The stimulant now most popular in news articles as a legitimate “smart drug” is Modafinil, which came to market as an anti-narcolepsy drug, but gained a following within the military, doctors on long shifts, and college students pulling all-nighters who needed a drug to improve alertness without the “wired” feeling associated with caffeine. Modafinil is a relatively new smart drug, having gained widespread use only in the past 15 years. More research is needed before scientists understand this drug’s function within the brain – but the increase in alertness it provides is uncontested.
It is known that American college students have embraced cognitive enhancement, and some information exists about the demographics of the students most likely to practice cognitive enhancement with prescription stimulants. Outside of this narrow segment of the population, very little is known. What happens when students graduate and enter the world of work? Do they continue using prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement in their first jobs and beyond? How might the answer to this question depend on occupation? For those who stay on campus to pursue graduate or professional education, what happens to patterns of use? To what extent do college graduates who did not use stimulants as students begin to use them for cognitive enhancement later in their careers? To what extent do workers without college degrees use stimulants to enhance job performance? How do the answers to these questions differ for countries outside of North America, where the studies of Table 1 were carried out?
How exactly – and if – nootropics work varies widely. Some may work, for example, by strengthening certain brain pathways for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is involved in motivation, Barbour says. Others aim to boost blood flow – and therefore funnel nutrients – to the brain to support cell growth and regeneration. Others protect brain cells and connections from inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in conditions like Alzheimer's, Barbour explains. Still others boost metabolism or pack in vitamins that may help protect the brain and the rest of the nervous system, explains Dr. Anna Hohler, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
The one indisputable finding from the literature so far is that many people are seeking cognitive enhancement. Beyond that, the literature yields only partial and tentative answers to the questions just raised. Given the potential impact of cognitive enhancement on society, more research is needed. For research on the epidemiology of cognitive enhancement, studies focused on the cognitive-enhancement practices and experiences of students and nonstudent workers are needed. For research on the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants, larger samples are needed. Only with substantially larger samples will it be possible to assess small but potentially important benefits, as well as risks, and to distinguish individual differences in drug response. Large samples would also be required to compare these effects to the cognitive effects of improved sleep, exercise, nutrition, and stress management. To include more ecologically valid measures of cognition in academic and work environments would in addition require the equivalent of a large clinical trial.
The abuse of drugs is something that can lead to large negative outcomes. If you take Ritalin (Methylphenidate) or Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) but don’t have ADHD, you may experience more focus. But what many people don’t know is that the drug is very similar to amphetamines. And the use of Ritalin is associated with serious adverse events of drug dependence, overdose and suicide attempts . Taking a drug for another reason than originally intended is stupid, irresponsible and very dangerous.
And yet aside from anecdotal evidence, we know very little about the use of these drugs in professional settings. The Financial Times has claimed that they are “becoming popular among city lawyers, bankers, and other professionals keen to gain a competitive advantage over colleagues.” Back in 2008 the narcolepsy medication Modafinil was labeled the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice” by TechCrunch. That same year, the magazine Nature asked its readers whether they use cognitive-enhancing drugs; of the 1,400 respondents, one in five responded in the affirmative.
One often-cited study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology looked at cognitive function in the elderly and showed that racetam helped to improve their brain function.19 Another study, which was published in Psychopharmacology, looked at adult volunteers (including those who are generally healthy) and found that piracetam helped improve their memory.20
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That said, there are plenty of studies out there that point to its benefits. One study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, suggests brain function in elderly patients can be greatly improved after regular dosing with Piracetam. Another study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that Piracetam improved memory in most adult volunteers. And another, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, suggests it can help students, especially dyslexic students, improve their nonverbal learning skills, like reading ability and reading comprehension. Basically, researchers know it has an effect, but they don’t know what or how, and pinning it down requires additional research.
Many of the most popular “smart drugs” (Piracetam, Sulbutiamine, Ginkgo Biloba, etc.) have been around for decades or even millenia but are still known only in medical circles or among esoteric practicioners of herbal medicine. Why is this? If these compounds have proven cognitive benefits, why are they not ubiquitous? How come every grade-school child gets fluoride for the development of their teeth (despite fluoride’s being a known neurotoxin) but not, say, Piracetam for the development of their brains? Why does the nightly news slant stories to appeal more to a fear-of-change than the promise of a richer cognitive future?
What worries me about amphetamine is its addictive potential, and the fact that it can cause stress and anxiety. Research says it’s only slightly likely to cause addiction in people with ADHD,  but we don’t know much about its addictive potential in healthy adults. We all know the addictive potential of methamphetamine, and amphetamine is closely related enough to make me nervous about so many people giving it to their children. Amphetamines cause withdrawal symptoms, so the potential for addiction is there.
In contrast to the types of memory discussed in the previous section, which are long-lasting and formed as a result of learning, working memory is a temporary store of information. Working memory has been studied extensively by cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists because of its role in executive function. It has been likened to an internal scratch pad; by holding information in working memory, one keeps it available to consult and manipulate in the service of performing tasks as diverse as parsing a sentence and planning a route through the environment. Presumably for this reason, working memory ability correlates with measures of general intelligence (Friedman et al., 2006). The possibility of enhancing working memory ability is therefore of potential real-world interest.
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Phenotropil is an over-the-counter supplement similar in structure to Piracetam (and Noopept). This synthetic smart drug has been used to treat stroke, epilepsy and trauma recovery. A 2005 research paper also demonstrated that patients diagnosed with natural lesions or brain tumours see improvements in cognition. Phenylpiracetam intake can also result in minimised feelings of anxiety and depression. This is one of the more powerful unscheduled Nootropics available.
Nootropics (/noʊ.əˈtrɒpɪks/ noh-ə-TROP-iks) (colloquial: smart drugs and cognitive enhancers) are drugs, supplements, and other substances that may improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals. While many substances are purported to improve cognition, research is at a preliminary stage as of 2018, and the effects of the majority of these agents are not fully determined.