Chances are, you haven’t heard about nootropics yet. They’re still pretty far out of the mainstream. But they’re beginning to gather some steam as they head for the public consciousness (pun intended), and it seems likely they’ll be getting increasing press in the near future.
So what are they?
Wikipedia says nootropics are also known as “smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers, and intelligence enhancers,” and “are drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve one or more aspects of mental function, such as working memory, motivation, and attention.” The term was coined in 1972 by Romanian psychologist Corneliu Giurgea and is a synthesis of the Greek words for “mind” and “to bend or turn.”
Giurgea synthesized piracetam, the first nootropic, in 1964, and he subsequently established a set of criteria these drugs should meet. For him, nootropics must enhance learning, increase the coupling of the brain’s hemispheres, and improve executive processing (which involves tasks such as planning, paying attention, and spatial awareness). It was also important to him that the drugs be nontoxic and nonaddictive. As he put it in his book Fundamentals to a Pharmacology of the Mind: “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.”
That seems inarguable. History affirms that there’s a basic human drive to improve ourselves between the ears. But can nootropics actually accomplish this?
Before answering that question, a distinction must be made. Wikipedia’s definition features synonyms such as “cognitive enhancers” and “smart drugs.” This is a source of some confusion, since much of what you may read on the subject of nootropics includes in that category such prescription drugs as Adderall, Ritalin, and the like. These are amphetamines or amphetamine-like substances that were originally intended to treat specific conditions, such as ADHD, sleep apnea, shift-work disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and narcolepsy.
But they are increasingly taken these days for off-label purposes. Adderall, for example, is as freely available as pot on college campuses at the moment. It’s the drug of choice as a study aid, especially when deadlines are involved. Amphetamines have the brief but efficient effect of promoting mental clarity and enabling increased focus.
In that sense, they are cognitive enhancers, but they are often erroneously classified as nootropics, which, as Giurgea posited, must be nontoxic and nonaddictive. These medications are neither, plus they carry the risk of serious side effects. A nootropic, on the other hand, is a nutritional supplement designed to improve brainpower in healthy adults over extended periods of time—safely.
Even excluding the aforementioned prescription drugs, the range of potential nootropics is wide. A whole host of naturally occurring foods and herbs—everything from ginseng to krill oil, grapeseed extract, yerba mate, even licorice, and many, many more—are touted as having nootropic properties.
But for our purposes, let’s concentrate on the newer, more exotic compounds that are attracting the most attention. A sampler (with acknowledgments to Nootriment, the most comprehensive website out there):
The “racetams.” As noted above, piracetam was Giurgea’s original creation, but its group now includes many newer arrivals that purport to be stronger and/or better, such as aniracetam, oxiracetam, coluracetam, nefiracetam, and pramiracetam. Racetams work by increasing levels of neurotransmitters and other chemicals required for proper brain function. Tests have shown that they improve cognitive function and increase the communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.
Noopept. The newest kid on the block. Not technically a racetam, though it is derived from this class and has similar mechanisms of action. Said to be over 1,000 times more concentrated than piracetam. Seen as being effective for disorders such as depression and anxiety. It activates receptors for dopamine as well as selective serotonin receptors and increases levels of nerve growth factor, which is a hormone involved in the maintenance and repair of healthy brain cells.
Choline. A compound that naturally occurs in many foods and has been added to the B-complex family of vitamins. It’s the precursor of acetylcholine, a crucial brain chemical necessary for the development and maintenance of healthy brain-cell membranes to ensure effective signaling, structural integrity, and neuronal fluidity. Those heavily involved with nootropics (so-called “noonauts”) usually take a combination of ingredients—a practice called “stacking”—and some form of choline is part of every stack.
Pyritinol. A synthetic derivative of Vitamin B6, pyritinol is a precursor of dopamine, which it transforms into once it successfully crosses the blood/brain barrier. Pyritinol can improve attention span, facilitate recall, elevate mood, and eliminate hangovers. It also aids in glucose uptake, which can be beneficial during periods of mental strain that diminish the glucose stores on which the brain depends for its energy.
Vinpocetine. A biosynthetic derived from an alkaloid found in the periwinkle plant. It’s a cerebral vasodilator that improves and increases blood flow specifically to the brain; blood pressure in other parts of the body is not affected. It’s been shown to increase the levels of many of the most important brain neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, as well as ATP, the primary source of intracellular energy.
Adrafinil. The precursor to the prescription medication modafinil. Modafinil—possession of which is a felony without a prescription—belongs to a class of drugs known as “eugeroics,” which promote mental alertness without the side effects of amphetamines, for which they are used as a substitute. It stimulates hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. The jury is out on modafinil’s long-term safety and susceptibility to abuse. But committed noonauts take it (or adrafinil) anyway.
All of this leads to some big questions. First, of course, is: do nootropics work? The answer: probably. While the evidence with some is anecdotal, there has been a surprising amount of scientific research done on others. Citations are available on the Nootriment website (although you have to dig around a bit to find them).
Second, are they safe? They seem to be. But since nootropics have only arrived relatively recently, long-term effects are generally unknown… so we can’t be sure. And of course, the consequences are unpredictable if someone mixes up a big stack combination of his or her own devising.
Third, are they legal? Yes. Apart from prescription drugs like Adderall and modafinil, possession of nootropics in any amount is legal for US citizens. However, they cannot be marketed as supplements, but only for purposes of “education and research.” This restriction is the responsibility of the seller and doesn’t apply to the consumer. Note also that other countries may have different laws.
Finally, is there any way to invest in nootropics? Since they’re already very popular in Silicon Valley, it’s likely just a matter of time before acceptance becomes much more widespread. They could develop into very big business indeed.
But it’s not one that many public companies are jumping into. One problem is likely the constraints on vendors’ abilities to market these substances as supplements. But almost certainly, the primary reason is that nootropics are already in the public domain, and exclusivity cannot be had. Most manufacturing is done in China and India. Thus, for example, while a big drug company like Belgium’s UCB does make piracetam, it’s a very small part of UCB’s business.
The only pure play we can find is Optigenex Inc. (OTC Pink: OPGX), makers of AC-11, a patented botanical extract that’s the main ingredient in a nootropic blend called AlphaBrain, from private company Onnit Labs. It trades for about a penny a share with close to zero volume. Not a very good bet.
It’s possible that a way to profit from nootropics will crop up in the future, as (and if) the drugs catch on. But that remains to be seen.