Nootropics are drugs that are often referred to as smart drugs or brain enhancers. They are claimed to enhance learning and increase cognitive ability – the ability to understand. The term nootropic was first used by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972. The word is derived from Greek: noos (νους) and tropeo (τροπέω) meaning ‘mind’ and ‘to turn’ respectively. So they were known to the Greeks as mind-turning drugs.
What are Nootropics?
Fundamentally, nootropics encompass all drugs that change the mind, from LSD to memory-enhancing substances. They generally refer to smart drugs or cognitive enhancers. They are controversial in that they are normally used for non-medical purposes. Take LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) for example. While this drug is best known for hallucinogenic trips, it has been used as a treatment for some forms of mental illness.
Nootropic drugs have been used to treat several forms of motor function or cognitive conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease and ADHD. While nootropics tend to get bad publicity due to the way many people use them recreationally, they can improve memory and cognitive function in those that use them those specific purposes.
Are Nootropics Ethical?
The use of nootropics has generated a great deal of ethical discussion with regard to their ethical use in giving an advantage to students that use them. At the other end of the spectrum is the question of safety. Are they safe to use? The safety of regularly using nootropic substances has often been called into question.
There may be too many doctors providing prescriptions for such drugs that are not available over the counter. Nevertheless, they continue to be used in spite of the potential danger of psychiatric harm by those using them.
That said, what are nootropics used for in general medical terms as opposed to recreational use? Here are a few things you should know about nootropics, such as their chemical identity and any brand name they are known by. Also, can nootropic substances legitimately be used for anything other than recreational purposes?
Examples of Nootropic Substances
We have already mentioned LSD as a nootropic drug that has both medical and recreational uses. Others fit the definition, although it’s very important to understand the meaning of the word nootropic in terms of its effectiveness with regard to substances that meet the definition.
Caffeine and Cocaine: An example of the diversity of such substances, cocaine and caffeine are both classed as nootropics. However, there is a huge difference between these two substances in terms of consequences of use. This underlines the importance of focusing on the individual substance you are using rather than its generic classification. You should never use cocaine as a nootropic due to the very great danger of addiction. While caffeine can be addictive to an extent, it is nowhere near as dangerous as cocaine.
L-Theanine: L-theanine is a component of tea – both black and green teas. Its individual nootropic effect is to generate relaxation, but also alertness and arousal. So you can feel more alert, but also relaxed and ready for action. It also acts synergistically with caffeine to improve memory, mental endurance and reaction time. You can take green tea as a drink or a capsule, and the leaf is generally rich in caffeine as well as L-theanine.
Nicotine: Nicotine is a powerful nootropic if taken correctly. It improves the production of energy from the mitochondria in your body cells. This is in turn improves your brain function. It’s a powerful smart drug, but has its drawbacks. A lot depends on how you take it. Smoking tobacco is not one of these ways. Perhaps the best way is a spray that you can spray under your tongue.
Another way to take nicotine is by means of nicotine lozenges that provide the low dose that is relatively safe. That said, nicotine can be a dangerous substance and can create dependency. Many people recommend it, but we do not.
This is particularly so if you were once a smoker. You can easily find yourself hooked on tobacco if you take nicotine regularly as a nootropic drug. It’s the tars in tobacco that destroy your health but the nicotine that gets you hooked!
Amphetamines: Those suffering from ADHD have been recommended to take amphetamines for many years. Many college students take amphetamines round about exam time because they believe it will sharpen their brain. Taking amphetamines present a substantial health risk, and they not recommended as nootropic substances.
It can offer nootropic effects by increasing the amounts of norepinephrine and dopamine in your brain. This improves motivation, attention and short-term memory. The down side is that can cause anxiety and make you jittery. There is also a very definite risk of addiction.
Bacopa Monnieri: This is a small Indian plant that acts as an adaptogen. Adaptogens help your body to normalize its systems and bring all your functions back into balance. For example, it will reduce your cholesterol levels if they are too high, reduce high blood pressure closer to normal and generally help you to adapt to stress. Ginseng and liquorice are adaptogens, and so is bacopa monnieri.
