The realm of nootropic substances (aka cognitive enhancers or smart drugs), at the time around its conception, was reserved for the very select few who had access to these novel cognition-enhancing drugs. In recent years, nootropics have gained more widespread recognition, and are more accessible to average individuals than ever before, thanks to the rising number of online vendors and communities who make these substances accessible for all.
The term “nootropic” has been consistently more and more searched on google ever since 2011 (the year when the film Limitless was released) , and people’s interest in the subject will certainly continue to rise. Although nootropics still maintain a type of “fringe” status in the world of drugs, their infiltration into the mainstream is undeniable.
What is a Nootropic?
Corneliu E. Giurgea, the Romanian chemist who first synthesized piracetam, developed the concept of nootropic substance in 1972. It is a combination of the Greek words “νους” (nous) meaning “mind”, and “τρoπoς” (tropos) meaning “bend” or “change”. This is what nootropics do. Essentially, they positively alter the way in which your mind works.
Nootropic drugs are a specific subtype of psychoactive substances. According to Giurgea, in order for a drug or supplement to be considered a nootropic, it must adhere to the following criteria:
- Enhances learning and memory
- Enhances resistance of learned behaviors to conditions that will disrupt them
- Protects the brain against physical of chemical injuries (such as concussions or neurotoxic drugs)
- Increases the efficacy of cortical/subcortical control mechanisms of the brain (such as improving reaction time)
- Typically lacks negative side-effects (i.e. sedation), and possesses low toxicity
Though these criteria lay out the foundation for what a nootropic is, most modern definitions are much more general. As a more common definition, nootropics are chemical substances or herbal supplements that enhance cognition and mental function.
If we think in terms of this general definition, there is about a 90% chance you use a pseudo-nootropic substance regularly. Caffeine, the most popular drug in the world, is commonly classified as a nootropic, due to the fact that it is stimulatory and enhances attentiveness linked to cognition, learning, and memory.  
Certain substances that don’t explicitly enhance cognition are still sometimes grouped in with nootropics. This would include substances that improve mood, reduce anxiety, or promote an overall feeling of wellbeing. Some examples of these substances are phenibut, sulbutiamine, and ashwagandha. Even if these supplements don’t have mechanisms that directly improve cognition, their mood-improving capabilities will tend to lead to an enhanced ability to focus and think clearly.
Who Uses Them?
Giurgea coined the term “nootropic” after he synthesized piracetam, which is, under Giurgea’s definition, the first substance to display purely nootropic properties. Piracetam has cognitive enhancing and neuroprotective capabilities while also possessing relatively few side effects.  Because of this, piracetam is commonly used to improve cognition in individuals who are experiencing the cognitive decline that comes with old age, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.
With the development of piracetam, other nootropic substances were investigated and researched for their applications in those who experience cognitive decline. Many drugs derived from piracetam (referred to as “racetams“) have been developed in hopes that they would yield even more benefits than piracetam. For instance, phenylpiracetam displays stimulant properties in addition to cognitive enhancement.  Likewise, aniracetam works as an anxiolytic. 
Up until the past decade, these kinds of cognitive-enhancing drugs were only used extensively in clinical applications, such as treating cognitive illnesses. However, the past few years have seen tremendous growth in the use of nootropics among younger healthy individuals in hopes that they could improve their performance in work or academic studies. For example – modafinil (Provigil), a wakefulness-promoting nootropic substance, has seen increased usage among college students as an alternative to Adderall, due to the fact that it aids the brain in focusing on tasks for extended periods of time without fatigue. 
Many nootropic substances, such as the racetams and tianeptine (an antidepressant nootropic), are prescription drugs in Europe but are unscheduled in the United States. This has led to many of them being sold online by nootropic vendors, making them readily available for those who wish to purchase them.
Not surprisingly, Russia, the country that has developed a large number of nootropics (including Phenibut, Picamilon, Phenylpiracetam, Selank, Semax, Cerebrolysin, Emoxypine and so on), it’s the place where the keyword “nootropic(s)” is most popular in 2016, according to Google.
The increasing number and growth of online communities, such as the nootropics subreddit, has attracted the attention of younger individuals who seek to improve their cognitive performance and preserve their youthful cognitive capabilities. These online communities are extremely valuable sources of information on all things related to nootropics. They are open forums where anyone can ask questions about smart drugs and cognitive enhancement and engage in valuable discussion. Many newer nootropic substances have not been extensively tested in clinical settings, but anecdotal user reports can be found within these online communities.
Where Do I Begin?
If you are determined to make a go at nootropic supplementation, then logically the smart thing to do is implement the smartest ways to use smart drugs. You do not have to be a brain surgeon to begin effectively supplementing with nootropics, but understanding at least the bare bones of the foundations of a few related fields like neuroscience, neurology, and drug metabolism, is vital to getting the most out of them.
Ideally, you want a good working understanding of all the major mechanisms of action, including receptor systems involved in memory, mood and cognition (dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine, serotonin, etc). Attempting anything other could end up as catastrophically as fiddling with the kernel of your operating system without knowing how it works. The best way to go about it is to learn what happens to drugs inside the body, how the classic nootropics work (like Piracetam and Aniracetam), and what are some of the basic nootropic stacks.
