Last updated: (only references) Apr 13, 2012

‘Nootropics’ is an umbrella term for ingestible products that enhance memory and learning. The term, loosely translated to mean “mind-turning”, was coined in 1972 by Corneliu E. Giurgea. The nootropic movement was started by his team’s discovery of piracetam‘s (trade name Nootropyl, by UCB Pharma) neuroprotective effects in rat models, 8 years after its discovery in 1964, and 6 years its use for motion sickness treatment in 1966[2]. These brain enhancers rely on various mechanisms  to directly and indirectly effect changes in neurochemical levels. Most formal nootropic research has been conducted on healthy and cognitively impaired animal models, or cognitively impaired human subjects (e.g. people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease). Very few studies have been conducted on off-label use of various nootropic drugs; off-label efficacy is primarily supported by anecdotal evidence, and new applications are driven by recreational experimentation.

Researchers who explicitly define ‘nootropics’ appear to subscribe to two similar nootropic-characterizing schools: Giurgea (1972) and Skondia (1979).

According to Giurgea’s original definition, a nootropic agent would[1]:

  1. Enhance learning and memory;
  2. Facilitate the flow of information between cerebral hemispheres;
  3. Enhance [neural] resistance towards chemical and physical injuries (injuries covering a fairly wide-array of ailments);
  4. Lack the usual psychological and cardiovascular pharmacological activity of psychopharmaca; have very limited or no side effects

According to Skondia’s definition, a nootropic agent would[3]:

  1. Not have direct vasoactive effects (dilation or constriction of blood vessels, e.g. changes in blood pressure or heart rate);
  2. Affect electrical activity (power spectrum) in the brain, quantifiable via electroencephalography (EEG) measurements;
  3. Be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier;
  4. Have minimal side effects;
  5. Increase metabolism in the brain

The definition a researcher follows crafts the experiment. For example, a follower of Giurgea’s definition may verify piracetam‘s neuroprotective effects by shocking a non-drugged rat and comparing its memory/learning against that of a rat receiving a piracetam regimen.


  1. ^ Giurgea, C., Vers une pharmacologie de l’activite integrative du cerveau. Tentative du concept nootrope en psychopharmacologie. Actual. Pharmacol. 1972 [cited 2012 Jan 19];25:115-156. Note: Couldn’t get a copy of it on PubMed/Elsevier; the paper was referenced in another paper[2].
  2. ^ Gouliaev AH, Senning A. Piracetam and other structrually related nootropics (full-length review). Brain Research Reviews [Internet]. 1993 Aug 17 [cited 2012 Jan 10];19:180-222. Available from: ScienceDirect.
  3. ^ Nicolaus BJR. Chemistry and pharmacology of nootropics. Drug Development Research [Internet]. 1982 [cited 2012 Jan 19];2:463-74. Available from: Wiley.
  4. ^ Skondia V. Criteria for clinical development and classification of nootropic drugs. Clin. Ther. 1979 [cited 2012 Jan 19];2:316. Note: Couldn’t get a copy of it on PubMed/Elsevier; the paper was referenced in another paper[3].

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