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Nootropics: do brain-boosting drugs work and are they safe?

An assortment of supplements and pills promising to boost brain activity and performance have been available to buy over the counter or on prescription for a number of years. 

But addiction specialist Rehabs UK has warned that “the normalisation” of so-called nootropic products “could be fuelling a new surge in psychotropic substance addictions, with young people particularly at risk”.

So, what are nootropics?

The idea of a pill that “can supersize human intelligence” remains “decidedly science fiction”, said Time magazine. But “plenty” of professionals in drug development and research are working on nootropics, which are substances “designed to improve various aspects of cognition”. 

Roughly translated, said Time, the word nootropic is derived “from the Greek for ‘to bend or shape the mind’”. It was used in 1972, according to Live Science, by the Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu Giurgea, who discovered the “original ‘smart drug’” in the 1960s, said the BBC. Today, these products are also known as “cognition enhancers or memory enhancing substances”, noted Medical News Today. 

Nootropics can come as “pills, supplements and other substances”, and some of the “most popular” are a mix of “food-derived vitamins, lipids, phytochemicals and antioxidants”, said Time. Caffeine and nicotine are also common examples. 

How common are they? 

Some nootropics are available over the counter, while other medications are prescription only. 

Ritalin, a controlled medication prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), “is often abused by people seeking to improve” their mental focus, said the BBC. Modafinil has been used to treat narcolepsy since the 1990s, said Metro, and has “since become widespread for its supposed focus-enhancing effects”.

In 2016, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency warned university students about the potential risks of taking so-called “smart drugs” to boost their productivity. Research found that 14% of students surveyed were “likely” to purchase the substances during the academic year. 

In 2020, Dr Hilary McDermott at Loughborough University found that, of 506 students surveyed at 54 UK universities, 19% had taken cognitive enhancing substances. As of 2021, no universities in Britain had explicitly banned cognition enhancers, according to The Times.

How do they work and are they effective? 

Different nootropics work in different ways, including improving the brain’s supply of glucose and oxygen, protecting brain tissue from neurotoxicity, and having antihypoxic effects, a 2022 review of cognitive enhancers highlighted.

The efficacy of a nootropic is dependent on a number of factors, including the substance taken, dosage, frequency and whether it interacts with any other ingredients being consumed by the individual. 

Food-derived ingredients – “omega-3s in particular, but also flavonoids” – appear to boost “brain health and function”, said Time. But a 2015 medical review of these ingredients found “no convincing evidence of improvements in cognitive performance”. 

That’s not to say that some nootropics can’t aid memory functionality and focus – “there just isn’t much compelling evidence to support these claims”. 

Are they safe?

The allure of nootropics as a quick and easy way to boost brain function “is undoubtedly enticing”, said Live Science. But in reality, the idea remains “a dream”. 

Typically, nootropics are “very well tolerated”, said Professor Pavel Tlustoš, one of the authors of the 2022 review, with side effects “rare and typically mild”. However, he stressed that “none of these substances should be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding”.  

Depending on which substances are taken, Time noted that side effects may include: 

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia 

But “adjusting your brain chemistry isn’t as easy as popping a pill”, says Live Science. And while psychotropics “can be hugely important to improving mental health”, there are plenty of “downsides” too. “Things can go south pretty quickly”, when “healthy people” begin taking nootropics, particularly given that some are known to be highly addictive.

Rehabs UK has warned that people should be concerned about the rising prevalence of nootropic lifestyle products. Its research found that Google searches for “magic mushroom chocolate uk” had increased by 110% from February to March this year, and 140% for “how to make magic mushroom tea”.

Founder Lester Morse warned that these searches indicate people regard psilocybin mushrooms as “‘minor’ drugs”, and aren’t necessarily taking the potential risks “seriously”. “For a growing part of the population these things can destroy their minds and lives,” Morse stressed, citing potential side effects of paranoia, massive anxiety and loss of control. “Ultimately, this is just another route to addiction for many people.” 

If you’re looking for a way to boost your brain activity “in a way that is absolutely, 100% proven to be safe and effective”, then “get some exercise”, said Time.

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