Smart Pills: Do they really exist?
28 January 2020
Some common nootropics used in the tech world include: A combination of caffeine and L-theanine to improve focus while maintaining a calm state. Bacopa Monnieri (also known as Brahmi) to improve memory formation. Ashwagandha to decrease stress. Plus many others that we’ll discuss throughout this article! There are literally hundreds of individual nutrients to choose from — vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and phytonutrients — and thousands of combinations of ingredients. Finding the best brain supplement to take largely depends on the results you are looking for.
Are you looking to increase your attention and concentration? Is your biggest concern reversing memory loss or preventing age-related mental decline?
In this guide, you’ll find what we feel are the best brain supplements — those that have been proven to be safe, effective, and cover a wide variety of needs. Some of these are powerful enough that they are sometimes used as prescription medications! We’ll examine the unique properties of each, including recommended dosages and side effects or interactions so you can make an informed decision.
Few things are more unnerving than the memory lapses most of us experience as we grow older. Younger people forget things all the time, of course, but for their elders, these lapses (the mislaid word, name, key or to-do list) call up the threat of permanent memory loss, as in Alzheimer’s disease, possibly the most feared of all disorders. Naturally, we yearn for a pill to prevent mental decline. There are numerous dietary supplements marketed to improve memory. All sorts of herbs (notably ginkgo), vitamins and fish oil, as well as countless cocktails of herbs and other ingredients (such as Focus Factor, Brain Reload, and Brain Alert), come with more or less blatant claims that they aid memory and mental ability but all of them, with the possible exception of fish oil supplements, have little or no basis for such claims. If a supplement ever turns out to boost memory or help prevent dementia, we hope to be the first to tell you. Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the latest scientific evidence about some of the most widely promoted ingredients.
Memory is a complicated phenomenon, affected by genetics, physiological changes, emotions, education, and experience. The cause of age-related memory loss remains largely a mystery, as does how to prevent it. If you’re experiencing problems, get a medical evaluation.
Some kinds of dementia are reversible. Another thing worth remembering: forgetfulness, as you grow older, does not mean you have dementia. Ignore the unsubstantiated claims made by supplements marketers. There is no convincing evidence that any brain formula, plant extract or vitamin will preserve memory. To keep your mind functioning on a high level, exercise your brain by learning something new and playing games that require concentration or analytic thinking. Physical exercise and staying socially connected also help maintain brain health.
Perhaps most important: have your blood pressure checked regularly. If it’s above normal, follow medical advice for bringing it under control. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia. Avoiding or at least controlling diabetes is also important; so is weight control, since obesity (especially in the abdomen) has been linked to an increased risk of dementia.
With the release of the movie Limitless featuring a fictitious smart drug known as NZT-48 which exponentially boosted human intelligence beyond its current limitations, more and more people began toying with the idea of a drug which could make them smarter.
Although it sounds like pipe-dream, scientists from around the world have been working to develop intelligence enhancing drugs which could do just that. As of today, scientists haven’t developed anything comparable to NZT-48, but we do have a few smart drugs (also known as nootropics) which are capable of improving our cognitive functions in meaningful ways.
Nootropics, or smart drugs, are being used around the world by students, entrepreneurs, small business owners, athletes, poker players, and housewives. They are used to boost learning ability, improve memory function, enhance focus and concentration, and even to improve verbal and written communication skills.
Not everyone who uses smart drugs is willing to admit it, but a recent survey (January 2013) done by the prestigious science publication, Nature found widespread use. At least one out of every five people surveyed reported using drugs for “non-medical reasons” in order to stimulate their concentration, focus, and memory.
This article will focus on five of the most popular smart drugs and compare their effects, benefits, side effects, availability and cost. Often, one of the differences between prescription and non-prescription substances is the potential they have for certain risk factors, including addiction and serious side effects.
Prescription medications are classified in “schedules” according to the potential for addiction or abuse. In the world of nootropics, prescription drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, and Dexedrine inevitably come to mind.
These three drugs are common psychostimulants used primarily to increase focus and concentrative abilities for those with ADHD or ADD. They are useful to help certain individuals but aren’t necessarily the best all-around prescription cognitive enhancers. Modafinil, a prescription drug used to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, continues to be the most popular prescription medication for smart drug users. It is a unique wakefulness-promoting drug belonging to a class of drugs known as eugeroics.
