Whether you’re a college student trying to pass your exams, a busy professional looking for a promotion, or an older adult worried about dementia, the thought of taking a pill to increase your brain power may sound attractive. So it’s hardly surprise that nootropics, often known as cognitive enhancers or smart medicines, are becoming more popular. But do they actually work? Are they secure?

The word “nootropics” was originally used to describe substances that satisfied a set of strict criteria. However, it is now used to refer to any natural or synthetic drug that has the potential to improve mental abilities. Dietary supplements, synthetic substances, and prescription medications are the three broad types of nootropics.

While most health professionals believe that taking a prescription nootropic for an FDA-approved reason (such as a stimulant drug for ADHD or donepezil for Alzheimer’s disease) can be beneficial, the usage of any sort of cognitive enhancer in healthy people is considerably more contentious.

What Experts Have to Say

According to Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, director of Johns Hopkins Medicine’s cognitive neurology/neuropsychology section, there is “no compelling evidence” that any of the supplements presently being offered for their alleged memory-boosting qualities are beneficial. “It’s not clear that they function,” he adds, “and it’s not apparent that they’re safe.” He’s also dubious about the core concept of nootropics.

“The circuits underlying human cognition are extremely complex and little understood,” he explains. “It’s not as simple as ‘turning up the dial.'” People who feel nootropics have improved their mental performance are primarily impacted by the placebo effect, according to him. “If you have greater confidence in yourself and believe you can succeed, you will.”

Chris D’Adamo, PhD, head of research and education at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine, believes otherwise. He, like Gordon, does not believe nootropics will grant you superhuman mental powers, but he does feel they can give some individuals an advantage.

“Most individuals who want to improve their cognitive performance should focus on getting adequate sleep, eating a nutrient-dense diet, and controlling stress,” he adds. However, if you’ve mastered the fundamentals, the appropriate nootropics can help you think more clearly and sharply, as well as minimise your risks of cognitive deterioration as you age, he adds.

Types of Nootropics

Almost everyone, whether they realise it or not, utilises a nootropic, according to D’Adamo. Caffeine is the natural stimulant he’s referring to, and while it can be harmful if used in excess, it has been found to boost cognitive abilities. According to D’Adamo, it doesn’t only help you feel more alert: Caffeine also increases your brain’s availability of certain molecules (neurotransmitters) including acetylcholine, which aids short-term memory and learning.

However, the majority of individuals who are interested in nootropics aren’t drinking coffee or tea. They’ve expanded their product line to include dietary supplements. Some, like ginseng and gingko, have failed to pass scientific examination. Others, such as CDP-choline, L-theanine, creatine monohydrate, Bacopa monnieri, huperzine A, and vinpocetine, may still be worth investigating.

Another form of nootropic is racetams, such as piracetam. These synthetic chemicals are available over the counter in the United States, although they are considered prescription medicines in other countries. These molecules, which operate on neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, have been examined in older individuals with cognitive impairment, according to D’Adamo. Most younger, healthier individuals, he says, should avoid them.

Stimulants, such as those found in some ADHD medicines, make up the majority of prescription nootropics. While they are effective for many people with ADHD, they are not suggested for those who just wish to enhance their concentration and attention. Many college students obtain these substances illegally, and while they may appear to be beneficial in the short term, they have significant dangers. Insomnia, blurred vision, high blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, circulation difficulties, and addiction are all possible side effects.

Modafinil is another form of prescription nootropic (Provigil). It’s licenced by the FDA to treat narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift work problem, but some studies show it might assist healthy individuals with learning and memory. Although modafinil looks to be less dangerous than other stimulants, further study is needed.