What are Nootropics? Types, Researches, History

Nootropics, also known as “smart drugs”, “cognitive enhancers” or “intelligence enhancers”, are drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals and functional foods that improve the mental functions of healthy individuals. Nootropics are typically formulated to improve memory, concentration, motivation, learning capacity, focus, attention, mood, reduce anxiety and depression, and increase the ability to cope with stress.

-(Source: Wikipedia)

If you are somebody who is working hard to top your exams, or you are a dedicated worker doing your best for that long-awaited promotion, or if you are an old person facing dementia, the thought that you can improve your chances of achieving these successes by taking a pill isn’t a bad one right?

That is the reason why the use of nootropics, more commonly known as smart drugs or cognitive enhancers is on a rise lately. But do they actually work? Can they really improve your brainpower? Are they safe? Are there any side effects of using nootropics? Can they actually help you achieve your goals?

Earlier, the term “nootropics” was taken in use for chemicals or substances that pass the special criteria for nootropics. Nowadays, it refers to any kind of natural or artificial consumable that can substantially improve mental skills. 

There are three types of nootropics supplements in the market:

  • Synthetic compounds
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Prescription Drugs

Though many experts from the industry say that it can be quite helpful for people suffering from ADHD or Alzheimer’s. Taking prescription nootropics like a stimulant medication or donepezil can prove to be helpful. But using any kind of cognitive enhancer in healthy people is still a controversial thing.  

Thoughts of Researchers on Nootropics

The MD, Ph.D., Barry Gordan is the director of the cognitive neuropsychology/neurology department at Johns Hopkins Medicine. He says that “It’s not clear that they work and not very clear if they are safe” to use. Also, he adds that there is no evidence that backs up their memory-promoting claims.  

He is very amused by the fact that people believe that they can easily dial up their cognitive abilities by some injectibles or consumables. Barry Gordon says “The circuits that are present in human cognition are very very complicated and are still not fully understood.”  

It is all about the belief people have that taking some sort of pills or injections can improve their mental abilities. Mr. Barry even terms it as a placebo effect which has influenced a large proportion of the human population and nothing effective. He says that confident people who believe they can do it are more likely to achieve their goals than the ones who think they can’t.

On the other hand Ph.D. Chris D’Adamo, research and education director at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine has a different perspective. His beliefs are different. He says that it’s not like consuming nootropics will equip anyone with superhuman powers or so; but believes that they might provide them an edge.

Gordon takes it to be very natural that “People can push their cognitive abilities by getting enough sleep, consuming a nutrient-rich diet, and working on reducing stress.” He says that once you have these essential requirements fulfilled, you can go for nootropics as a bonus. Adding up to this, it is natural that your cognitive abilities can decrease as you age.

Types for Nootropics

D’Adamo says that almost every hum on this planet earth uses some form of nootropics, intentionally or not. He considers even caffeine to be a nootropic, as it is a natural stimulant that improves thinking skills. Along with this alertness, D’Adamo says that caffeine also provides neurotransmitters like acetylcholine. These chemical neurotransmitters help in short-term memory and learning.  

But the thing is that the ones interested in nootropics aren’t limited to coffee or tea only. They have got more effective supplements like ginkgo, ginseng, L-theanine on their list. Others like Bacopa monnieri, huperzine A, CPD-choline, creatine monohydrate, and vinpocetine also fall in the same category.

The second type of nootropics is synthetic ones like racetams, such as piracetam. These over-the-counter synthetic nootropics are easily available in the U.S while some countries might require prescriptions for getting them. According to D’Adamo, these neurotransmitters were tested on older people who faced a decline in their cognitive skills. Though, he doesn’t recommend these things to the younger, healthier people. 



ADHD medications constitute a large proportion of the stimulants as prescription nootropics. While these nootropics help people with ADHD, they are not preferred for people who just want to improve their attention and focus. Many newbie college students who get to know about these for the first time use them excessively. While these tend to help them in the short term, they can pose some serious risks in the long term. 

Some possible side effects include a fast heart rate, insomnia, high blood pressure, circulation problems, blurry vision, and addiction. 

There is another type of prescription nootropic known by the name of modafinil (Provigil). The good news is that this nootropic is approved by FDA for the treatment of sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and shift work disorder. There are also some findings that suggest that healthy people can use this for learning and memory purposes.

We can’t come to a definitive conclusion, but for now, modafinil is a much safer option to go for than any stimulant.

Most Promising Options

If you are really looking forward to trying some nootropic supplements, you should take advice from your doctor before anything. You might not want to face any bad situations due to these supplements having their effects on any conditions you have or medications you consume.   

