The Real Deal on Trending Nootropics, Smart Drugs, and Brain-Boosting Supplements
Nootropics aren't the latest spin on safari fashion. The supplements, also known as smart drugs and cognitive enhancers, are said to boost brain functioning—think improved memory, focus, and creativity—and have become popular among Silicon Valley techies looking for a competitive edge and to "optimize" cognitive processes.
What are nootropics?
Piracetam, the world's first official nootropic, was discovered accidentally in the 1960s by Romanian scientist, Corneliu Giurgea, while trying to develop sleeping pills. Rather than quiet the brain, piracetam seemed to activate the brain. Giurgea coined the term nootropic from the Greek words for "mind" and "bending."
"Man will not wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain," the father of nootropics said.
What do nootropics do?
It's easy to see the appeal of popping a pill each morning—a daily regimen devotees of nootropics call a "stack"—to achieve better brain function. That's the way our culture works. Whether it's a hot bod, big bucks, or a better better brain, we want what we want, we want it yesterday, and we want it to be easy. So, do nootropics actually work?
"The answer is a combination of 'sometimes' and 'maybe' with a side of 'well, not by much,'" writes Sonia Mann at Inc. "It's easy to get your hopes up that the next pill or powder you try will be the one that makes you a thousand times more productive, but only the lucky psychoactive dabblers see even a marginal improvement."
Even well-studied piracetam has failed to live up to initial hopes it could cure diseases of cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer's. Cochrane, an independent evaluator of health research, has been reviewing studies of piracetam's effects on people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease since 2000. One of the review's authors, Leon Flicker, a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Western Australia, called the evidence for piracetam's use as a smart drug "almost nonexistent."
And that's the smart drug we know the most about. "Piracetam has been studied for decades," cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Hill, the founder of a neurofeedback company Peak Brain Institute, told the Washington Post. But "some of [the newer] compounds are things that some random editor found in a scientific article, copied the formula down and sent it to China and had a bulk powder developed three months later that they're selling." He added: "Please don't take it, people!"
What Believers Say
In the last several years, a number of Silicon Valley startups have burst onto the scene selling nootropics. If you're a fan of bulletproof coffee and and a high-fat ketogenic diet, you might want to try nootropics. Devotees of the smart drugs report improved focus, attention span, and reaction time. "I feel like I had a cup of coffee, but not jittery," said a woman who tried Beekeeper's Naturals B.LXR.
CEO of nootropic startup HVMN (pronounced "human") said the company's supplements had the potential to unlock the "next-level thinking" key to humanity's evolution. "In a way, it's almost arming humanity against artificial intelligence and robots," Geoffrey Woo told Bloomberg.
Much of the research on nootropics has been conducted on mice, and while some studies have found short-term benefits, there is no evidence that smart drugs improve thinking or productivity over the long run.
"There's a sizable demand, but the hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence," Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System, told the Washington Post.
But the believers believe. To test its claims, HVMN commissioned a randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled clinical trial of the company's product SPRINT in collaboration with Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The results were not as promising as they'd hoped.
"In healthy young students, caffeine improves memory performance and sensorimotor speed, whereas SPRINT does not affect the cognitive performance at the dose tested," the study concluded.
Because they don't claim to prevent, cure, or diagnose disease, smart drug supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. When they do make such claims about brain function, they get into hot water.
In 2017, The Federal Trade Commission and New York's attorney general charged Wisconsin-based Quincy Bioscience, manufacturer of the product Prevagen, with fraud for making "false and unsubstantiated claims that the product improves memory, provides cognitive benefits, and is clinically shown to work."
For a Better Brain, Go Back to Basics
Eat well, exercise, sleep. And drink a cup of coffee.
The most popular and widely used nootropic is caffeine. We just don't call our Starbucks habit biohacking.
Volumes of research shows that at low doses, caffeine increases alertness and performance on attention tasks. But at high doses, as any coffee lover knows, caffeine can cause increased anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia.
Enter tea. In addition to caffeine, tea also contains the amino acid l-theanine, which studies show mitigates the negative effects of caffeine such as anxiety, elevated blood pressure, and poor sleep.
There is no magic bullet for a better brain. Womp womp.
I confess: I began research on this article wanting to believe in the power of smart drugs and nootropics. I was ready to Amazon Prime the best of the bunch. But like getting that hot bod and big bucks, a better brain takes discipline and hard work.
"[There are] no randomized, controlled trials in human beings that show that these nootropics have any benefits above and beyond what we would see if someone were to follow a healthy diet and maintain regular exercise," Dr. Candy Tsourounis, a professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, told CNBC.
The best way to "optimize" the brain in this case, is not a sexy packaged supplement but a simple, old-fashioned piece of folk wisdom: Use it or lose it.