Most Nootropics are Not Smart Drugs. Only a few cognitive enhancers have the desired effects. The others are futile.
The Truth about Cognitive Enhancers
Cognitive enhancers or nootropics are classified as smart drugs. It should be noted that nootropics are one of the many types of smart drugs. Many countries do not recognize smart drugs or nootropics. They classify cognitive enhancers as supplements. Scientists have been careful with their nomenclature. Cognitive enhancers are often referred to as cognitive optimizers by doctors. Many do not use the term drug or medicine to describe them. They may be supplements in the manner which they are consumed but their impacts are not exactly of the same nature as of dietary or nutritional supplements. Most cognitive enhancers or nootropics claim to improve alertness, concentration and memory, thereby affecting consciousness, cognitive functions, brain activity and energy.
How do Nootropics Work?
Nootropics are not pharmaceutical drugs or prescription medicines in the United States. They are over the counter drugs and available as supplements. Some countries have classified nootropics as prescription drugs, including Russia and Ukraine. In these countries, nootropics or cognitive enhancers are used to cure narcolepsy or sleepiness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, post traumatic stress disorder and other mental problems such as poor memory, slow learning and lack of attention or focus. Nootropics or smart drugs are also known as memory boosters, brain boosters, drive drugs and neuroenhancers.
More research and clinical studies are required to understand truly how nootropics work. Based on the scientific evidence available till date, one can somewhat explain how cognitive enhancers work but there is more than meets the eye. Nootropics use chemicals that can pass the blood brain barrier, increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, facilitate better communication and coordination between the two hemispheres, enhance activity in the brain and improve cognitive abilities that affect memory, learning, focus or concentration and various actions that are driven by the brain.
There is some evidence suggesting that the active chemicals in some cognitive enhancers can interact with different neurotransmitters, including the receptors of different neurons, to suppress certain responses or to trigger certain reactions. Neurons, neurotransmitters, receptors and the chemical composition play the most important role in how the human brain functions. Nootropics may act as stimulants or suppressants depending on the kind of chemical being used in a particular type of cognitive enhancers. Accordingly, there may be a stimulating or suppressing response in the brain and that may be manifested in certain ways. These manifestations are in the form of memory enhancement, cognitive boost, faster learning, better focus or concentration, alleviation of pain and relief from stress, anxiety and depression among others.
The studies and findings till now are inconclusive. With more nootropics being rolled out by various companies in recent years, there is substantial ambiguity and significant lack of clarity if all of them indeed qualify to be called cognitive enhancers. It is possible for some of these new drugs to be futile and having no effect at all. This does not dismiss the possibility of side effects. Most nootropics have side effects, albeit many have been found to be quite moderate. The effects of cognitive enhancers are short lived. Most nootropics have a half life of much less than twenty four hours. Hence, the effects of the cognitive enhancers are experienced for just a few hours with the peak sensations lasting less than an hour for most nootropics. The side effects may also last for a short time but traces of the drugs are found in the system for anywhere from twenty four hours up to seven days.
Some researchers point out the similarities between cognitive enhancers and caffeine or even alcohol. There can be an effect on adrenalin, dopamine and serotonin. This is not surprising as cognitive enhancers are supposed to have an influence on various hormones that regulate mood for their stimulating effects. There are many types of cognitive enhancers, a few of which are prescription drugs in the United States. Some nootropics are used in treatment of specific conditions among children. Elderly people diagnosed with different types of dementia are also prescribed some of the nootropics as a part of their overall treatment. Nootropics are not yet a standalone treatment or cure but they are deemed to be effective in helping with regulating the symptoms, aiding the recovery process and enhancing the curative effects of traditional treatments. However, not all nootropics are prescription drugs. Most are over the counter drugs or supplements.
Different Types of Cognitive Enhancers
It is necessary to segregate the different types of cognitive enhancers to understand the entire premise of nootropics. Some of the nootropics prescribed by doctors are Modafinil and Armodafinil. You will come across brand names such as Modafin, Modavigil and Nuvigil. These are registered trademarks of the respective brands. This drug was developed to cure narcolepsy. It was rolled out in the late nineties. The drug has been prescribed for obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. These drugs can induce wakefulness and promote alertness. They are not without side effects. The nootropics can cause headache and anxiety. An abrupt alertness may reduce fatigue but also impair sleep. Dizziness is common. Chest pains are less common but reported by many. Nausea, nervousness and sleeplessness are also common side effects. These are immediate and short term side effects. The long term side effects are unknown.
