Smart Drugs

18th October 2013

Non-toxic, harmless, brain-enhancing… nootropics sound like wonder pills.

Are they the next big thing or a risky game that you play at your peril?

Emma Carter finds out…

Most of us, when we’re feeling under par, look at our sleep patterns, our diet, our exercise (or lack of it). We knock back a vitamin supplement, drink more water or more coffee, and gird our loins to get on with life. It’s not meant to be easy, is it?

Most of us shy away from medicating our daily difficulties via serious drugs – be they legitimate treatments prescribed by a medical professional or controlled substances acquired illegally – but maybe we’re missing something. In between the drugs that make the pharmaceutical companies and the Colombian drug barons richer lies the category of nootropics. These are, essentially, ‘smart drugs’: non-toxic, supposedly harmless brain enhancers, generally free of side-effects, that act to heighten our intelligence, memory, concentration, attention and motivation.

Now there’s no suggestion here that anyone should step into the realms of criminality – quite the opposite. They’re perfectly legal, and, having been around for several decades (the term nootropics was coined in 1972 by Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E Giurgea), are fairly widely used, especially in the US. On this side of the pond they’re pretty much under the radar, although you might recall them from the 2011 movie Limitless, which showed how amazing their effects can be.

The premise of the film is that a struggling writer (played by Bradley Cooper) takes an experimental drug that allows him to use 100 percent of his mind: everything he’s ever read or learned is suddenly available for his immediate recall. He becomes a financial whizz – and, of course, this being movieland, gets himself into danger and difficulty. That’s a shame, because it muddies the waters of what a nootropic might do for you in real life.

This category of drug works by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals, improving its oxygen supply or by stimulating nerve growth. The criteria for describing something as nootropic was drawn up by Dr Giurgea, although it merely skims the surface.

What should a nootropic do?
• Enhance learning and memory.
• Enhance the resistance of learned behaviours/memories to conditions that tend to disrupt them (eg electroconvulsive shock, hypoxia).
• Protect the brain against various physical or chemical injuries (eg. barbiturates, scopalamine).
• Increase the efficacy of the tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms.
• Lack the usual pharmacology of other psychotropic drugs (eg. sedation, motor stimulation) and possess very few side-effects and extremely low toxicity.

Heavy warning, though: the subject of nootropics is generally divisive, and it’s possible that it’s all too good to be true. There exists little evidence of how these drugs work, and there is no real consensus in the scientific community about their efficacy and safety, although user reports found online indicate very little evidence to suggest they are unsafe. What is reported, however, is the existence of potential side-effects that may or may not be coincidental. As with all drugs, pharmaceutical or otherwise, there is a certain element of risk – it’s up to the individual to make the decision.

Nootropic drugs, in the broadest sense, can include nicotine and caffeine, but the most commonly taken is thought to be piracetam, part of the racetam family. According to one user posting in on an online forum, ‘When discovered, it shocked researchers by being completely non-toxic and also enhancing the performance of normal adults with no forms of mental impairment. Piracetam is proven to increase performance on multiple measures of intelligence. Its effects are cumulative.’

This user said that he/she had spent ten months researching and experimenting with nearly every nootropic available and the effects had been profound: ‘I am able to read vast quantities of information only one time and spit it back with pinpoint precision. It is the closest thing to a photographic memory I have ever experienced.’

Piracetam is thought to be widely used in schools and universities, helping students to maximise their learning potential and performance. One survey estimated that nearly 7% of students in American universities have used nootropics in such a way. It’s a far cry from ProPlus.
So if these wonder pills are so amazing, why aren’t they being marketed to us? One theory is that there’s just not enough money in them to warrant it. You can buy them very easily on the internet, if you know where to look. The pharmaceutical companies make billions from their generic and branded concoctions, and are tied in with governments and pharmacies, etc.

Exhaustive trials carried out on all prescription drugs, and while nootropics have been tested, this hasn’t been in the same channels and data do not exist to the same level. On the other side of the coin is the fact that nootropics are very cheap to produce and buy. When you consider the costs of marketing and advertising, it just doesn’t make financial sense.

What is certain, however, is that they are here to stay. Some scientists posit that the current compounds offer only slight effects compared to what is possible, and that they expect more potent compounds to be developed. Others are worried that if nootropics become more widely used in educational establishments and elsewhere, there could be pressure for everyone to take them. There’s also a theory that nootropics could be harmful to a developing brain. Certainly, long-term use of any drug is perceived to be detrimental.

At the other end of the scale, those who sing the praises of nootropics appear to be enjoying much greater clarity of thought and improved cognition. Could nootropics be the next stage in the evolution of the human brain?

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