Even though it can be a bit daunting at first, you will also want to learn how to access & read scientific research, what is acetylcholine (the learning and memory neurotransmitter), how it works, how the brain produces it and what is a choline precursor. Learning the major neurotransmitters, understanding the difference between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, all these are great places to start.
When first getting into the world of cognitive enhancement, the sheer number of substances out there can be very intimidating. Here is a short list that outlines some of the most popular and proven nootropics for beginners.
Wakefulness and Motivation
- Caffeine and L-Theanine – Promotes wakefulness and is stimulating in general. The addition of L-theanine helps reduce the negative side effects of caffeine, such as anxiety. Additionally, L-theanine also improves cognition.
- Modafinil, Armodafinil, and Adrafinil – These three compounds are chemically related. Armodafinil is the active isomer of modafinil and is thus generally more potent. Adrafinil is a prodrug to modafinil. In other words, it is metabolized into modafinil by the body. All three of these are used to promote wakefulness and reduce fatigue.
- Rhodiola Rosea – A herb that acts as an adaptogen, meaning it aids the body in reacting positively to stressful stimuli. It typically reduces feelings of fatigue and is slightly stimulatory. It is also sometimes used to lessen the effects of caffeine withdrawal.
Note: Prescription drugs such as Adderall (amphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate) are especially effective at increasing feelings of motivation. However, they carry additional side effects and risks of dependency, and should be used with caution.
- Piracetam – The original racetam, was originally developed as a sleep-aid because of it’s GABA structure, when given to rats it improved their memory and cognition.
- Noopept – Is chemically similar to piracetam but is active at a fraction of the dose (10 mg vs 1000 mg), and also increases the production of NGF and BDNF, two neurotrophic factors that promote the survival and differentiation of neurons. It typically provides an increase in cognitive ability along with mild stimulation.
- Aniracetam – Provides cognitive effects that are similar to Noopept, but is also anxiolytic in nature. It is especially helpful in helping the brain associate different thoughts and piecing them together to form the “bigger picture.”
- Phenylpiracetam – Similarly aids cognition like noopept and aniracetam, but it noticeably more stimulatory. It is also known to be more neuroprotective, and aids in preventing cognitive decline. It is a good alternative to Modafinil.
- Tianeptine – Chemically a tricyclic antidepressant, tianeptine is novel in the fact that it improves mood while also serving as a neuroprotectant and cognitive enhancer.
- Phenibut – an anxiolytic compound that may enhance cognition in stressful situations (like exams or a public presentation) through means of reduced anxiety.
- Bacopa monnieri – Bacopa has been found to improve the formation, retention, and acquisition of memory. It is an adaptogen and is often taken for its anxiolytic properties
- Huperzine A – an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor (a compound that prevents the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine) extracted from the plant Huperzia Serrata.
What To Expect
Most nootropics rarely display immediate or noticeable acute effects on cognition and well-being (the only exception being stimulant nootropics like Modafinil and Phenylpiracetam) . In fact, they are typically used for long-term neuroprotection, and may not display immediate or noticeable results from use. The psychoactive effects of nootropics are more subtle than the effects of recreational drugs but are ultimately more beneficial. By definition, the daily use of nootropic substances should be far more sustainable than that of recreational drugs.
Nootropics are meant to be safe to use indefinitely though not all drugs sometimes referred to as “nootropics” will meet these criteria. For instance, phenibut, a GABAergic anxiolytic, is sometimes discussed as having nootropic capabilities related to anxiety reduction. However, phenibut has a fairly high risk of causing dependency or withdrawal, and should not be used on a daily basis.
Many people supplement multiple nootropics at once to maximize their cognitive benefits. These combinations of substances are referred to as “stacks”. For instance, one might stack caffeine and L-theanine because L-theanine is known to reduce the jitters and anxiety that come with caffeine.  When taking multiple nootropics, it is extremely important to research any potential negative interactions between substances. Examine.com is an invaluable resource for researching nootropics and their possible interactions.
Nootropics can certainly be of great benefit to those who wish to improve their cognitive function and protect their minds from degradation. However, nootropics will likely be far more beneficial when they are used in combination with exercise, a proper diet, and meditation. Nootropics can only do so much, and are certainly not an excuse to neglect these other primary health factors.
In addition to this, nootropics should not be used to treat mental disorders unless under the direction of a trained health professional. It may seem tempting to use promising and novel nootropics to treat something like depression, but there is still some amount of risk involved with doing so, especially given the fact that many of the newest nootropics still require a great deal of research before they can be used clinically.
Even if “old” nootropics like racetams are totally safe, it is still a good idea to check out interactions if you’re taking prescription medications.
- Where to Buy Nootropics?
- Caffeine and Theanine: The Beginner’s Nootropic Stack
- Is Modafinil the Ultimate Smart Drug?
- What Is The Best Choline Supplement for Cognitive Enhancement?
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