Can a Pill Make You Smarter?

The Controversial Topic of Nootropics

What if you could simply take a pill that would instantly make you more intelligent? One that would enhance your cognitive capabilities including attention, memory, focus, motivation and other higher executive functions? If you have ever seen the movie Limitless, you have an idea of what this would look like—albeit the exaggerated Hollywood version. The movie may be fictional but the reality may not be too far behind.

What Are Nootropics?

The concept of neuroenhancement and the use of substances to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals, is certainly not a new one. In fact, one of the first cognitive enhancement drugs, Piracetam, was developed over fifty years ago by psychologist and chemist C.C. Giurgea. Although he did not know the exact mechanism, Giurgia believed the drug boosted brain power and so began his exploration into "smart pills", or nootropics, a term he coined from the Greek nous, meaning "mind," and trepein, meaning "to bend.  

Listed below is a brief overview of some of the more frequently used nootropics including wakefulness-promoting agents such as modafinil, and several in the racetam class of drugs, grouped together because of their shared chemical structure. Note that these are not comprehensive descriptions. Those can be found in sources cited.

Nootropics are either used alone or in combination with other nootropics. This is referred to as stacking. Such compounds, which can be natural or synthetic, are more extensively researched than those used alone. 

Not included in the list below are prescription psychostimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin. Non-medical, illicit use of these drugs for the purpose of cognitive enhancement in healthy individuals comes with a high cost, including addiction and other adverse effects. Although these drugs are prescribed for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to help with focus, attention and other cognitive functions, they have been shown to in fact impair these same functions when used for non-medical purposes. More alarming, when taken in high doses, they have the potential to induce psychosis.

Most nootropics are not approved for use as a medical drug or dietary supplement in the U.S. This, and the dearth of clinical research and lack of regulation, suggests that consulting with a physician before taking a cognitive enhancement or "smart drug" would be, well, the smart thing to do.  

Piracetam

The so-called "original smart pill," Piracetam has been shown in studies to significantly improve cognitive and working memory at all levels. Developed in 1964, it is one of the more researched nootropics in the racetam class of supplements. Piracetam is not approved for use as a medical drug or dietary supplement in the U.S.

Aniracetam

A synthetic derivative of Piracetam, aniracetam is believed to be the second most widely used nootropic in the Racetam family, popular for its stimulatory effects because it enters the bloodstream quickly. Initially developed for memory and learning, many anecdotal reports also claim that it increases creativity. However, clinical studies show no effect on the cognitive functioning of healthy adult mice.

Oxiracetam

Popular among computer programmers, oxiracetam, another racetam, has been shown to be effective in recovery from neurological trauma and improvement to long-term memory. It is believed to effective in improving attention span, memory, learning capacity, focus, sensory perception, and logical thinking. It also acts as a stimulant, increasing mental energy, alertness, and motivation.

Modafinil

Modafinil, sold under the name Provigil, is a stimulant that some have dubbed the "genius pill."  It is a wakefulness-promoting agent (modafinil) and glutamate activators (ampakine). Originally developed as a treatment for narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, physicians are now prescribing it “off-label” to cellists, judges, airline pilots, and scientists to enhance attention, memory and learning. According to Scientific American, "scientific efforts over the past century [to boost intelligence] have revealed a few promising chemicals, but only modafinil has passed rigorous tests of cognitive enhancement." A stimulant, it is a controlled substance with limited availability in the U.S.

Ginsenoside Rg1

Ginsenoside Rg1, a molecule found in the plant genus panax (ginseng), is being increasingly researched as an effect nootropic. Its cognitive benefits including increasing learning ability and memory acquisition, and accelerating neural development. It targets mainly the NMDA receptors and nitric oxide synthase, which both play important roles in personal and emotional intelligence. The authors of the study cited above, say that their research findings thus far have boosted their confidence in a "bright future of cognitive drug development."

Limitations of Nootropics Research

The search to find more effective drugs to increase mental ability and intelligence capacity with neither toxicity nor serious side effects continues. But there are limitations. Although the ingredients may be separately known to have cognition-enhancing effects, randomized controlled trials of the combined effects of cognitive enhancement compounds are sparse.

According to clinical psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School Professor, Emily Deans, “there's probably nothing dangerous about the occasional course of nootropics...beyond that, it's possible to build up a tolerance if you use them often enough." Her recommendation is to seek pharmaceutical-grade products which she says are more accurate regarding dosage and less likely to be contaminated. 

Also important to note is that certain individuals with a history of mental or substance use disorders might be particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of nootropics. All the more reason to consult with a medical professional before using.

Neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change and reorganize itself in response to intrinsic and extrinsic factors, indicates great potential for us to enhance brain function by medical or other interventions. Psychotherapy has been shown to induce structural changes in the brain. Other interventions that positively influence neuroplasticity include meditation, mindfulness , and compassion.

Exercise and nutrition also play an important role in neuroplasticity. Many vitamins and ingredients found naturally in food products have been shown to have cognitive enhancing effects. Some of these include vitamins B6 and B12, caffeine, phenethylamine found in chocolate and l-theanine, found in green tea, whose combined effects with caffeine are more extensively researched.

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Article Sources
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  • Wood S, Sage JR, Shuman T, Anagnostaras SG. Psychostimulants and cognition: a continuum of behavioral and cognitive activation. Pharmacol Rev. 2014;66(1):193-221. DOI: 10.1124/pr.112.007054.