On Nootropics: How (and if) ‘smart pills’ work

Do we have brains or are we are brains?  Every school of thought has been waiting at the precipice of this inquiry since antiquity. Now the drop seems more perilous than ever, as terrors of malady quicken our pace on the path of deeper biological understanding.

When taking into account the 44 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related illnesses in addition to the 45, 000 Americans that commit suicide each year, it may be time we sharpen the instruments meant to combat parasites that prey upon the meat between our ears.

Recently, researchers have made some strides in the form of pills and supplements said to lead to healthier brain functionality.


Nootropics, a classification of substances coined by Romanian psychologist and chemist,  Corneliu E. Giurgea, are intended to improve various aspects of cognition (memory, motivation, creativity, and concentration). The etymology comes from Greek words which roughly translate to “turn the mind.”  Despite a vaguely defined degree of effectiveness, the popularity of “smart pills,”  is growing rapidly.

Recently, it was reported that 30% of Americans have used some form of pharmacological performing enhancing drugs, with 15% citing the use of Nootropics at least once in the span of 12 months.

How it works

Sara Adães is a researcher in the field of neuroscience. Last year, she published a piece for Nuerohacker that expounds about the science behind Nootropics – the data is fascinating irrespective of the pills’ disputed degree of efficiency. Nootropics are active compounds that operate on the central nervous system.

“Since the benefits of individual compounds are often mild, two or more ingredients are frequently combined into nootropic stacks to obtain better, stronger or longer effects,” She writes. “Nootropic stacking is common practice: an online nootropics survey showed that most users take stacks of several different chemicals daily. The best nootropic stacks are designed to take advantage of the synergy between ingredients.”

Caffeine and L-theanine is the most common stack, though the effectiveness of potential compounds is dependent on the desired effect. Phenylethylamine, for example, increases levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in the brain, which in turn improves mood and concentration – however, these results are only revealed in high doses if the compound is operating alone.

Phenylethylamine metabolizes very quickly. It needs the aid of MAO- B inhibitors to fetter its breakdown. When introduced to such compounds it begins to be effective even in low doses. These elements form alliances to target pathways and increase blood circulation to the brain.

Do they work?

Reporter Markham Heid recently indexed some reports published by skeptics, detractors and the cautiously enthused. Falling somewhere between the last two categories is Dr. Guillaume Fond, a physician based in France that doesn’t seem to be exercised by the surmounting Nootropic craze. His comprehensive take can be found on Science Direct, but in short, he’s observed both promise and data that lacks any concrete evidence of effectiveness.

Dr. David Hogan was less charitable in his take on the effects of PPEDs.  He doesn’t believe that a supplement can ever truly supplant the complexity of natural food. And even if it could, he adds, any discernible evidence of such could not be observed until years and years after consistent use. Some experts have attempted to explore any potentially negative side effects of some of the most popular Nootropics.

So far, nothing all that worrying has turned up – brain fog, headaches and reports of anxiety and insomnia have been reported in some users of modafinil but as Dr. Corneliu Giurgea sees it: the appearance of negative side effects from a nootropic by definition discounts it as a “true nootropic.”

The trajectory is enough to warrant my enthusiasm. The road to healing degenerative illnesses of the mind or even merely enhancing the minds of those that are still young and healthy is undoubtedly a long one. Even steps backward contribute in their own way to the ultimate goal.

Provisionally, the worst case seems to be effects that are only marginal in a short period of time.

A competitive, demanding market has seen a spike in the use of Nootropics in the meantime so it’s certainly something to consider.