What Are Nootropics?

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What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics are substances that claim to boost cognitive function and brain performance. They are sometimes referred to as "smart drugs," memory-enhancing substances, or cognitive enhancers. 

They may include certain types of prescription medications as well as nonprescription substances. Nootropics purport to improve mental functioning, including thinking, memory, mood, attention, creativity, and motivation.

In some instances, these substances are FDA-approved to treat symptoms of specific conditions. For example, stimulant medications for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and medications to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's are considered nootropics.

However, these medications are also sometimes used by healthy adults as a way to boost mental functioning, which is much more controversial.

History of Nootropics

The term nootropics was coined by C. G. Giurgea, a chemist and psychologist who also developed Piracetam, one of the first cognition-enhancing drugs. The word itself comes from the Greek words nous for "mind" and trepien for "to bend."

Nootropics have generated more interest in recent years and gained famous fans and celebrity endorsements, including drummer Travis Barker. While the popularity of these so-called smart drugs has grown, not everyone agrees that these substances live up to their claims.

Types of Nootropics

Nootropics can be both synthetic or non-synthetic substances that are available either by prescription or over the counter. There are three primary types of nootropics: prescription medications, synthetic compounds, and dietary supplements.

Prescription Nootropics

Prescription nootropics are medications that treat medical or mental health conditions such as ADHD and dementia. Some different types of prescription nootropics include:

  • Adderall: An amphetamine that is prescribed to help people manage symptoms of ADHD
  • Memantine: A medication prescribed to reduce Alzheimer's disease symptoms by blocking NMDA receptors
  • Provigil (modafinil): A stimulant that is prescribed to treat conditions such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift work sleep disorder
  • Ritalin (methylphenidate): A stimulant medication that is prescribed for people with ADHD

Such medications can help treat or manage the conditions they are indicated for, but in some cases, they are prescribed "off-label" for cognitive-enhancing purposes. 

Synthetic Compounds

Synthetic nootropics include racetams, a class of drugs with a similar chemical structure. Some different types of racetams that are commonly used include:

  • Aniracetam
  • Oxiracetam
  • Phenylpiracetam
  • Piracetam
  • Pramiracetam

Such compounds are available over the counter in the U.S. While racetam compounds may work in different ways, they are believed to modulate the actions of certain neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine and glutamate.

Dietary Supplements and Other Sources

Certain supplements are also often used for their nootropic effects. Natural substances found in food, beverages, and other sources are also nootropics. Some different types of nootropics that do not require a prescription include:

  • Caffeine: Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. While many people might not realize it, caffeine is also a nootropic that can increase attention and alertness.
  • Creatine: This amino acid has gained popularity for its potential effects on memory and reasoning abilities.
  • Ginkgo biloba: This herbal supplement comes from the leaves of trees native to China, Korea, and Japan. It has gained popularity for its potential effects on the brain, including enhancing cognition, fighting brain fog, and improving dementia symptoms.
  • L-theanine: This amino acid can be found in dietary supplements and green or black teas and boost alertness and cognitive performance.
  • Omega-3 fatty acid: These are polyunsaturated fats found in fish oil supplements and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and cod.
  • Panax ginseng: This Chinese and Siberian shrub has long been used for medicinal purposes and is purported to improve brain health and reduce the risk of certain brain diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
  • Rhodiola: This plant, native to parts of Europe and Asia, has long been used as an herbal treatment for fatigue, stress, and anxiety. As a nootropic, it is also used to help improve memory, learning, and brain function.

Uses for Nootropics

These different types of nootropics are often utilized for a range of purposes. Some of the potential uses for these substances include:

Increased Creativity

Some nootropics are taken to help improve creativity. For example, L-theanine has been shown to increase alpha waves in the brain. Greater alpha wave activity is associated with increased creativity.

Studies have found that L-theanine is most effective when combined with caffeine. Nootropic supplements often combine these two products, but you can also take them together naturally by consuming black or green tea.

Better Memory and Learning

Nootropics are also often used to support memory and learning. For example, research has found that piracetam, the first nootropic ever developed, can lead to improvements in working memory.

Research has also indicated that the amino acid creatine can positively influence short-term memory.