Many psycho-stimulant drugs are used to enhance cognitive functions. These are not nootropics or smart drugs per se. Some of the prescribed cognitive enhancers that are essentially psycho-stimulant medicines are Methylphenidate, Dexamfetamine and Lisdexamphetamine. You will come across brand names such as Ritalin, Concerta, Dexamphetamine and Vyvanse. These drugs date back to the fifties. These were developed to cure chronic fatigue and depression. They have been found to be effective against psychosis that is associated with clinical depression. These drugs have been used to manage and cure attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
While the popularity peaked in the nineties, the drugs are now deemed as moderately unsafe due to some effects on behavior. Students taking these drugs reported a risk taking tendency, experienced disruption in sleep and also lost weight. There is a change in brain chemistry caused by these drugs. Those taking these psycho-stimulants report experiencing euphoria, paranoia, hostility, high temperature, cardiovascular problems, irregular heartbeat, increased respiration, irregular blood pressure, palpitation, excessive alertness, talkativeness, increase in physical activity, drowsiness, headache, dry mouth, nausea, dilated pupils, increased libido and hence sex drive.
Regular or long term use of psycho-stimulants can cause cardiovascular system failure, skin disorders, inflammations, chronic high blood pressure, malnutrition, ulcers in the stomach, behavioral and mental health problems, breathing problems, loss of normal coordination, convulsions and even coma. The drugs may also be fatal in very high doses and if one gets dependent on them to an extent of being addicted.
The Relevance and Necessity of Cognitive Enhancers
It is only normal to wonder if cognitive enhancers are necessary. There are three contexts that must be taken into account based on the health of a person. An individual may be of sound health, there may be prevailing mental health problems and there could be physiological ailments that have nothing to do with the brain or cognition. Healthy people, those who do not have any physiological ailment or mental disorder, do not need cognitive enhancers. They may take nootropics as an enhancer and they will feel some improvement in alertness, mood and memory. Healthy people often take nootropics as a supplement, to feel better and to perform better at whatever work they do. People have reported experiencing less stress, anxiety and depression after taking certain nootropics. But there are nootropics that do not have any positive effect. The specific cognitive enhancer is the key to whether or not it will work.
Unhealthy people should be cautious while choosing cognitive enhancers. Nootropics may interact or interfere with other medicines. It is quite possible some existing conditions will worsen or the symptoms will aggravate. It is not wise to stop a prescribed medication to start taking a nootropic without the approval of the doctor. Nootropics can be prescribed only for cognitive impairments or mental health problems. They do not play any remedial role in physiological ailments but they may complicate the condition. Only those who have a mental health problem and are of sound physical health can opt for nootropics. However, it is best to have doctors prescribe such nootropics, especially for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, narcolepsy and epilepsy among others.
Contested or Futile Nootropics
Nootropics are unregulated and unscheduled in the United States. This means that there is no standard regulating the exact formula that is used in the smart drug you are considering. There are dozens of smart drugs available right now. Many of them publish the list of ingredients they use in their formulas. Most of them have similar claims but some do not share any data or details about the concoction. A few companies use only naturally available ingredients. It is not necessary for natural nootropics to be safer or better than chemicals since not all herbal extracts have the active components capable of passing through the blood brain barrier. The plethora of nootropics requires more research and clinical testing. For now, there are a few nootropics that are effective and others that are contested or outright futile.
Bacopa monnieri has become kind of a holy grail among nootropics in recent times. It is an herb found naturally in swamps across South Asia, more specifically in India. The herb has been used in traditional medicine called Ayurveda across the Indian subcontinent. Folk medicine has earned a bad name in the west but many herbs known to have been used in ancient civilizations like India for specific medicinal properties are now being investigated and many beliefs have been proven to be true. Bacopa for instance indeed has an effect on short term memory. The herbal extract has been studied and the inference is that elderly people can prevent cognitive decline and health adults can have better memory. The extract also improves learning ability.
Blueberry anthocyanins are not as popular but there is some evidence inferring that they can improve cognitive functions. Anthocyanins are pigments in blueberries. The compound is capable of producing and releasing brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDFN, which is a growth factor in the brain. This leads to growth in neurons. Ginkgo biloba has been proven to be beneficial for a myriad of reasons over the decades. It has also been an integral part of many traditional medicines and its ability to work as an effective nootropic has been proven to a great extent.
These were examples of nootropics that work. There are many unknown or little known nootropics that have absolutely no scientific evidence. If you are coming across any name that you have never heard of and there is no credible research or study supporting the claims, then it is likely the smart drug is not effective at all. Some of the better researched nootropics have been found to have no demonstrable effects. Fish oil is often used in nootropics. Fish oil has a multitude of benefits but it does not necessarily improve cognitive abilities. There is no evidence suggesting that fish oil can cause neural changes in the brain. Fish oil has nothing to do with memory or cognitive decline. Fish oil does have a role to play in general health of the brain but it does not have the kind of effects smart drugs are supposed to have. Fish oil in drugs does not have the same bioavailability as actual fish oils.
Piracetam is the precursor to modern nootropics. It is actually Piracetam that lead to the new classification of smart drugs, cognitive enhancers or nootropics. Interestingly, Piracetam has absolutely no scientific evidence of being a smart drug. In more than fifty years since its development and introduction as a cognitive enhancer, there has been no conclusive study or peer reviewed research that has shown Piracetam being effective in any of its claims. There are other examples too such as Huperzine-A.