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Is it smart to take smart drugs?

Reading time: 7 minutes

Smart drugs—or nootropics—are designed to boost your memory and keep you focused. But do they really work, or is it just wishful thinking? Bryan Hubbard reports

We all need a little cognitive boost sometimes, from the student who needs to get through a night’s study before an exam to the older person who has the occasional senior moment and wants to sharpen their memory.

Students of old may have reached for a pot of coffee or even an amphetamine, and some still do, obtaining illegal supplies of Ritalin or Adderall to increase dopamine levels in the brain. These drugs improve focus, at least for long enough to get through an exam.

They are also a substitute for a healthy diet. Coffee might give us that instant boost, but eggs are good for mental focus, too. They contain B vitamins like folate, which help produce serotonin and other neurotransmitters that regulate mood.

Eggs are also full of choline, an important nutrient for memory, learning and focus; choline is also in red meats and liver, and in fatty fish such as salmon. Dark chocolate and blueberries are good for our brain health as well.

But the idea of brain-boosting foods and supplements started to take on a scientific hue when they were given a name: nootropics, or smart drugs. The term was coined by Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972.

Eight years earlier, he had synthesized piracetam as a compound to improve learning and memory. It’s never been approved by America’s drug regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for that purpose, and it’s available in the UK only with a prescription as a therapy for myoclonus, or involuntary twitching.

Piracetam has been poorly researched. The studies that do exist have tested it on acute and chronic conditions that have nothing to do with mental acuity, such as stroke, dementia, fetal distress in labor, sickle cell disease, post-stroke aphasia (difficulty understanding or expressing speech) and breath-holding.

The one study that looked at its brain-enhancing abilities concluded it didn’t help 25 children with Down syndrome improve their behavior or cognition but instead made them more aggressive, agitated and irritable.1

Get on board

These faltering steps haven’t stopped the nootropic rollercoaster, and the rich and famous are catching on. Controversial podcaster Joe Rogan endorses the Alpha BRAIN supplement, which he says he takes every day to keep him sharp and help him remember the right word in pressure moments. His endorsement has made it the world’s best-selling nootropic, and its manufacturer, Onnit, claims to have sold millions of pills around the world.

Nelson Dellis, five-time US memory champion, takes the Mind Lab Pro supplement. “It makes it easy to get all the best nootropics into my daily diet. The longer you take it, the better it gets. Think of it as a multivitamin for the brain,” he enthuses.

Alpha BRAIN, which costs a hefty $80 (£63) for 90 capsules, claims to improve focus and mental processing and get you “in the zone,” where creativity and efficiency seem to flow. Mind Lab Pro, which contains 11 nutrients and plant-based ingredients, makes similar claims for a similar price and promises you’ll start feeling more alert just 30 minutes after taking a capsule.

As well as capsules, nootropics also come as a “smart” drink that’s full of amino acids and vitamins and, unlike energy drinks, doesn’t give you the jitters. But whether it’s a capsule or a drink, are nootropics actually making people mentally sharper, or do users just think they are?

Just a placebo?

To find out, researchers at the University of Leeds in England carried out a double-blind placebo study of Mind Lab Pro, which was sponsored by its maker, Performance Lab.2 A group of 49 healthy people, aged 20–68, were given either two Mind Lab Pro capsules or a dummy pill, which acted as the placebo, every day for a month.

In all, 36 people were given the real supplement and 13 had the placebo. Although neither group knew which they had been given, the supplement group recorded “significant improvements” across all memory tests.

“Our study demonstrated that there are significant benefits to memory in taking a nootropic supplement, which is especially true for immediate and delayed recall elements of memory, such as remembering names and places, or where someone has put an object, like car keys,” said Andrea Utley, one of the researchers.

Even so, those taking the dummy pill recorded an improvement in auditory memory—recalling sounds or things people said—and immediate recall, suggesting there is a degree of mind-over-matter in nootropics.

Eight years earlier, a double-blind placebo trial of Alpha BRAIN came up with similar findings: people taking it reported “significant” improvements in verbal memory and executive function.  A group of 63 people aged 18–35 were given a placebo for two weeks before switching to Alpha BRAIN or a new placebo, which they took for six weeks.

By the end of the study, which was funded by the supplement company, the Alpha BRAIN group demonstrated better verbal recall of names and apposite words and better executive functioning. Tantalizingly, the placebo group also fared better on various tests.3

It’s a plant

Widening the net, researchers from the IMDEA Food Research Institute in Spain uncovered 256 papers from three medical databases that had researched the impact of nootropics on people’s memory and mental focus.4 There were four clear winners, including good old caffeine:

  • Gingko (Gingko biloba) is the best for improving perceptual and motor functions.
  • Water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri) is the best for improving language, learning and memory.
  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is the most effective for calming anxiety.
  • Caffeine is the best for improving attention and executive functions.