The prescription medication Provigil (modafinil) has also been shown to enhance memory and learning. Such benefits may be useful for treating conditions that lead to impairments in these areas, but the medication is also sometimes prescribed off-label to improve cognition in healthy adults.

Improved Attention and Concentration

Nootropics are also often utilized to help people become more attentive and concentrate. Stimulants that are often prescribed to help manage characteristics of ADHD, including Adderall and Ritalin, are often utilized for this purpose.

Misuse of Prescription Nootropics

One 2020 study found that 28.1% of college students had misused stimulants at least once to improve their focus and memory. These medications are often obtained from someone with a legitimate prescription or by purchasing them from online pharmacies without a prescription.

Impact of Nootropics

There is some research indicating that certain substances used as nootropics may have different types of beneficial effects. It is important to recognize that these substances work in varying ways and have differing effects, so whether or not they work often depends on what the substance is and what it is intended to do.

  • Some animal research has shown that piracetam may have neuroprotective effects. However, more research is needed. Another review found that there was not enough evidence to support the use of this nootropic as a treatment for cognitive impairment or dementia.
  • Some other studies have found that Panax ginseng and Rhodiola may help protect the brain from neurodegenerative conditions.
  • Provigil (modafinil) may help improve memory, reduce fatigue, and enhance executive function. For this reason, it is sometimes used as a work-enhancing drug to help people focus and get more done. However, it is only available by prescription, its use as a cognitive enhancer is considered off-label, and it appears more effective for sleep-deprived individuals.

While some substances benefit people with certain conditions, the research is less clear on how nootropics impact healthy adults. Individual ingredients may also have specific effects, but there is little research exploring how these substances impact cognition and mental functioning when combined.

Tips for Using Nootropics

If you decide that you would like to try nootropics to improve cognitive function or brain health, there are some important things to consider first:

  • Talk to your doctor: Before you take prescription medication or dietary supplements, talk to your doctor beforehand. Your doctor can provide more information about what you can expect and any potential warnings or interactions you should be aware of.
  • Tell your doctor about other substances you're currently using: Also, be sure to let your doctor know if you are taking other medications, supplements, over-the-counter drugs, or illicit substances. Some nootropics may interact with these other substances, so discussing this first can minimize the risk of unwanted or even dangerous side effects.
  • Use caution if you have a mental health condition: Nootropics may affect you differently if you have a mental health condition. For example, you may find that some of these substances worsen your symptoms.
  • Follow the manufacturer's directions: Only take the dose that your doctor has recommended or that the manufacturer indicates on the product's packaging. Using more than the recommended amount might lead to unwanted side effects.

It is also essential to keep your expectations realistic. You may notice some cognitive benefits, but you may also find that nootropics might not deliver on their promises. Fortunately, there are other ways to keep your brain healthy and protect your memory and mental skills.

Taking steps like regular exercise, maintaining social connections, and eating a healthy diet are important ways to protect brain health.

Potential Pitfalls of Nootropics

Nootropics may have some benefits, but they also come with risks and possible side effects. Before you take nootropics, it is important to consider some of these possible pitfalls.

Risk of Side Effects

Whether you are taking a prescription medication, synthetic OTC compound, or natural supplement there is always the possibility that you might experience side effects.

For example, stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin might cause sleep disturbances, headaches, irritability, and changes in appetite. Even supplements and herbal remedies are also capable of producing side effects. For example, taking omega-3 supplements can lead to symptoms of heartburn, stomach upset, and headaches.

Some research indicates that the use of prescription nootropics among healthy adults for non-medical purposes was associated with increased risky, impulsive behavior.

Research Can Be Mixed

It is also clear that much more research is needed to better understand the potential benefits of nootropics. Some of the research on nootropics has produced mixed results.

For example, omega-3s play an essential role in brain function and some research has indicated that this fatty acid might help protect the brain from the damaging effects of aging. However, a large-scale study found that healthy adults don't experience significant cognitive benefits from taking omega-3 supplements.

Long-Term Effects

It is also important to recognize that the long-term effects of many nootropics are not well understood. More research is needed to determine how these substances might affect the brain when taken for extended periods of time. 

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.