Nootropics are sometimes called Limitless Pills, named after the movie in which a character played by Bradley Cooper takes a magical pill that dramatically increases his I.Q., focus, drive, and all-around cognitive ability. The movie version of the pill is, of course, more fiction than fact. The movie bases the drug’s effects on the myth that humans only use a small percentage of our brains while the rest is an untapped resource. In reality, people use 100 percent of their brains at different times for different functions. Using every single part of your brain at once would be like a pilot pressing all the buttons in the cockpit at the same time and expecting to fly better. Still, unless we are resting, we use much more than 10 percent, which is the commonly assumed percentage.
Though the pill in Limitless is more magic than science, there are supplements and prescriptions that have effects on a person’s cognitive ability. Different drugs may have effects on working memory, motivation, cognitive ability, and focus. Though it may not increase the performance of those functions as much as the cinematic version, could they potentially make a difference in your ability to perform at work or in school?
But there couldn’t actually be a psychoactive substance that significantly improves your cognitive functioning, right? In fact, there are some substances that can improve focus, memory, and thinking speed to the degree that it affects test scores, the amount of information you absorb, and the amount of work you get done.
But are nootropic drugs safe?
That question is a different issue entirely. Various drugs may have different adverse effects on the human brain and body. However, since there are so many types of drugs in the nootropic category, it’s difficult to say if there are dangerous or harmless across the board. Some may have effects that are no greater than a sugar pill while others can cause dependence, addiction, and negative short-term and long-term health effects.
The following is a breakdown of different nootropic substances, their effectiveness, and whether or not they can lead to addiction. It’s important to note that addiction, especially psychological addiction, can have more to do with the user than the specific drug. Addiction is caused by a combination of factors like genetics, environment, and development. If you have a family history of addiction or a personal history of mental health issues, it would be best to avoid experimenting with different chemicals, even with over-the-counter drugs. Either way, you should consult with a doctor before trying different nootropic drugs or supplements.
Learn more about nootropic substances and how they might affect you.
What are Nootropics?
Nootropics are a wide category of drugs that are said to have a positive impact on cognitive functions. They are sometimes called cognitive enhancers or study drugs. The word nootropic was first used by psychologist Corneliu E. Giurgea, and it combines the Greek words for the mind (nous) and to bend (trepein). The nootropic category can include a wide range of specific drugs including caffeine, amphetamines, nicotine, narcolepsy medications, and a variety of other medications. There are also a number of dietary supplements that are sold as having nootropic effects. However, there are a variety of substances that claim to have nootropic effects but aren’t more effective than placebos. The placebo effect can also be profound when it comes to nebulous, intangible effects like focus. If you believe a drug will increase your focus, you may start to feel your focus increasing.
Nootropics began to be studied in the 1970s, but the research is still lacking, even with popular stimulants that are commonly prescribed. The bulk of the research has been focused on their use in treating specific disorders like ADHD or narcolepsy. However, there have been some studies into the effects of certain drugs that are said to have nootropic effects, and some appear to be more effective than others.
Common Nootropic Substances
Since nootropic drugs cover a vast swath of different types of drugs, drugs with almost nothing in common from a chemical standpoint can share similar chemical nootropic effects. Stimulants and racetams are two categories that seem to have the most cognitive-enhancing effects, but there are also some herbs and a variety of unrelated chemicals that may also work as mental boosters. Here are some of the most common categories of nootropic substances and the individual chemicals inside them:
Central nervous system stimulants are a common class of drugs and among the most familiar nootropic substances to a layperson. Stimulants all work in the body to excite the central nervous system by interacting with naturally occurring feel-good chemicals. These chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, are closely tied to reward and motivation. When they are released, you may feel more alert, energized, and motivated. Stimulants are commonly used in both prescription medications and illicit drugs because of their powerful effects. The most powerful stimulants, like cocaine, can cause euphoria and a feeling of invincibility. However, less potent stimulants are more commonly used as nootropics because there are less likely to have intoxicating effects. Here are some common stimulants that are used as cognitive enhancers:
- Amphetamines – This class includes drugs like Benzedrine, Adderall, and Dextroamphetamine which are often used to treat ADHD, narcolepsy, and obesity. The drugs have been studied for their potential cognitive enhancement in people with and without ADHD. A 2015 study found that low doses of amphetamines were able to increase cognitive functions like memory, impulse inhibition (which helps focus), and attention. A 2014 review found that amphetamines also helped non-ADHD youth recall more information. Amphetamines are prescription drugs that can cause dependence and addiction when abused.
- Methylphenidate – This is another drug that’s commonly used to treat ADHD. It has been found to improve cognitive functions in healthy people, and it may also improve a person’s ability to complete mundane tasks. Methylphenidate is also moderately addictive and has a relatively high liability for psychological dependence.
- Eugeroics – This category includes prescriptions like modafinil and adrafinil that are used to treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy. It has shown to increase alertness and even reasoning and problem-solving skills. Like other stimulants, it can be potentially addictive.
- Caffeine – Caffeine, fulfilling the role of America’s lifeblood, is more than just a cultural touchstone and the source of Monday morning office kitchen clichés. Caffeine from tea, coffee, or caffeine supplements can increase wakefulness, alertness, and focus. One study found that it increased attentional performance.