In addition to helping your body to adapt to stress, bacopa monnieri can also help improve memory. It does not work immediately. You must take a supplement for about month or more to see any effects. It is particularly effective with over 65s – improving mood and attentiveness. Its effect will be promoted if you take with fat in your diet.
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD): While LSD may be a performance enhancing drug, the Jimi Hendrix days appear to be over. Nevertheless, LSD is still being used both for its psychedelic trips (some being fatal) and for its nootropic properties. The dose with LSD is critical – get it wrong and it either does nothing or gives you a bad trip that you may well not survive. With the right dose, users can experience a boost in creativity, focus and empathy. With the wrong dose, they can become delusional, although, on a pro-rata basis, fewer people die from an LSD overdose than from alcohol abuse.
Forskolin: Forskolin is made from the root of an Asian plant in the mint family. It is native to India, Nepal and Thailand and is a component of traditional Asian medicine. While many use it for weight loss and muscle development there is little documented evidence available for its effectiveness.
Some use Forskolin as a folk remedy for asthma. Trials have demonstrated that it may work in a similar way to some regular asthma drugs by boosting cyclic AMP (Cyclic Adenosine Monophosphate or cAMP.) This in turn reduces inflammation of the bronchi and relaxes the smooth muscles making breathing easier. It is also used for weight loss and treating glaucoma – with practically no evidence that it actually works.
Side Effects of Nootropic Drugs
The side effects of some of the nootropic drugs mentioned above are well known. This is particularly the case with amphetamines, cocaine, LSD and, to a lesser extent, nicotine. Most pharmaceutical drugs have long-term or even short-term side effects. Nootropic drugs are no different! Why should they be? They are also available on prescription, as well as some being available over the counter.
Some forms of nootropics have no long-term safety data available. Among these are those that have been available only for a short time. They are non-pharmaceutical substances that are not subject to clinical testing and many are intended only for short-term use where longer term data is unavailable.
One issue could be addiction. Any mind-altering drug must be potentially addictive due their mode of action. However, when only therapeutic doses of such substances are taken, addiction is generally not a problem. The issue is when people take more than they should in the false hope of enhancing the effect.
Recreational Use of Nootropics
Although there is plenty of evidence to prove the benefits of nootropics, the issues involved in recreational use have been the subject of much debate between medical practitioners. Benefits such as memory enhancement, clearer thinking and improved motivation are certainly excellent reasons for taking them. However, how ethical is this and are the potential side effects worth doing so?
Research supports the answer “Yes” but only in specific uses. The adverse effects of recreational uses of nootropic drugs are still the subject of much debate. There is as yet no agreement whether they are safe to use or not. There are potential long-term side effects that might have yet to be seen.
Are Nootropic Drugs Ethical?
There is also the ethical viewpoint. Is it ethical for some people to use drugs to gain an advantage over those students who are either unaware of them, or prefer not to use substances to improve their performance. It sounds a bit like the same issues sporting bodies are having with performance-enhancing drugs.
For now, however, there are no regulations preventing students or anybody else from using nootropics to enhance their academic or examination performance. Perhaps restrictions will be issued sometime in the future, but there seem to be no steps being considered yet.
All Nootropics Are Not Equal
One risk which is rarely commented on is that of lumping all of these substances together under the blanket term ‘Nootropics.’ There are few doubts that when used according to the strict instructions of medical experts, some are relatively safe. However, is it safe to regard caffeine, cocaine and amphetamines as being the same type of substance?
They are certainly not equal, and it is essential to look on nootropics as a bunch of different substances offering varying degrees of risk, such as dependency or addiction. They also provide different effects and use different pathways to affect the brain.
They are not all smart drugs and brain enhancers – they tend to modify the brain and how it works rather than enhance it. However, if used according to the strict instructions of medical experts, they can be relatively safe to use.