Demystifying the World of Nootropics

What are these ‘smart drugs’ and can they really improve your mental performance?

Illustration: Jon Han

InIn the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper plays a writer named Eddie Morra who has hit a rough patch. He’s struggling to complete his book and, due to his lack of success, his girlfriend leaves him. Then Morra has a chance encounter with an old acquaintance who gives him something that will change his life: NZT-48, a “smart drug” that makes Morra’s brain function at peak capacity. After taking the pill, he finishes his book and spends the rest of the movie on an upward trajectory to success, financial and otherwise, essentially living a new life as the smartest man on Earth.

Limitless previewed something a growing portion of the population (Silicon Valley and beyond) is now after: achieving mental enhancement via substances that improve cognitive function, which are now known as nootropics. The world of nootropics is a broad and relatively new subset of DIY biohacking and self-optimization. The main idea behind them is to improve a diverse set of brain skills, including creativity, mental clarity, focus, and memory, mainly through the use of something that stimulates or inhibits certain neurotransmitters.

A wide range of substances fall under the nootropics umbrella, including but not limited to prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil, over-the-counter dietary supplements such as ginkgo biloba and B-vitamins, things as banal as caffeine, or some combination of all of the above.

The current market

In 2017, a study from the International Journal of Drug Policy found that around 30% of Americans had used some kind of prescription “smart drug” in the last year, up from 20% in 2015, with the most commonly used being Ritalin, Adderall, and Modafinil. For over-the-counter options, the most popular nootropics are caffeine, L-theanine, and creatine, according to a report from Zion Market Research. And a recent report from Grand View Research estimated that the over-the-counter nootropics space could reach $10.7 billion annually by 2025.

When it comes to over-the-counter nootropics and supplements, there’s not a lot of hard science to support the claims. Most nootropics are not FDA-approved.”

Gwyneth Paltrow’s luxury wellness brand, Goop, now sells a supplement called Nerd Alert, meant to dispel your brain fog through ingredients like caffeine and L-theanine, an amino acid found in tea. Wellness and beauty brand The Nue has an herbal supplement called Nootro-Focus, which is “designed to heighten mental clarity” and “sharpen your focus” through a combination of citicoline, bacopa, lion’s mane mushroom, L-theanine, and more. And boutique smart drug brands such as Qualia and HVMN (Health Via Modern Nutrition) are gaining popularity by creating various allegedly brain-enhancing mixtures that include ingredients such as rhodiola, gingko, and pantothenic acid. The brands also serve as go-to sources of consumer information on the use of nootropics and any existing science behind them.

How effective are nootropics?

When it comes to over-the-counter nootropics and supplements, there’s not a lot of hard science to support the claims. Most nootropics are not FDA-approved and research into the area is scarce. A 2015 meta-analysis of the effects of dietary supplements and vitamins thought to enhance cognitive abilities (including omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin E) found that the over-the-counter drugs had no effect on the cognitive skills of “non-demented middle-aged and older adults.”

Another study, which was commissioned by HVMN to disprove claims that its products were ineffective, found that one of its supplements was, in fact, less effective than coffee. What’s more, a 2015 study published in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience found that nootropics were not only ineffective but also potentially dangerous, especially to people with a history of mental illness or substance use disorders.

As for prescription drugs such as Ritalin and the amphetamine Adderall, using them to improve cognition can potentially be dangerous. There isn’t much research on the safety and effectiveness of these drugs as nootropics, but the way they affect the brains of those with ADHD raises some red flags.

In a 2014 study, Kimberly Urban, a scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that the use of Ritalin in teens could permanently make the brain “artificially more rigid,” rendering it harder to switch focus between tasks and solve problems creatively — essentially doing the opposite of what nootropics enthusiasts are after. Another study found that adults with ADHD who took Ritalin for one year had higher levels of dopamine transporters in their brains, which the authors said “could result in more severe inattention and the need for higher doses of medication.”

