Broadly speaking, a nootropic is a substance that enhances cognitive function. A nootropic can act to increase memory, concentration, motivation, mood or just about anything that is related to cognition and thought.
Nootropics go by many names including, smart drug and cognitive enhancers and generally work by supporting or altering the brains neurochemicals. Some nootropics work by altering neurotransmitters, while others stimulate neurogenesis, but the general idea is that nootropics induce positive changes in the brain that support the individuals needs.
When/Where Did Nootropics Originate?
While cognitive enhancement with various substances has been documented in Chinese and ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years, the term nootropic was coined in 1972 by Dr Corneliu Giurgea.
Dr Giurega was a Romanian scientist responsible for the synthesis of piracetam, a man-made nootropic first synthesized in 1964 that remains perhaps the most popular nootropic to this day. He derived the term from the greek words nous (mind) and trepein (to turn, to bend).
Defining Nootropics – Dr Giurega’s Criteria
Dr Guirega had a series of criteria a substance had to meet to be classed as a nootropic:
- The substance should enhance memory and ability to learn.
- The substance should help the brain function under disruptive conditions, such as hypoxia (low oxygen) and electroconvulsive shock.
- The substance should protect the brain from chemical and physical assaults, such as anti-cholinergic drugs and barbiturates.
- The substance should increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and sub cortical regions of the brain.
- The substance should lack a generalized sedative or stimulatory effect. It should possess few-no side effects and be virtually non toxic.
Dr Guirega’s definition of a nootropic is fairly strict and rules out lots of commonly used cognitive enhancers such as caffeine. This distinction allows us to further classify nootropics.
Cognitive Enhancers Vs Nootropics
Strictly speaking, caffeine is not a nootropic per se, but rather a cognitive enhancer. While caffeine does clearly enhance cognitive function, it only does so in the short term. In higher doses caffeine carries a generalized stimulant effect and does possess side effects such as heart palpitations and anxiety. Most importantly caffeine has a tolerance; That is to say, caffeine becomes less effective with prolonged and repeated use and thus doesn’t fit Dr Guirega’s definition of a nootropic.
A Second Way To Classify – Dr Skondia’s Criteria
Dr Skondia was a second researcher to attempt to classify nootropics. His criteria was based on a nootropics metabolic approach more than Dr Giurega’s. Specifically:
1. The substance possesses no direct vasoactivity (vasodilation or vasoconstriction).
2. The substance shouldn’t change basic EEG rhythm.
3. The substance must cross the blood brain barrier.
4. The substance must possess metabolic activity in the human brain.
5. The substance must have little-no side effects.
6. The substance must undergo clinical trials which reveal metabolic cerebral improvement.
Probably the biggest difference between the researchers definitions is that Dr Giurega thought the substance should enhance learning and memory while Dr Skondia thought a substance has to enhance brain metabolism via glucose or oxygen update. The racetams (piracetam, pramiracetam, oxiracetam, aniracetam) would fit both Skondia’s and Giurega’s definitions as “true nootropics” but many commonly used “cognitive enhancers” wouldn’t. Thus we can state that all nootropics are cognitive enhancers, while all cognitive enhancers aren’t strictly nootropics.
Relaxing The Criteria – Settling In The Grey Area
While both of the researchers definitions are helpful, they are somewhat restrictive and leave many compounds in a grey area of having some nootropic properties, but not quite meeting all of the criteria. Both ginkgo biloba and vinpocetine cross the blood brain barrier, neither stimulate nor sedate and both are purported to enhance memory. However both are cerebral vasodilators that directly enhance blood flow to to the brain thus failing Skondia’s criteria. Strictly speaking are they nootropics? No. Practically speaking? Almost certainly.
My Current Working Definition Of A Nootropic
In my own head, I classify a nootropic as a substance that should:
1. Enhance cognitive function and/or protect or repair the brain
2. Have no tolerance and low-no side effects
If the substance meets criteria 1 but fails criteria 2, it’s probably a stimulant or sedative, both of which can be cognitive enhancers, but in my mind they aren’t nootropics.
Some Common Nootropics
Racetams – Piracetam, aniracetam ,oxiracetam, pramiracetam, noopept. Racetam’s are a group of nootropics that first started with piracetam’s discovery. Subsequent racetam derivatives are more potent on a gram for gram basis and carry subtle differences in effect.
Modified Vitamins and Nutrients – Both sulbutiamine and pyritinol are man made semi-synthetic forms of vitamins B1 and B6 respectively. Sulbutiamine plays a role in dopamine modulation in the brain, while pyritinol raises acetylcholine levels. Creatine, a common sports supplement also has cognitive enhancing qualities.
Some Common Cognitive Enhancing Stimulants
Adderall – A mixture of amphetamine salts used to treat ADHD in children and adults. Adderall is frequently used off label and illicitly for cognitive enhancement and recreational purposes. As with all amphetamines it carries a wide range of side effects.
Selegiline – A stimulant drug that inhibits monoamine oxidase B (MAO-B) in the brain. Monoamine oxidase works to speed up the breakdown of neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. By selegiline Inhibiting MAO it raises neurotransmitter levels,
Modafinil – A relatively new stimulant that is touted as a wakefulness promoting agent. Modafinil is thought to act through histamine levels in the brain. Modafinil possesses fewer side effects than traditional amphetamine based stimulants.
Caffeine – The world’s favorite drug. caffeine alleviates fatigue by inhibiting adenosine binding in the brain . Caffeine raises levels of key neurotransmitters acetylcholine, serotonin and dopamine.
Phenlypiracetam – A modified form of piracetam that is far more stimulating than other racetams. Phenylpiracetam is motivating and energizing.
Some Common Cognitive Enhancing Sedatives
Picamilon – A combination of the neurotransmitter GABA and vitamin B3 niacin. While GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows neuronal firing, niacin is a vasodialator that enhances blood flow to the brain.
Phenibut – A powerful form of GABA that is able to cross the blood brain barrier and bind to GABA receptors in the brain.
L-Theanine – A naturally occurring amino acid that promotes GABA release in the brain. Theanine is naturally found in tea (green, black and oolong) and is frequently stacked with caffeine to promote a “clean” jitter free experience.
Lesser Known Cognitive Enhancers and Nootropics
Selank – An anxiolytic peptide developed in Russia. Selank is based on an endogenous peptide tuftsin, somethings immune system naturally makes.
Sunifiram – An ampakine research nootropic, sunifiram appears to be very stimulating. Little / no research in humans available.
Consider reading the complete guide to nootropics.