Nootropics: How safe are these drugs that make you smarter?


Last Updated June 24th, 2019

Nootropics: What are these smart drugs?

Nootropics is an umbrella term that describes a group of cognition-enhancing substances that facilitate better learning, memory, and other executive functions pertaining to the brain. In simple words, these are a category of compounds that improve how neurons (brain cells) communicate with each other thereby increasing the “smartness” of the brain.

This relatively novel term was coined by a Romanian psychologist Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972 who took the two Greek words “nous” -meaning mind and “tropic”- meaning diversion or change in direction to describe a group of chemicals which could enhance cerebral power.

The idea of using mind-altering drugs to experience a change in mood, emotions, and perception is not a new concept. In fact the basis of all psychoactive drugs such as marijuana and cocaine is based on this very principle. However, nootropics are not what one would exactly refer to as addictive drugs that tend to deteriorate physical and mental health.

Even though some of these could be addictive (more on that later), a major proportion of nootropics do just what the definition says – increase cognitive functioning. With our current lifestyle aimed at attaining higher and higher levels of professional and academic success, nootropics are gradually gaining high popularity among professionals and students alike. Such a cutthroat environment has created a high demand for these brain-enhancing smart drugs – everyone from billionaires to business giants to high-end academicians are taking the help of nootropics.

The question is how do these nootropics actually impact your brain and is it safe to consume these? Let us find out.

What makes a substance nootropic?

Now you must be thinking that anything that enhances your cognitive power is a nootropic. And this statement can be both wrong or right based on the context of your discussion. If you have to take into consideration the chemicals or substances that increase the power of your brain you don’t have to look further than your own kitchen.

Foods such as nuts and seeds (walnuts especially), fatty fish, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate etc are considered to be replete brain-enhancing chemicals such as the omega-3 fatty acids that are supposed to improve your cognitive skills. Not only that, but these foods also protect the brain from the delirious effects of aging such as neurodegeneration that gives rise to dementia and memory loss. But are these considered nootropics? No.This is because nootropics form a very niche category of cognitive enhancing chemicals that fit into these given criteria.

  • Firstly, it must be directly involved in the augmentation of cognitive skills.
  • Secondly, it must not result in this improvement by depleting resources from other parts of the brain (or the entire body). Or in other words, for a substance to be classified as a nootropic it must not follow the principle of biochemical borrowing, wherein for performing one function some other function is compromised.

Simply put, a nootropic helps you recharge your brain so that your cognitive skills are increased effectively. However, with time, even if the performance falls below the peak level, it never falls below the basic cognitive skills one possessed. And this is why nootropic is quite different from any other run-of-the mill addictive drug such as cocaine or marijuana. The colloquial “high” achieved by these drugs might take you on a certain performance peak, however, the cognitive crash beyond the zenith is disastrous and is higher in magnitude compared to the high.

This critical difference between nootropics and psychoactive addictive drugs is what makes one safe and the other immeasurably toxic.

Your brain on nootropics: How do these make actually make you smarter?

A very famous quote by the very man who is credited with the coinage of the term “nootropic”, Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, goes like this, “ Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain”. Homo sapiens, if not an apex predator species because of its sturdy built and superior muscle power, it has enslaved the entire planet and its resources owing to its superior brain. Man is a creature is a creature on intellect and this very biological difference between him and the rest of the animal kingdom has created the stark hierarchy in the food chain.

And since this innately smart and conscious organ is at the core of every human achievement, the humankind will never be satisfied with whatever superior cognitive skills it already possess. The need for nootropics was born out of this very need. Athletes need to increase their physical endurance, scholars and professionals need to have a high appetite for learning and towering capacities of performing different duties.

When Dr. Giurgea discovered and isolated the first ever chemically synthesized nootropic, Piracetam, it created a stir across the world.Finally, there was a drug that could take a “ill brain” or a “lazy brain”, shake it up from the slumbers of poor performance, and make it more powerful. How do these act on the brain? Let us find out.

  • The main function a nootropic performs is that of a vasodilator – something that dilates an artery so that it improves circulation. The more blood is transported to the brain through the artery, the more oxygen and nutrients it receives, Brain is a hungry organ. It accounts for only 3% of the body weight but uses up 15-20% of the entire body’s energy reservoir to function well. Thus, having a rich supply of blood to the brain will definitely go a long way in increasing cognitive capacities.
  • A typical feature of brain cells aka  neurons is that they are irreplaceable – aka, they cannot reproduce. These cells are in the continued state of using energy to transmit signals and repair the damaged cells. This implies that the effect of aging and inflammation can take a heavy toll on the cerebral functioning. Enter nootropics. These chemicals are observed to stimulate brain cells and impart an anti-inflammatory effect on the brain.
  • Another key advantage derived from nootropics is that by stimulating the activity of neurons they enable higher neuroplasticity (the property of brain to forge new neural interconnections) – the fundamental characteristic that enhances cognition and formation of new memories.

Nootropics are divided into two broad categories – natural and synthetic. Synthetic nootropics are nothing but commercialized versions of natural nootropics which impact different parameters of the brain function.In order to be classified as a nootropic, a substance must fulfill the following criteria:

  • Improve memory and learning
  • Protect the brain from disruptive conditions
  • Safeguard brain from physical and chemical assaults
  • Increase neuronal firing
  • Is virtually nontoxic to the brain

Though not every nootropic rigidly fulfills all of these criteria, it must result in at least of the above mentioned functions. Do you want to know what substances actually qualify as nootropics and what exact function do they perform?