D’Adamo says that the chemistry of every individual’s brain is different, and the studies are not very consistent being very short and in limit to the impact. With that said, these four nootropics are the ones you can use to your benefit:

Creatine Monohydrate
  • This is a supplement you generally cross paths with when you are on a bodybuilding journey. Creatine monohydrate is mainly a bodybuilding supplement taken in use for increasing muscle mass. On the other hand, creatine has shown good results in improving short-term memory and reasoning skills in healthy individuals. This is because it escalates ATP levels which leads to an increase in cellular energy. D’Adamo said that he takes creatine regularly just for energy and boasts that creatine supplements are very safe to use.
  • According to the research, taking caffeine and L-theanine together helps inefficient multitasking. It is a good combination because L-theanine can counterbalance the jitteriness caused by caffeine.  The easiest way to experience the combination is by drinking pure green tea which has both in it. Also, it works well even if you combine an L-theanine supplement with some coffee or tea.
  • Well, it’s not a good idea to take caffeine in the form of pills as they are very easy to over-consume. Excessive caffeine can be very toxic which can cause a very high heartbeat leading to seizures or ultimately death. 1 teaspoon of pure caffeine powder contains caffeine equal to which you can consume from a total of 28 coffee cups. FDA reveals that there is very little difference between safe and toxic caffeine content.
  • In Europe, this is a common drug for people who face dementia due to some vascular problems. There are no side effects to using CPD-choline, so it is very safe and can help you improve your memory.
Bacopa Monnieri
  • Bacopa monnieri is a traditional Indian (ayurvedic) herb that helps the brain process information at a better place. It is also known as Brahmi in the local place. According to D’Adamo, it helps the dendrites of nerve cells to grow better. He also adds that this growth or betterment is only visible after 4-6 weeks of regular consumption.

You might feel that you can combine these and add up to your efficiency but D’Adamo doesn’t really recommend this. This is because the combos haven’t been studied before and nobody can bet over the benefits or consequences if any. He says that you can try one for few months and then having a break before switching on to the other one.

His basic concern is that your body might start tolerating these nootropics after a while so you will be needing more of it. That’s what D’Adamo doesn’t want and is concerning over. 

There is one thing you need to keep in mind the FDA doesn’t closely regulate nootropic supplements as it does for prescription drugs. In the end, this is your own body, make sure you are taking products from reputable brands. If you feel you are facing any side effects or not able to improvise, make a wise decision to stop its consumption. 

History Nootropics

History of Nootropics

It’s not been a long time since fancy words like nootropics, smart drugs or cognitive enhancers have made it into the market. But the use of cognitive enhancers or nootropics dates long back in history. Thousands of years before Giurgea, our ancestors were exploring different ways to improvise upon cognition. The basic purpose was the betterment of society, enhancement of medicine, and recreation. 

At that time, nobody knew about the brain cells to make use of our brain. The prehistoric ancestors might have been using psychoactive substances for the same. Also, Indian Ayurvedic medicine had begun its oral practices around 5000 BCE. They are famous for their adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha.

On the other hand, numerous hypnotics, hundreds of sedatives, stimulants, motor depressants, narcotics, motor excitants were already in the catalog of Ancient Egyptians around 1500 BCE.

And since then, our ancestors are working on finding dependable, powerful, and flexible ways for improving cognition. Alchemy became chemistry over the period of time when scientific methods came in. 

Back in the 1700s, the first clinical trial was conducted by James Lind while Richard Canton took notice of the electrical impulses in brains in the 1800s. From then, the scientists never look back and kept making great efforts for recognising the mental issues in the 1900s. 

Nootropics helping in Brain Disorders

Doctors and medical scientists began diagnosing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADHD) and Alzheimer’s back in those times only. Inventions were taking place, new drugs were coming in use for improvements in brain function by the mid-twentieth century.

That was a time when technological developments began, fiction was coming into the picture which leads to a boost in people’s imagination. A very funny snippet came in the comic strip ”Our New Age” on 26 December 1965. It said that according to predictions, humanity will be able to develop brain-computer interfaces and nootropics or smart drugs by 2016.

There was also a movie Limitless that came in 2011 and put nootropics on a pedestal. In Limitless, the lead character consumes NZT-48 and radically activates 100% of his brain to attain indifferent intelligence. 

Afterward, it came out that we already use our full brain, and nootropics are not a thing as shown in science function.

According to the ancient records and religious books, there are very low chances that scientists might be stopping their researches on cognitive enhancement soon. Also, you never know, maybe tomorrow only, we get the headline that somebody from silicon valley came up with the brain-computer interface powered by a smart drug. 

There is no fixed time we might hear the news! Maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, maybe next year, or maybe in the decades to come.

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