Nootropics ( /noʊ.əˈtrɒpᵻks/ noh-ə-TROP-iks)—also called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers—are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals. The use of cognition-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals in the absence of a medical indication is one of the most debated topics among neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and physicians which spans a number of issues, including the ethics and fairness of their use, concerns over adverse effects, and the diversion of prescription drugs for nonmedical uses, among others. Nonetheless, the international sales of cognition-enhancing supplements exceeded US$1 billion in 2015 and the global demand for these compounds is still growing rapidly.
- Availability and prevalence
- Use by students
- Side effects
- Dietary supplements
- Null findings in systematic reviews
The word nootropic was coined in 1972 by a Romanian psychologist and chemist, Corneliu E. Giurgea, from the Greek words νους (nous), or "mind", and τρέπειν (trepein), meaning to bend or turn.
Availability and prevalence
There are only a few drugs that are known to improve some aspect of cognition. Many more are in different stages of development. The most commonly used class of drug is stimulants, such as caffeine.
These drugs are purportedly used primarily to treat cognitive or motor function difficulties attributable to disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, and ADHD. Some researchers, however, report more widespread use despite concern for further research. Nevertheless, intense marketing may not correlate with efficacy. While scientific studies support the beneficial effects of some compounds, manufacturer's marketing claims for dietary supplements are usually not formally tested and verified by independent entities.
Use by students
Among students, nootropics have been used to increase productivity, despite their long-term effects lacking conclusive research in healthy individuals. The use of prescription stimulants is especially prevalent among students attending academically competitive colleges. Surveys suggest that 0.7–4.5% of German students have used cognitive enhancers in their lifetime. Stimulants such as dimethylamylamine and methylphenidate are used on college campuses and by younger groups. Based upon studies of self-reported illicit stimulant use, 5–35% of college students use diverted ADHD stimulants, which are primarily used for performance enhancement rather than as recreational drugs.
Several factors positively and negatively influence the use of drugs to increase cognitive performance. Among them are personal characteristics, drug characteristics, and characteristics of the social context.
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, and these concerns apply to cognitive-enhancing drugs as well. Long-term safety data is typically unavailable for some types of nootropics (e.g., many non-pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers, newly developed pharmaceuticals and pharmaceuticals with short-term therapeutic use). Racetams—piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam—have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in individuals without cognitive impairments. While addiction to stimulants is sometimes identified as a cause for concern, a very large body of research on the therapeutic use of the "more addictive" psychostimulants indicate that addiction is fairly rare in therapeutic doses. On their safety profile, a systematic review from June 2015 asserted, "evidence indicates that at low, clinically relevant doses, psychostimulants are devoid of the behavioral and neurochemical actions that define this class of drugs and instead act largely as cognitive enhancers."
In the United States dietary supplements may be marketed if the manufacturer can show that it can manufacture the supplement safely, that the supplement is indeed generally recognized as safe, and if the manufacturer does not make any claims about the supplement's use to treat or prevent any disease or condition; supplements that contain drugs or for which treatment or prevention claims are made are illegal under US law.
In 2015, systematic medical reviews and meta-analyses of clinical research in humans established consensus that certain stimulants, only when used at low (therapeutic) concentrations, unambiguously enhance cognition in the general population; in particular, the classes of stimulants that demonstrate cognition-enhancing effects in humans act as direct agonists or indirect agonists of dopamine receptor D1, adrenoceptor A2, or both receptors in the prefrontal cortex. Relatively high doses of stimulants cause cognitive deficits.
Racetams, such as piracetam, oxiracetam, and aniracetam, are structurally similar compounds, which are often marketed as cognitive enhancers and sold over-the-counter. Racetams are often referred to as nootropics, but this property of the drug class is not well established. The racetams have poorly understood mechanisms of action; however, piracetam and aniracetam are known to act as positive allosteric modulators of AMPA receptors and appear to modulate cholinergic systems.
According to the US Food and Drug Administration, "Piracetam is not a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical, or dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake. Further, piracetam is not a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract or combination of any such dietary ingredient. [...] Accordingly, these products are drugs, under section 201(g)(1)(C) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(C), because they are not foods and they are intended to affect the structure or any function of the body. Moreover, these products are new drugs as defined by section 201(p) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(p), because they are not generally recognized as safe and effective for use under the conditions prescribed, recommended, or suggested in their labeling."