A list of popular nootropics and their functions

Bacopa Moneiri

More commonly known as Brahmi in its country of origin, India, Bacopa Moneiri has been used since ages by the ayurvedic system of healing to enhance cognition. This nootropic extract is primarily associated with improving one’s memory and information retentive abilities. Bacopa Moneiri is proven to improve neural communication by increasing the speed with which neurons transmit signals. It is also known to increase the size of the nerve endings of the neurons (dendrites) which facilitates better neurotransmission. It may also be involved in regulating dopamine signals. Thus, it not only improves memory but also the level of motivation. It is a promising agent in the treatment and management of Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and even ADHD.

Noopept

Popularly called as the “poor man’s cognitive enhancement drug”, noopept is a fast-acting nootropic that starts acting within minutes of consumption. It is involved in increasing Nerve Growth Factor and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor. These collective are associated with increased long term memory as well as higher neuroplasticity. It also enhances cognitive function by controlling the glutamate toxicity – a situation where there is excess glutamate level in the brain that usually happens in low oxygen conditions. Additionally, several studies indicate that noopept boosts the alpha and beta waves in the brain that directly correlate to a calmer and more creative mind.

Creatine

Surprisingly, creatine is one of the few nootropics that is naturally produced by the human body. This is actually a non-essential amino acid that is supplied by kidneys, liver, and the pancreas. The primary function of this nootropic can be observed through how it fuels the mitochondria, aka, the powerhouse of the cell. Creatine converts adenosine diphosphate to adenosine triphosphate (ATP)  by lending it a phosphate molecule. ATP is what cells use as the primary form of energy. Inadequate levels of ATP are associated with improper brain functioning. In contrast, high levels of ATP are often a mark of an “energetic” brain. In the absence of ATP, your brain cells start dying. In essence, creatine as a nootropic ensures that your brain cells are alive and well fed with energy.

Rhodiola Rosea

Also known by the names Arctic Root and Golden Root, Rhodiola Rosea has been used for its neuroprotective properties since ages in the Russian and Scandinavian regions. The key problems this nootropic targets are fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Stress and mental exhaustion have become an integral part of the modern lifestyle. The biochemical changes that are involved in the situations of stress and anxiety lead to disastrous physical and mental conditions. Extended periods of stress can cause brain cells to die and deteriorates overall cognitive capacities. Rhodiola Rosea helps in building the brain’s resistance to stressful situations. This directly results in improved concentration and alertness. Similarly, it also tends to increase the level of serotonin and norepinephrine – the “feel-good” chemicals. And just like creatine, it also activates the synthesis of ATP molecules thus making sure that your brain is up and running even during stressful times.

Gingko Biloba

Also known as maidenhair, this plant is one of the oldest living species in the world. Gingko extract is a popular nootropic as it helps regulate the functioning of the neurotransmitters and enhances new cell generation in the brain. In fact, various studies now reveal that it can improve dopamine production that can effectively help bring down stress and anxiety levels. Additionally, it also increases oxygen availability to the brain that in turn enhances cognition. In other words, by increasing how much oxygen reaches the brain it helps you build a better memory. Not to mention, its high antioxidant activity reduces the adverse effects of free radicals in the brain.

Caffeine

Caffeine, a much-beloved alkaloid found in coffee, tea, chocolates, and energy drinks, is probably the most well-known substance in this list. It is also considered to be the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug, considering that more than 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed globally every year. When taken in a measured amount, it has shown to enhance alertness, reaction time, memory, and even mood. It is the go-to chemical for most people to keep mental fatigue away. This is also used by athletes as it increases physical endurance too. Speaking neurochemically, caffeine is an adenosine antagonist. Adenosine is a molecule that tells brain –“It is time to shut down, you are tired”. Caffeine being an adenosine antagonist works in opposition to the action of this molecule. It helps remove mental exhaustion effectively and can be taken in the form of tablets or caffeinated beverages to enhance cognition.

Ginseng

Ginseng, also known by other names such as American ginseng and Ginseng Panax (Greek for “cure it all”) is one of the most widely consumed herbal extracts in the world. This popular anti-stress herbal compound is consumed in the form of a pharmaceutical drug and tea to obtain mental relief and clarity. Studies reveal that the active compounds of ginseng, aka, ginsenosides can boost GABA levels in the brain and improve dopamine pathways. Chemically it is similar to an SSRI or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor and thus can work as a natural antidepressant. Moreover, it is a strong antioxidant and thus protects the brain from oxidative stress.

Nicotine

Though shrouded in layers of controversies, nicotine is a scientifically proven nootropic. In low doses, nicotine has shown to improve cognition – mainly alertness and lower mental fatigue.

However, since it is highly addictive in nature, the use of nicotine as a standalone nootropic or in the form of tobacco is highly dangerous. The safer options for consuming a limited amount of nicotine are nicotine lozenge or gum. However, even in these forms nicotine can promote tumor formation in the body.

Nootropics and the controversies

By the year 2015, the nootropic industry had already established itself as a billion dollar industry. This class of drug is more popular among college students and working professionals considering they are the ones facing the maximum amount of mental stress and fatigue. Nootropics have always been surrounded with controversies since the ethics and rules governing the arena of drug-enhanced cognition are highly debatable.

While one school of thought promotes its usage (only for treating conditions such as ADHD), the other opines that the usage of nootropics can provide one class of people an unfair advantage over others. The main question that looms the scientific community is who can be categorized as a “patient” in this case and what exact criteria define the “need” for nootropics. Hence, the safest advice at this point of time is that the usage of nootropics must be practiced with utmost care and precaution without digressing into the gray area of overconsumption and addiction.

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