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Nootropics Claim to Boost Cognitive Function, But How Legit Are They?

Brain with nootropic pills

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Key Takeaways

  • The use of nootropics, or study drugs, has been on the rise in recent years.
  • The body of research on their effects is relatively light, and their benefits are often debated.
  • Common nootropics include modafinil, methylphenidate (Ritalin), and piracetam.

Nootropics. Smart drugs. Study drugs. Whatever you want to call them, you might have heard about these substances in the news in recent years, as they’ve been steadily growing in popularity. 

They have some famous fans, including podcaster Joe Rogan, who claim that they help to boost cognitive function. However, some scientists have disputed their effectiveness.

They have just as many detractors as they do fans, and there are so many different types of nootropics—with the most popular including modafinil and methylphenidate (Ritalin)—that it can be tricky to know what the truth is.

"In acute studies from my laboratory at the University of Cambridge, we have shown that methylphenidate and modafinil as compared with placebo do enhance cognition in healthy people," says Barbara Sahakian, DSc, FBA, FMedSci, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge.

"We have seen, for example, improvements in working memory, planning, and problem-solving. We have also shown that modafinil enhances task-related motivation; people found doing the tests and tasks more enjoyable with modafinil. This was not a general euphoric effect, which may be why modafinil is used by people as a 'work drug.'"

However, Professor Sahakian goes on to express concerns that there aren’t any long-term studies of the effects of drugs like modafinil on healthy people, and that people are buying prescription-only drugs online—something that can be unsafe.

What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics, often also known as "study drugs" or "smart drugs," are substances that can improve brain performance. Prescription nootropics tend to be stimulants, often prescribed to treat conditions ranging from ADHD to narcolepsy to dementia.

Like any medication, however, they can come with side effects, and shouldn’t be taken without a prescription. 

"People may consider using nootropics to potentially amplify or augment their abilities to process information, have enhanced executive functions, enhance their abilities to study and work with more focus, productivity, creativity, and motivation, and improve their cognitive functions and memory," says Amira Guirguis, PhD, MPharm, BSc, MPharm Program Director and Associate Professor at Swansea University Medical School.

While nootropics might be growing in popularity, they’re not a new phenomenon. The Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea first coined the term nootropic in 1972 to describe the drug piracetam—which he first made himself. Piracetam is one of many nootropics used today, alongside modafinil, methylphenidate, and others.

Piracetam is the original nootropic, and one of the more researched. Studies have suggested that the drug, sometimes prescribed to treat the muscular condition myoclonus, may improve cognitive function and working memory. While it’s legal to possess in the United States, it’s not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. 

Amira Guirguis, PhD, MPharm, BSc

There may be some studies which reported benefits to intellectual, cognitive and executive functions. However, the impact of their long-term use in healthy individuals is not fully known.

— Amira Guirguis, PhD, MPharm, BSc

Perhaps one of the first nootropics that comes to mind, modafinil is the substance of choice for many people who want to enhance their cognitive function. It’s often used to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders and is classified as a Schedule IV controlled substance. 

A review of studies on the effects of modafinil on healthy people found that use of the drug may improve cognitive function, but not all research came to this conclusion.

When discussing nootropics, we often think of prescription drugs, but other nootropics occur naturally. Caffeine is a nootropic, for instance, and it’s one that’s safe to consume in moderate amounts.

L-theanine is another. It’s found in black and green tea, and people can also take supplements. Research has suggested that consumption can increase the production of alpha waves in the brain, boosting alertness, and that it can be particularly effective when working in conjunction with caffeine.

Other potential natural nootropics include ginkgo biloba, a tree native to China, and panax ginseng, which grows across China and East Asia. 

How Do They Work?

Many different drugs have been referred to as nootropics, but different nootropics work in different ways.

Dr. Guirguis describes the role of most nootropics as modulating receptors in the central nervous system—often dopamine receptors—to improve cognitive function. 

However, she explains that "natural products, prescription medicines, image and performance-enhancing drugs, psychostimulants, GABAergic drugs, cannabimimetics, phenethylamines, tryptamines, piperazines, and failed stimulant drugs" can all fall under the umbrella of nootropics.

Modafinil may work in a different way than caffeine or tryptamines, for example. 

"Both methylphenidate and modafinil have actions on the brain chemicals dopamine and noradrenaline, known to be involved in cognition, such as attention and learning. Modafinil has many actions, including on glutamine which is important for plasticity," adds Professor Sahakian. 

Are They Worth It?

When it comes to nootropics, there are plenty of strong views on both sides of the argument. 

Part of the concern surrounding nootropics is the lack of research surrounding their use by healthy people.

"There may be some studies which reported benefits to intellectual, cognitive and executive functions," says Dr. Guirguis, "However, the impact of their long-term use in healthy individuals is not fully known."

Dr. Guirguis also points out that some research found that certain nootropics could have the opposite effect on growing brains, something that could lead to addictive behaviors in the future.

In comparison, their use by individuals with certain genetic conditions, brain damage, or dementia may be recommended.

Barbara Sahakian, DSc, FBA, FMedSci

While some students tell me that they do not want to use 'smart drugs,' they are concerned that they will be disadvantaged. Therefore, they feel pressure to use these drugs, a kind of indirect coercion, even though they do not want to.

— Barbara Sahakian, DSc, FBA, FMedSci

"There are also ethical considerations," says Professor Sahakian. "For example, some university students see other students passing these cognitive-enhancing drugs around and using them near the time of exams. While some students tell me that they do not want to use 'smart drugs,' they are concerned that they will be disadvantaged. Therefore, they feel pressure to use these drugs, a kind of indirect coercion, even though they do not want to."

To a point, the jury’s still out on the benefits of nootropics. Some studies of certain nootropics have suggested small improvements in cognitive function, but there are so many different types that there’s no straight answer to the question of whether or not they’re worth it.

Of course, there’s a world of difference, too, between having a couple of cups of coffee each day and taking a prescription medication to boost cognitive function.

If you’re thinking about taking nootropics, it's something that shouldn't be done before consulting your physician. While it's not necessarily something to steer clear of, it's important to put your health first.

What This Means For You

More research needs to be done on the effects of various nootropics before we can really say whether it's worth taking them to improve cognitive function. If you're considering using nootropics, you may want to speak to your doctor.

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