Nootropics: A Look at Memory and Cognitive Enhancers

Do you have trouble focusing sometimes? Do you wander into the next room to grab something (glasses, phone) but then can’t remember what it was you needed? If you’ve been browsing the aisles at your local drugstore recently (or doing searches online that engender suspiciously on-topic ads), you may have seen products pop up which promise “cognitive support” or “cognitive enhancement” which aim to solve these issues. Before you load up your basket, read on.

These are part of a new(ish) class of drugs (both prescription and over-the-counter supplement-based) called “Nootropics.” We at Nano decided to look into these and see what the medical establishment recommends in recent studies.

For clarity, you might have heard about these drugs under many names including: smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers or nutraceuticals. They will have descriptions on the packet which suggest they “may” (big “may”) produce improvements to attention, cognition, intelligence, memory, motivation and concentration.

Like that movie with Bradley Cooper?

Yes, the movie – and subsequent TV show – “Limitless” (trailer here if you’re curious) was all about a young listless writer who found “super-brain powers” after taking (supposedly) FDA-approved (they weren’t – and this is fiction, remember) nootropics.

Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it, it’s a cautionary tale about becoming addicted to substances and what people will do under their influence. But it got people talking about whether there are products which will help with the natural decline in our 100 million brain cells as we age. And Robert de Niro does a wonderful turn as a corporate titan with dubious morals (again).

How do “nootropics” work?

Here’s what a pharmacologist says in a recent study: “Nootropics are thought to work by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals (neurotransmitters, enzymes and hormones), by improving the brain’s oxygen supply, or by stimulating nerve growth.”

But the categorization of these drugs is all-encompassing to say the least. Many are just expensive high potency vitamin supplements in new packaging – so check the label – you may already be taking a B complex (B12, B6) along with antioxidants (vitamins A and C – useful scientific report on those here]; amino acids (which help to produce the catecholamines and create alertness); Omega-3 (supports communication between cells and cell function) and/or iron (helps create hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to the brain).

What do doctors think about nootropics?

Not much. The Journal of Aging Health published this report which looked into all the scientific studies on cognitive enhancement supplements and found little evidence for their efficacy:

“Older adults commonly use dietary supplements despite their costs; however, there is little information available to guide clinicians on their use for cognition. Small trials, which are more prone to bias and chance, may have found certain benefits in these supplements, but larger, high-quality trials have mostly failed to find clinically relevant benefit.”  

Are nootropics really new?

No, they’re not – just the name is new. People have been seeking legal highs or “pep pills” for decades. In the 1930s, doctors would routinely prescribe amphetamines like Benzedrine and Dexamyl to help patients focus and cope with modern life. If you want to know more, the American Journal of Public Health has a fascinating history of the first amphetamine epidemic (1929 – 1971) here.

Then the names (and concoctions) changed as Adderall, Ritalin and more were approved for use with ADHD in the early 2000s. Not much has changed in principle – Adderall contains amphetamine, for example. They all work by increasing the levels of the neurotransmitters noradrenaline and dopamine in the area of the brain responsible for memory, focus and concentration. But these are prescription drugs and deliver high potency effects just not possible within over-the-counter supplemental formulations.

Here’s the big news: the real reason why many people report feeling “more alert” on popular nootropics is because most contain caffeine.

Am I better off drinking coffee then?

If you’re someone who is able to function within the boundaries of “moderation” then yes, probably. A morning cup of Joe will give you a nice buzz, clear away the cobwebs from sleep, and get your digestive system into action (regular elimination can help with that sluggish feeling).

Then take a look at your food sources – are you getting adequate nutrition (leafy greens and other good stuff)? Because taking in vitamins from supplements is just not as effective as from food.

Discuss any vitamin supplements, or concerns about cognitive enhancements, with your primary care provider, they might just recommend a B-complex, and others, based on your individual health profile, together with nutritional guidance.

Finally, if you have family members who swear by their usage of nootropics, don’t judge. The National Institutes of Health acknowledge that the placebo effect of taking action to improve one’s wellness is significant, and largely works on our subconscious cues.

So taking these cognitive enhancement supplements might work, because we’re taking action (by popping a pill) to address it. But there’s little evidence from the medical establishment that these expensive nootropics do anything more than regular-priced vitamins or replace what’s gained from a healthy balanced diet.

And they won’t make you look like Bradley Cooper in “Limitless.” Hollywood stars are born looking like that.