Modafinil’s popularity among nootropic users has earned it a place in mainstream publications like Rolling Stone and The Atlantic, as well as being spotlighted on national news programs on ABC and CNN.
Users report Modafinil not only provides them with a natural feeling of mental wakefulness but also promotes motivation, focus, and concentration. For many users, productivity increases, projects are begun and completed, and staying on task not only becomes easier – it becomes more like a directive.
Modafinil, though potentially beneficial in the ways described, isn’t without its drawbacks as a smart drug:
For these reasons, many smart drug users opt to use a non-prescription drug called Adrafinil, which is the precursor to Modafinil.
A smart drug is generally a prescribed medication or off-label drug used primarily to treat some kind of mental or cognitive disorder. The most common are drugs such as Adderall (dextroamphetamine) or Ritalin (methylphenidate) in the stimulant class used to treat symptoms related to ADHD – although legal and illegal off-label use is rampant. And while they may promote focus and energy in some people, others have a dramatic side effect, to body and brain.
Smart drugs in the stimulant class also tend to be reinforcing, producing spikes in dopamine and norepinephrine. This leads to tolerance and habit formation, including adverse effects on appetite, mood stability, cardiac function, stress levels, and possibly many other unwanted effects – especially on younger brains such as teens and young adults.
Irritability and mood swings, anxiety, sleep issues, and other forms of emotional or cognitive regulation problems can crop up over time with stimulant use, as well. A popular atypical stimulant “smart drug” includes the narcolepsy agents Modafinil / Adrafinil, although their effects on cognition beyond wakefulness are unproven, and side effects – while rare – can be life-threatening.
In contrast to a smart drug, a nootropic is generally a non-prescribed compound, including vitamins, herb, other supplements, a natural or synthetic compound that may increase or protect cognition in some way. The preponderance of research in the past 40 years shows some effects on focus, attention, effects on aging, and possibly cellular metabolism. To paraphrase the definition of “nootropic” as initially coined in this article by the researcher Girugea in 1972, it is something that improves cognition without appreciable side effects or provides from protection to the brain.
In a modern context we think of nootropics as something used not to treat any mental condition or pathology directly, but instead to provide support to peak function, protect against long-term risk, and provide a daily boost. Across the field, true nootropic ingredients and full blends can now be found largely sourced from natural ingredients.
Nootropic blends are designed to leverage synergy effects suggested in the research and subjective experiences. The goals with nootropics should always be to allow for greater and more consistent cognitive effort and flow, without the side effects of a stimulant or other harsh substance.
Smart drugs such as Adderall can cause dangerous lows, psychosis with extreme use, rebound fatigue, and depression, even at lower use levels.
As an amphetamine, Adderall can act as a reuptake inhibitor, meaning that it can compete with other neurotransmitters for reuptake.
Specifically, it is thought to block the uptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, which are associated with reward behaviors and our nervous system functions, respectively.
This causes a flood of these neurotransmitters onto multiple receptors, causing neurotransmitter depletion and overexcited receiving neurons.
This large “signal” is the reason for the focus, but also responsible for some of the side effects that go along with this class of prescription drugs.
Existing research is also a bit weak on any improvement that Adderall or other stimulants may have on short-term memory or cognitive function, and some actually may impair function.
Modafinil, also known as Provigil, is an example of a smart drug that has been used like a nootropic. Modafinil is prescribed to treat sleep disorders, but when combined with a normal functioning brain, can potentially cause increases in cognition and awareness.
Just like Adderall, the use of these drugs outside the medical field does not make them a nootropic. Modafinil is also a reuptake inhibitor for dopamine, causing the same type of neurotransmitter flood as Adderall.
However, Modafinil may also affect the histaminergic pathway, which deals with wakefulness and the delicate immune response of the body. Histaminergic neurons in the brain are more active during wakefulness and slow their firing pattern as we rest or sleep.
Modafinil’s “beneficial” side effects may come from this heightened histaminergic neuronal activation, but too much activation can cause apoptosis or cell death. In addition, this has been shown to cause adverse skin reactions that required hospitalization since the histamine pathway also deals with our immune system. Modafinil may increase your intelligence but can be extremely dangerous to the health of your brain and body.