How Effective Are Nootropics (aka “Smart” Pills)?

“I was blind, but now I see … A tablet a day, and I was limitless. I now had cultural appetites. I finished [writing] my book in four days … Math became useful … Do you know how many of us ever know what it is to become the perfect version of ourselves?”

Thus says Bradley Cooper in a voiceover for a trailer of the 2011 film Limitless. The tablet he’s referring to is a nootropic – a class of drugs that “are designed to boost memory, attention span and cognitive function, even in people with otherwise healthy brains.” Those who have used nootropics insist that the effects are nowhere near as intense as Bradley Cooper’s character would lead one to believe – in fact, they admit that the effects are fairly subtle, in some ways comparable to a cup of coffee. Jonathan Reilly, an engineer, told, “I’m much more creative and much more productive. If I’m project-managing, it’s like seeing the matrix. It makes it easier to put the pieces together to come up with a complete picture.”

This testimonial echoes the lofty claims of start-ups that manufacture and sell nootropics online. One site reads, “What seemed like a science fiction fantasy just a few years ago is now a proven reality. The hottest healthcare trend to hit the market in years is based on ‘nootropics’; – supplements which work with natural neural chemistry to produce dramatic brain enhancement. These brain drugs do their work with little side effects or risk of addiction.” They go on to explain the purported mechanisms through which nootropics exert their brain-boosting effects. They claim that some of these drugs “work with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors … [which results in] a comprehensive enhancement of thought clarity and mental acuity, plus significant protection against future tissue decay,” while others can produce dopaminergic activity or stimulate the release of GABA.

In reality, there is scant research on the subject of brain-enhancing “smart pills.” This doesn’t stop people from creating them, consuming them, and extoling their alleged virtues. There even exists an online community of advocates who exchange recipes for “stacks” (DIY nootropics) and report their personal experiences. Taylor Hatmaker elaborates: “In a handful of spartan text-based Web forums like LongeCity, geeks with a wild streak convene with recovering addicts and mind-expanding, hippie types in pursuit of experiential knowledge — the kind mainstream science can’t or won’t provide. The result is a strange intellectual compound: virtual symposiums where bold souls ingest chemicals that science barely has a name for—and then they blog about it.” Nootropics can contain any number of substances, some of which require prescriptions. These range from L-theanine (a green tea extract) to Modafinil (a drug approved to treat narcolepsy).

The use of nootropics falls under the broader movement of “biohacking,” which “entails all manner of advanced techniques aimed at turbocharging your body for work.” This concept is particularly popular in Silicon Valley and in similarly lucrative, high-pressure arenas. Roy Cohen explains, “These drugs are being used in industries where there’s less room for failure and immediate results are expected … These people thrive on accomplishment — it’s in their DNA. It’s incredibly seductive to have this potential for guaranteed peak performance.”

Despite the rising popularity of these drugs, it’s important to note that there is virtually no reliable information concerning their safety. Even a zealous advocate and user of nootropics admits, “The biggest unknown factor remains long-term effects … Where online forums and ‘amateur’ sources of information are light years ahead of official research and regulation for the vast majority of these substances, the recency of most of them makes long-term information simply unavailable anywhere.”

Still, proponents frequently “draw parallels between the way athletes train their bodies — strength training, cardio, nutritional supplements and tertiary skills — with brain games, meditation, exercises with focus and, of course, nootropics.” Perhaps it is a fair comparison – only time will tell – but even athleticism comes with the risk of injury. One of the few studies on the subject ultimately established that “innovation in nootropics was both important and most certainly on its way, but any substance that claimed to enhance and expand intelligence and brain function needed to be watched closely for possible drawbacks.”

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