Researchers from the Czech University of Life Sciences agree that gingko, ashwagandha and water hyssop are effective plant-based nootropics, and they added seven more that could also improve focus and memory:5

  • Ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been shown to improve physical and mental resilience and eliminate fatigue, and 200 mg can be taken safely every day, but people with asthma and hypertension should avoid it.6
  • Asiatic pennywort (Centella asiatica) is eaten in salads and curries, and 60–120 mg as an extract can be safely taken daily. It seems to relieve anxiety and, as a result, improves sleep, although these results have been seen only in animal studies.7
  • Guarana (Paullinia cupana) includes around 12 percent caffeine, and 75 mg can be taken as a tablet, but people who have heart problems, take certain asthma medications, or suffer from chronic headaches, diabetes, insomnia or ulcers should avoid it. Studies have shown it has “significant” nootropic effects, including memory improvement, and may even help Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s sufferers.8
  • Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) reduces stress and improves memory, although these are the findings from mouse studies. In people, it has other benefits, such as improving cellular health, and has been used to detox mine workers with lead poisoning. The recommended daily amount is 2–3 g of dried root. It should not be used by those with hypertension.
  • Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) reduces stress and anxiety and improves cognition, at least according to one study that tested it on a group of students, some of whom were given a placebo. Despite this positive result, it didn’t improve cognitive performance.9
  • Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) works as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory to protect against neurodegenerative disease and helps improve neurotransmitter disorders.10
  • Maca (Lepidium meyenii) root can improve cognitive function, motor coordination and endurance, according to one mouse study. It could be “an effective functional food to slow age-related cognitive decline,” the researchers suggest.11

There’s no doubt that nootropics can improve memory, cognition and focus, but few people see results after taking just one or two capsules. The instant hit still seems to be the preserve of caffeine.

Instead nootropics have a cumulative effect, although any health problems from long-term use have never been researched. Researchers doubt they would see any, judging by the safety of those that have been tested.

Nootropics aren’t a silver bullet for cognitive issues. Instead, they should be part of a healthy lifestyle that also includes exercise, a good diet low in processed food, stress reduction, social interaction and quality sleep. These will have as big an impact on your cognitive abilities as any pill that’s designed to do the job.

Other ways to stay smart

Solving puzzles and word games. Regular brain workouts help keep your brain sharp. BrainHQ, which brings together brainteasers and puzzles in a smartphone app, was discussed in more than 60 scientific papers last year, including more than 30 research studies, and has slowed cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients.

Light therapy. Known as photobiomodulation, light therapy has also been shown to improve brain function. Red light and near infrared light “feed” neurons in the brain, reducing inflammation and helping brain cells repair.

In one review, researchers looked at 10 studies of the effects of photobiomodulation therapy on Alzheimer’s patients. They found it repaired damage caused by amyloid plaques that are characteristic of the disease, such as inflammation, oxidative stress and cell death (apoptosis).12

Resources

When choosing a nootropic product to purchase, as when choosing any type of supplement, here’s what to look for:

  • The purest formulas available, free of fillers, binders and other unnecessary additives (check the ingredients list)
  • Testing for potency and purity to ensure they work well and don’t contain harmful contaminants, like heavy metals
  • Strict sourcing standards, using exclusively natural, high-quality, non-GMO and science-backed ingredients
  • Transparency about the manufacturing processes
  • A dosage that’s right for your needs
  • Bioavailable (easily absorbed) ingredient forms

Here are some top brands to try:

Herb Pharm offers single herbs like ashwagandha and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) as well as combination nootropic formulas like Brain & Memory.

US: herb-pharm.com

UK: iherb.com

Gaia Herbs offers single herbs, such as water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri) and maca (Lepidium meyenii), plus nootropic blends like Nootropic Focus and Agile Mind.

US: gaiaherbs.com

UK: iherb.com

Pure Encapsulations offers individual herbs like ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) as well as combination formulas to support memory and mood, such as Brain Reset and Memory Pro.

US: pureforyou.com

UK: purebio.co.uk

Four Sigmatic and London Nootropics are good options for nootropic coffee.

US: us.foursigmatic.com, londonnootropics.com

UK: international.foursigmatic.com, londonnootropics.com

 

References
  1. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 2001; 155(4): 442–48
  2. Hum Psychopharmacol, 2023; 38(4): e2872
  3. Hum Psychopharmacol, 2023; 31 (2): 135–43
  4. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 2023; 63(22): 5521–45
  5. Nutrients, 2022; 14(16): 3367
  6. Fitoterapia, 2000: 71(suppl 1): 51–65
  7. Phytother Res, 2016; 30(4): 671–80
  8. J Ethnopharmacol, 1997; 55(3): 223–29
  9. Phytother Res, 2015; 29(12): 1934–39
  10. Metab Brain Dis, 2016; 31: 653–66
  11. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2016; 2016: 4394261
  12. J Lasers Med Sci, 2020; 11(suppl 1): S16–S22
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