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What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics (pronounced noo-traah-puhks) are compounds or supplements that enhance cognitive performance. This exotic term for so-called smart drugs derives from the Greek word “noos” (mind) and “tropein,” which means “towards.” The Greek roots are appropriate, given that enhancing executive function, including memory, decision-making, and creativity, are goals towards which generations and civilizations have always aspired.

Broadly, there are three categories of nootropics: The most effective are stimulant drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall, as well as the non-stimulant Modafinil. These drugs boost awareness in all populations, although the effects differ in those with ADHD, for which they are commonly prescribed.

The second group of synthetic compounds includes Noopept (not currently available in the US) and racetams such as piracetam, which act on the key neurotransmitters glutamate and acetylcholine. Racetams are known to boost memory in people with brain injuries or age-related cognitive decline, but have no demonstrable effect on healthy individuals. Natural compounds such as caffeine, herbal ginseng, and the amino acid creatine constitute the third type of nootropic; these are over-the-counter and as such are among the most popular agents of neuroenhancement. While studies demonstrate benefits in each of the three categories, prescription drugs consistently outperform natural alternatives in improving executive function.

How Do Nootropics Work?

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The most effective nootropics are amphetamines such as Ritalin and Adderall. These stimulants and others increase levels of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter known to regulate attention, alertness, and energy. Stimulants are most effective in individuals with ADHD, and have a long history of use in professions such as piloting and surgery, where sustained attention and fast reaction times are critical.

It is less clear that stimulants enhance performance in other arenas, and self-reported gains may be subject to the placebo effect. Stimulants enhance mood, which in turn leads people to overestimate their performance while under the influence of a smart drug. Most doctors and psychologists argue that it is preferable to enhance overall cognition and executive function simply by obtaining adequate sleep and exercise, as well as through a healthy, nutrient-rich diet.

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Is It Safe to Use Smart Drugs? 

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The United States leads the developed world in the use of stimulants: in 2017, 30 percent of Americans surveyed stated that they had used a drug for cognitive enhancement at least once in the preceding twelve months. Among this group, 22 percent had used amphetamines such as Ritalin. Countries with high rates of ADHD diagnosis, such as the US, Australia, and Canada, have correspondingly high rates of off-label or non-prescription use of these stimulants. Indeed, only 4 percent of respondents acquired the smart drug via a medical prescription.

There are many risks associated with stimulant use, especially if the drug is used off-label and without medical consultation and supervision. Physical side effects include elevated heart-rate and risk of stroke and insomnia. Psychological side effects can include hallucinations and addiction.

The use of stimulants is often questioned for ethical as well as medical reasons. Just as steroids are considered unacceptable in sporting competitions, stimulant use among students, especially in standardized test settings, is widely deplored, though it is impossible to know just how advantageous stimulants are in study prep or test-taking.

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