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Nootropics: Scientific Breakthrough or Snake Oil?

It sounds like a concept straight out of a science fiction film: pills or drinks that improve your brain’s ability to focus, concentrate, remember, and learn, improving your capacity for productivity. For centuries, people have sold products that claim to offer these and other benefits, and nearly all of them are now widely understood to cause a placebo effect at best and harmful side effects at worst. But nootropics, marketed by brands such as Trubrain and Neurohacker, differ from these products as their manufacturers claim that their formulations are derived from the cutting edge of neuroscience. That being said, consumers should exercise care when selecting a drug or supplement, particularly ones that were not prescribed by a doctor for treatment of a medical condition. As such, it’s a good idea to do some research before investing money and potentially your health into a cognitive-enhancing supplement.

As the category of nootropics, which simply refers to substances that may improve cognitive function, is a broad one, it is useful to understand the differences between various drugs and supplements that fall under this category. You may be surprised to learn that caffeine, which most people consume every day, is considered a nootropic, as are Adderall and Ritalin, prescription drugs used to treat ADHD and other mental illnesses. As such, some nootropics are clearly quite safe while others can be very dangerous when used improperly. While many nootropics are only legally available with a prescription, most reputable doctors won’t write a prescription for a drug to improve a patient’s cognitive ability if they have no underlying illness. Modafinil, for instance, is a prescription drug used to treat narcolepsy which is thought by nootropics enthusiasts to improve executive functioning, attention and memory, and has been shown to have mild efficacy in these areas, though more research needs to be done to determine whether taking modafinil is safe in the long term.

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Other nootropics are available off-the-shelf or online without a prescription, and while these products are more likely to be safe, their effectiveness has not been demonstrated to the degree of scientific rigor necessary to satisfy the medical community. These products tend to feature a blend of widely available supplements, like taurine, l-theanine, and l-tyrosine, and claim to “fuel cognition while supporting long-term brain health,” in the case of Neurohacker’s Qualia Mind product. Oftentimes, these nootropic blends will include caffeine and a wide range of vitamins in addition to ingredients derived from herbs like ashwagandha and ginkgo biloba. While the marketing associated with popular nootropics sounds enticing, it’s worth noting that because they are classified as supplements rather than as drugs, most commonly available nootropics are not approved by the FDA, and as such the manufacturer’s claims are not legally held to a high scientific standard. 

Most people are probably best off sticking to caffeine as their performance-enhancing drug of choice

In fact, some studies show that many common nootropics are not effective whatsoever. A 2015 meta-analysis found that actual mental performance was not improved when taking many popular nootropics, particularly in healthy people, and another study found that nootropics could even cause psychological damage, especially in people who have some form of mental illness or who are taking certain prescription drugs which can interact with nootropics destructively. As a result of an overall lack of scientific support, most doctors will not recommend their patients try nootropics, and instead point to other things that could improve mental performance. Having a good, balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising have all been shown to improve various aspects of life, including cognitive performance, and as such anyone considering trying nootropics should first evaluate whether they can improve these areas of their life instead.

Given the general lack of strong scientific support for nootropics, their recent explosion in popularity seems surprising. One possible explanation for this is the placebo effect, which causes people who expect a particular result from a drug to believe they are experiencing this result. Given the highly subjective nature of the experiences in question, the placebo effect could be particularly potent among nootropics proponents, as all of the changes one expects to observe from nootropics are mental, not physical. Another explanation is that some nootropics do in fact work, but science has yet to catch up with the results. In any case, it’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor before introducing changes that could affect your health. Most people are probably best off sticking to caffeine as their performance-enhancing drug of choice and making sure they are living a healthy lifestyle.