(Urban says that when it comes to over-the-counter herbal dietary supplements being sold as nootropics, she believes there’s likely little to no damage being done to the brain. “It’s very hard to permanently change the brain,” she says. “If there was a magic pill that could make us all smarter, you better believe it’s not going to be over-the-counter and $20 or $30 a month.”)

TThere’s some research that shows that certain nootropics could have cognition-enhancing abilities. Along with Adderall and Ritalin, Modafinil was one of the early nootropics, and it was called the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice” by TechCrunch in 2008. The wake-promoting drug was created to treat narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift-work sleep disorder, but it gained popularity with Silicon Valley-types when it was shown to give users an amphetamine-like cognitive boost without the amphetamine-like side effects and associated dangers.

A 2003 study found that Modafinil “significantly enhanced performance on tests of digit span, visual pattern recognition memory, spatial planning, and stop-signal reaction time.” Test subjects also reported feeling more alert, attentive, and energetic on the drug. Another study a year later found that the drug improved accuracy and sustained attention. Like Ritalin and Adderall, Modafinil is a prescription drug, which means its claims come with some scientific backup.

Are there any over-the-counter supplements that show promise? Neurohacker Collective, the company behind nootropics brand Qualia, recently ran a small pilot study of 23 participants looking at cognitive improvements among users of its product, Qualia Mind; it promises to lift brain fog, promote clarity, and fuel focus and concentration, among other things. The results showed an increase in focus, planning skills, and verbal reasoning. But the study was not double-blind and placebo-controlled and participants were voluntary customers of Qualia, so the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

If you look at some of the individual ingredients in Qualia Mind and other over-the-counter nootropics, you can find data supporting their stimulating effects. Caffeine is a top ingredient in many nootropics supplements, and many studies have shown that the mind- and energy-boosting effects we all feel when drinking coffee and tea are real. A 2013 meta-analysis on caffeine found that the stimulant “improves performance on simple and complex attention tasks, and affects the alerting, and executive control networks.”

Then there’s L-theanine and epigallocatechin gallate, which are naturally occurring amino acids found in tea. Administered with and without caffeine, the compounds have been shown to improve alertness, calmness, and contentedness as well as attentional switch, intersensory attention, and rapid visual information processing. L-theanine has also been found to increase alpha-waves in the brain, which are linked to creativity.

Creatine is another amino acid that aids the body’s production of protein. Popular among bodybuilders, the compound has also been shown to boost brain power by improving energy supply and neuroprotection. A recent meta-analysis of six studies found that it could enhance short-term memory and intelligence and reasoning in healthy adults. It’s also been shown to increase memory among vegetarians.

A host of ancient herbs are also being used as nootropics, and some have been shown to support cognitive functions. The ayurvedic herb Bacopa monnieri could help speed up information processing, reduce reaction time, and improve memory by protecting the brain from oxidative stress and improving signaling in the area of the brain where memories are processed. In one study, Rhodiola rosea, an adaptogenic herb, was shown to increase mental performance (particularly concentration) and decrease feelings of burnout due to stress. Another study found that after 14 days of using the herb, symptoms of anxiety, stress, anger, confusion, and depression lessened.

Then there’s ginkgo biloba, which has long been touted as a memory-enhancing supplement. One study showed that the herb significantly improved processing speed while another study found that it improved memory recall. Ginkgo has also been shown to help decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which could improve mood.

Proceed with caution

With all of these supplements and drugs, the list of potential side effects is long. For the prescription drugs, they include insomnia, anxiety, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, circulation problems, psychosis, and addiction. For the over-the-counter, herbal options, side effects are more mild but still present. They could include nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, headaches, stomach ache, and fatigue. Creatine, however, could cause kidney or liver damage.

The unclear benefits and potential risks of nootropics have many experts concerned. And without FDA approval for the nonprescription options, it’s unclear how safe the use of any “smart drugs” really is.

“The problem with over-the-counter substances is that none of them are regulated,” says Urban. “There’s no guarantee that those products actually contain the same amount of substance in every single capsule or pill, or that they actually contain what they say they contain. I would be very careful.”

writer. @tessamlove

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