- Nicotine – Nicotine is one of the most commonly used recreational drugs in the United States and may be the most frequently used stimulant in the world. Despite the negative health impact, the nicotine in cigarettes, nicotine gum, and patches have been found to have a positive impact on cognitive functions and can even slightly increase fine motor skills. However, nicotine is extremely addictive, and smoking has proven to cause deadly health issues like lung cancer.
Racetams are a class of drugs that share a specific chemical structure and are said to have nootropic effects. The drugs in this category are often poorly understood, especially when it comes to how they work in the brain. They may have some affinity to bind to receptors in the central nervous system, but they are also reported to work on specific neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain. Though there is still more research to be done that can help us understand them better, some racetams seem to have a significant effect on cognition. Here are some common racetams and their effectiveness as nootropic chemicals:
- Piracetam – This racetam is sold in the United Kingdom as a remedy for muscle twitching, but it’s not approved in the United States as a medication or supplement. It’s marketed as a nootropic, but research into this drug’s cognitive benefits have been inconclusive. It appears to cause mild effects, at most.
- Oxiracetam – This drug is a mild stimulant that is sold as a nootropic drug. It has shown to be safe to use, even in high doses, but it’s not approved for any medical purposes in the U.S.
- Phenylpiracetam – Phenylpiracetam is an analog of Piracetam, and it was developed for Soviet Cosmonauts in 1983. It was intended to help manage prolonged periods of stress. Animal studies suggest that the drug may be useful in treating amnesia, depression, anxiety, and improving memory.
- Aniracetam – This is another European drug that’s not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Dietary supplements are typically the milder option when it comes to nootropic substances. Many dietary supplements are legal, over-the-counter herbs or pills that, at worst, do nothing at all and, at best, have some mild effects. Here are some common supplements and their effectiveness as a nootropic substance:
- Ginseng – This supplement is said to be mentally beneficial and that it might be able to help patients with dementia. However, a 2010 review revealed that there was a lack of evidence that supported those claims.
- Ginkgo – An extract from a leaf called Ginkgo biloba is said to enhance cognitive function in healthy people; however, there is very little evidence to support claims.
- Sage – Sage is a common herb, and it’s said to have positive effects on the brain. However, research is still inconclusive. Plus, in large doses, a chemical called thujone that’s present in sage may be toxic.
Other Various Chemicals
There are a variety of other unrelated chemicals that have been studied for their potential cognitive effects. In some cases, chemicals can be mixed together in formulas called nootropic stacks that are said to compound benefits. Some users will even mix and match different chemicals in self-experimentation. This can be potentially dangerous, and it’s generally a good idea to avoid mixing chemicals if you are not sure how they will react together in your system.
College campuses are often a place of experimentation, and it, unfortunately, doesn’t all take place in chemistry labs. Students often engage in substance use and abuse during their college career. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that nearly 60 percent of college students between 18 and 22 drank alcohol in the past month in 2014. Two out of three of those students engaged in binge drinking. Students may also use other drugs like prescription pain pills, marijuana, and cocaine. Students often seek out opportunities to flex their new-found independence and take advantage of limited supervision. However, college can also be a high-pressure atmosphere that leads to anxiety and depression. Some students may party and use substances as a way to unwind and self-medicate.
However, there are many students who are abusing prescription drugs for purposes that aren’t related to recreational use. Instead, they’re taking certain drugs to help them study and gain an academic edge. In 2006, a report revealed that 4 percent of older teens and young adults misused prescription stimulants. As the problem grew, more studies looked into the causes and consequences of non-medical prescription stimulant use.
A University of Maryland study looked at the motivators to use prescription stimulants like Adderall, despite a diagnosed medical need in 2016. Students reported that they wanted to achieve academic or athletic enhancement, they wanted to stay awake longer, they used to skip meals and lose weight, and they believed that prescription stimulants were relatively safe.
ADHD drugs like Adderall are designed to increase focus. Even people who don’t have diagnosed attention issues can feel an increase in alertness, focus, and the ability to retain more information. Students often use the drugs to pull all-nighters and cram information before an exam. Students report positive results in the form of increased test scores and improved grade point averages. However, the University of Maryland study indicated that students who abused prescription stimulants typically had lower grades than students who didn’t use the drugs.
This could be explained by a number of variables. Students who are generally high-achievers may not feel the need to use study drugs, students who abuse stimulants may be more likely to use other drugs (which the study also noted), and people with struggling grades may be more likely to turn to cognitive enhancers.
Stimulant abuse can also lead to some negative side effects that end up causing unwanted adverse effects on a student’s health and performance. Stimulants can lead to insomnia which can lower your overall cognitive functioning. Sleep deprivation can lead to physical problems like weight loss, depression, and memory loss. High doses of prescription amphetamines can sometimes lead to psychotic symptoms that are similar to schizophrenia. Stimulant-induced psychosis is a serious psychological issue that may need professional help to get over.Many students who abuse stimulants assume they are relatively safe drugs, even without a prescription. However, the illicit use of any psychoactive drug comes with inherent risks. The stimulants themselves can cause dangerous side effects. They can affect your heart rate and blood pressure and usually require a physical examination by a doctor to determine if it’s safe for you to use. But illicit pills can also contain dangerous contaminants like powerful opioids that are pressed into the pills. Though some colleges turn a blind eye to substance use on college campuses, it’s important for students to be aware of the risks.