Nootropics refers to any drug, supplement, or substance that enhances cognitive functions like memory, mental alertness, concentration, creativity, motivation, energy, and wakefulness.
The term nootropics was first coined by Romanian chemist and psychologist Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, who fortuitously discovered piracetam, a substance with nootropic qualities, as he searched for a drug to aid sleep. In some ways, when Dr. Giurgea discovered piracetam, he found a substance with the exact opposite effects as the ones he sought. But with this great error, nootropics were born.
According to Dr. Guirgea, a substance is a nootropic if it has been proven to:
1. Improve behavior under adverse conditions
2. Shield the brain from injury by physical or chemical means
3. Improve tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms
4. Demonstrate a low toxicity and side-effect profile
Nowadays, there are a plethora of nootropics on the market. Some are prescribed for conditions like narcolepsy. It’s also increasingly common for healthy individuals to take nootropics to improve their overall cognitive performance.
Supplement, Synthetic, or Script
Generally speaking, nootropics fall into three broad categories: dietary supplements, synthetic compounds, and prescription drugs. While there is broad support in the medical community for prescription nootropics for treating certain conditions — e.g. prescribing a stimulant like Ritalin to treat ADHD — the use of nootropics by healthy individuals is less well-researched, documented, and supported.
So, what does a nootropic look like?
In some ways, you could call humanity’s favorite natural stimulant, caffeine, a classic nootropic. Caffeine has been shown to improve concentration and alertness while also giving your brain more access to neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, which has been shown to improve short-term memory and learning.
Yet caffeine just doesn’t cut it for a lot of people, creating a demand for dietary supplements and synthetics. Some of the more common supplements and synthetics include CDP-choline, L-theanine, creatine monohydrate, and Bacopa monnieri.
Another class of nootropics are racetams like Piracetam, — the most widely available and commonly used of the “tams” — phenylpiracetam, aniracetam, and oxiracetam.
Piracetam is a prescription drug (Nootropil) in some countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, and Italy, but is not currently regulated in the United States as a drug or dietary supplement.
Indigenous Past, Fungal Future
Even though the term nootropics only dates back about 70 years, indigenous cultures have been using plants like coca leaves and ginkgo for thousands of years to influence their mood and cognition.
And today, fungi are also being looked at as possible natural nootropics. Cordyceps, Lion’s Mane, and psilocybin-containing mushrooms have all garnered attention for their potential nootropic qualities. Though the science and research is still in its infancy, the next few years should provide additional studies that help clarify and quantify their potential in the cognitive enhancement space.