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Nootropics are a group of chemicals that supposedly make you “smarter” without any side-effects. But don’t rush into it yet! It might be still too experimental to test it out.

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[♪ INTRO ].

We humans are obsessed with getting smarter. So besides your typical methods like school and hard work, we’ve also tried some pretty strange things in the name of brain enhancement.

For example, Nikola Tesla would supposedly squish his toes 100 times on each foot to stimulate the brain cells, while Isaac Newton stuck with celibacy. Or there is just like popping some kinda magic pill like Bradley Cooper does in Limitless. Nootropics are a group of chemicals that supposedly heighten things like concentration, attention, and memory — without any side-effects.

They’re so-called “smart pills.” Some of these drugs do seem to affect brain chemistry, but scientists aren’t sure if they have consistent, measurable effects yet. And because they’re so experimental right now, taking them on a whim probably isn’t worth the health risks. Cognition doesn’t just come from one part of the brain.

It involves many regions, chemicals, and processes like memory, perception, attention, and arousal — basically, when you’re awake and alert. For instance, many studies on learning and memory formation in animal models involve the neurotransmitter glutamate. It’s the main excitatory chemical in the brain, which means it spurs neurons to send signals to each other.

Neuroscientists have studied glutamate systems in the brain and worked to create drugs that enhance memory-related performance in animals like rats and mice. A lot of this research is aimed towards understanding the biochemistry of memory, and eventually helping treat patients with memory problems, like those with Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s still a huge gap between rodent brains and human ones, so many clinical trials haven’t been super effective.

And that’s the case for lots of drugs that affect different pieces of cognition. Yes, there are some stimulants that scientists have found to be safe and effective and doctors prescribe to treat ADHD, for example. But there’s a lot of uncertainty out there when it comes to altering brain function, and there aren’t silver bullets that work for everyone with a given neurological disorder.

Despite that uncertainty, nootropic proponents say that this wide variety of drugs can be used to improve different aspects of your normal brain function. Basically helping you, like, remember what you learned in class to get better grades or focus more at work. The history of nootropics kind of began in 1964 with a Romanian chemist named Corneliu Giurgea.

He wanted to make a brain-enhancing drug and coined the term “nootropic” after synthesizing the first of its kind: piracetam. Piracetam is a broad-acting drug — it interacts with a lot of different things in the brain. One of which is glutamate receptors, which we know play a role in learning and memory.

One of the earlier studies on this chemical was done in 1976. 8 students from University College in Cardiff were given a daily dose of piracetam and 8 were given a pill that did nothing. They were all given a few memory tasks after 1 and 2 weeks. And in the group that took piracetam, the experimenters didn’t see a difference in verbal memory after 1 week compared to the control group, but did after 2 weeks.

So there could be some mild effect, but without many replication studies, we don’t know how much the drug actually helps with this kind of learning. Some researchers have also tested whether piracetam could help fight memory loss from brain diseases, or help protect the brain from losing function after certain kinds of major surgery. But there’s been a mix of negative and positive results across years of studies, so there definitely isn’t enough evidence to say that it helps for sure.

And that’s just the beginning when it comes to nootropics. Since piracetam, there have been dozens of drugs that people have taken to try and improve cognition in different ways. Like there’s modafinil, which is a wakefulness agent and FDA-approved treatment for narcolepsy, a sleep disorder where you can fall asleep without warning.

Kind of like piracetam, researchers think modafinil could affect a lot of chemical systems in the brain — including transporters of dopamine, which is involved in alertness, and norepinephrine, which is involved in your stress responses and can give an energy boost. So some people have tried using it as a general nootropic instead of a specific medical treatment. A meta-analysis published in 2015 in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology pooled 24 study results to try and figure out what the overall effect of the drug seems to be.

They concluded that modafinil can help healthy people with executive function — things like planning and decision making — but the effects on things like attention were mixed. Now, it’s possible that any positive relationship between taking nootropics and cognition could be a placebo effect. That’s when a drug doesn’t really do anything, but your belief in it causes real change.

Maybe more importantly, though, there are some major health concerns because of how much we don’t know about these drugs. Most nootropics are currently being sold without FDA approval under categories like “dietary supplements” or “research chemicals,” because there haven’t been enough conclusive studies about them. So there’s not much accountability for how many nootropics are made and in what dosages, and they can’t be guaranteed safe.

Which is kinda dangerous when you’re messing with brain chemistry. For instance, if you flood the brain with too much glutamate signaling and neurons get overstimulated, it can lead to pretty bad side effects like cell death and seizures. Plus, any kind of stimulant, which is what many nootropics are, can be addictive and cause major withdrawal and depression if used inappropriately.

And while some of these drugs might show positive effects on cognition and memory in the short term, we haven’t studied long-term effects. So experimenting with nootropics is a risk right now. And, really, things like exercise, a good night’s sleep, and a thoughtful diet are probably a much better place to start when it comes to a healthy brain.

Or, you could subscribe to SciShow Psych and get smarter with us twice a week! And if you want to learn more about when we started to use drugs to change our brains, check out our video about how doctors accidentally discovered psychiatric drugs. [♪ OUTRO ].