription nootropics, opponents may rally for increased regulation; however, at present, there is insufficient research available to support that non-prescription nootropics pose a danger to public health. Prescription nootropics, such as Ritalin, are already regulated. Further, these drugs have a proven beneficial treatment purpose for intended users.
The real culprit at the heart of the problem may be impossible to regulate – the human desire to have a supercharged brain. For now, this wish is still largely relegated to the domain of fiction. Researchers point out that increasing the power of certain parts of the brain, such as areas responsible for learning and focus, would likely deprive other parts of the brain that are needed to live. Despite the appeal of a super-brain, a better goal is still to maintain a balanced brain and lifestyle.
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 “Is Adderall a Nootropic?” (Sept. 17, 2012). NeuroNootropic. Accessed Feb. 28, 2015.
 “Drug Facts: Stimulant ADHD Medications: Methylphenidate and Amphetamines.” (Jan. 2014). National Institute of Drug Abuse. Accessed Feb. 28, 2015.
 Horne, D. (March 25, 2014). “Will ‘Smart Drugs’ Really Make Us Smarter, or Just Ruin Our Lives?” Vice. Accessed Feb. 28, 2015.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton