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How do Smart Pills really work?

03 April 2019

How do Smart Pills really work?

What if you could simply take a pill that would instantly make you more intelligent? One that would enhance your cognitive capabilities including attention, memory, focus, motivation and other higher executive functions? If you have ever seen the movie Limitless, you have an idea of what this would look like—albeit the exaggerated Hollywood version. The movie may be fictional but the reality may not be too far behind.

So what Are Brain Pills & Nootropics?

The concept of neuroenhancement and the use of substances to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals, is certainly not a new one. In fact, one of the first cognitive enhancement drugs, Piracetam, was developed over fifty years ago by psychologist and chemist C.C. Giurgea. Although he did not know the exact mechanism, Giurgia believed the drug boosted brain power and so began his exploration into “smart pills“, or nootropics, a term he coined from the Greek nous, meaning “mind,” and trepein, meaning “to bend.


Listed below is a brief overview of some of the more frequently used nootropics including wakefulness-promoting agents such as modafinil, and several in the racetam class of drugs, grouped together because of their shared chemical structure. Note that these are not comprehensive descriptions. Those can be found in sources cited.


The so-called “original smart pill,” Piracetam has been shown in studies to significantly improve cognitive and working memory at all levels. Developed in 1964, it is one of the more researched nootropics in the racetam class of supplements. Piracetam is not approved for use as a medical drug or dietary supplement in the U.S.


A synthetic derivative of Piracetam, aniracetam is believed to be the second most widely used nootropic in the Racetam family, popular for its stimulatory effects because it enters the bloodstream quickly. Initially developed for memory and learning, many anecdotal reports also claim that it increases creativity. However, clinical studies show no effect on the cognitive functioning of healthy adult mice.


Popular among computer programmers, oxiracetam, another racetam, has been shown to be effective in recovery from neurological trauma and improvement to long-term memory. It is believed to effective in improving attention span, memory, learning capacity, focus, sensory perception, and logical thinking. It also acts as a stimulant, increasing mental energy, alertness, and motivation.


Modafinil, sold under the name Provigil, is a stimulant that some have dubbed the “genius pill.” It is a wakefulness-promoting agent (modafinil) and glutamate activators (ampakine). Originally developed as a treatment for narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, physicians are now prescribing it “off-label” to cellists, judges, airline pilots, and scientists to enhance attention, memory and learning. According to Scientific American, “scientific efforts over the past century [to boost intelligence] have revealed a few promising chemicals, but only modafinil has passed rigorous tests of cognitive enhancement.” A stimulant, it is a controlled substance with limited availability in the U.S.

Ginsenoside Rg1:

Ginsenoside Rg1, a molecule found in the plant genus panax (ginseng), is being increasingly researched as an effect nootropic. Its cognitive benefits including increasing learning ability and memory acquisition, and accelerating neural development. It targets mainly the NMDA receptors and nitric oxide synthase, which both play important roles in personal and emotional intelligence. The authors of the study cited above, say that their research findings thus far have boosted their confidence in a “bright future of cognitive drug development.”


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