“Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain” –Corneliu E. Giurgea, Ph.D.
What are Nootropics
“Nootropic” is a word that was coined by Dr. Giurgea in the 1960s. It comes from the Greek, meaning to bend or turn the mind. This may sound like a description of LSD, but it actually refers to compounds that enhance learning and memory. Originally, it was used to describe a group of compounds (racetams) with a pyrrolidone nucleus. Nowadays, the term is broadly applied to prescription drugs, nutritional supplements, and even certain foods. They may also be called “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers”.
The majority of basic research has focused on pathological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, epilepsy, and stroke. However, interest in nootropics has boomed along with the baby boomers reaching retirement age. They are also becoming popular with college students cramming for finals, as well as people with demanding jobs. In the 24/7 world of the 21st century, many of us find ourselves wanting improved memory and increased concentration.
How do they work?
Because many types of compounds are considered nootropics, the mechanisms vary. In general, they enhance brain activity and function by affecting metabolism and neurotransmission. For example, the brain is fueled by glucose, and some nootropics increase glucose uptake and consumption. Others optimize levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, acetylcholine, glutamate, and serotonin. These molecules relay signals between neurons and are critical for proper brain function. The racetams are believed to specifically affect the production and breakdown of acetylcholine. Nootropics may also enhance brain function by increasing blood flow and oxygen levels. The brain accounts for a small proportion of the body by weight, but it requires 15-20% of cardiac output.
The theorized benefits of nootropics include enhanced alertness, increased attention, improved memory, better executive function, and sustained focus. These are of particular interest to older adults, who begin to notice that their ability to encode new memories declines from the fourth decade on. These changes are not necessarily an omen of dementia; they are a normal part of cognitive aging. However, that does not make them any less bothersome! Others are reported to have antidepressant-like effects, improving mood in some individuals.
The lack of clinical research can in part be explained by the difficulties in measuring small differences in processing speed and memory. Although it is relatively easy to detect differences in patient populations (e.g., Alzheimer’s Disease), the changes are more subtle in otherwise healthy individuals. Nonetheless, many people that try nootropics report feeling noticeably better after regular usage.
Nootropics side effects?
Dr. Giurgea’s original definition for nootropic required that the compound be nontoxic or even neuroprotective. However, as the number of compounds given a label of “nootropic” has grown, so has confusion over possible side effects.
The 2011 film “Limitless” depicted an author seeking to get over a particularly nasty case of writer’s block. The fictional drug (NZT) did just that, but with lethal side effects. Happily, that is not the case for traditional nootropics, which are quite safe. Racetams in particular have few side-effects and a large range of safe doses.
It is important to note that much of the clinical research has been limited to patient populations. This means that large-scale studies have not been performed in healthy adults. For more information on a particular nootropic, please see the larger list, as side effects vary widely depending on compound class.
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Farah, Martha J., Judy Illes, Robert Cook-Deegan, Howard Gardner, Eric Kandel, Patricia King, Eric Parens, Barbara Sahakian, and Paul Root Wolpe. “Science and Society: Neurocognitive Enhancement: What Can We Do and What Should We Do?” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5.5 (2004): 421-25. Print.
Giurgea, Corneliu E. “The Nootropic Concept and Its Prospective Implications.”Drug Development Research 2.5 (1982): 441-46. Print.
Greely, Henry, Barbara Sahakian, John Harris, Ronald C. Kessler, Michael Gazzaniga, Philip Campbell, and Martha J. Farah. “Towards Responsible Use of Cognitive-enhancing Drugs by the Healthy.” Nature 456.7223 (2008): 702-05. Print.
Malik, Ruchi, Abhijeet Sangwan, Ruchika Saihgal, Dharam Paul Jindal, and Poonam Piplani. “Towards Better Brain Management: Nootropics.” Current Medicinal Chemistry 14.2 (2007): 123-31. Print.
Sarter, Martin. “Taking Stock of Cognition Enhancers.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 12 (1991): 456-61. Print
Shorvon, Simon. “Pyrrolidone Derivatives.” The Lancet 358.9296 (2001): 1885-892. Print.
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