If you could take a pill that would help you study and get better grades, would you? Off-label use of “smart drugs” – pharmaceuticals meant to treat disorders like ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s – are becoming increasingly popular among college students hoping to get ahead, by helping them to stay focused and alert for longer periods of time. But is this cheating? Should their use as cognitive enhancers be approved by the FDA, the medical community, and society at large? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
Poulin (2007) 2002 Canadian secondary school 7th, 9th, 10th, and 12th graders (N = 12,990) 6.6% MPH (past year), 8.7% d-AMP (past year) MPH: 84%: 1–4 times per year; d-AMP: 74%: 1–4 times per year 26% of students with a prescription had given or sold some of their pills; students in class with a student who had given or sold their pills were 1.5 times more likely to use nonmedically
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Nootropics, also known as ‘brain boosters,’ ‘brain supplements’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’ are made up of a variety of artificial and natural compounds. These compounds help in enhancing the cognitive activities of the brain by regulating or altering the production of neurochemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain. It improves blood flow, stimulates neurogenesis (the process by which neurons are produced in the body by neural stem cells), enhances nerve growth rate, modifies synapses, and improves cell membrane fluidity. Thus, positive changes are created within your body, which helps you to function optimally irrespective of your current lifestyle and individual needs.
As I am not any of the latter, I didn’t really expect a mental benefit. As it happens, I observed nothing. What surprised me was something I had forgotten about: its physical benefits. My performance in Taekwondo classes suddenly improved - specifically, my endurance increased substantially. Before, classes had left me nearly prostrate at the end, but after, I was weary yet fairly alert and happy. (I have done Taekwondo since I was 7, and I have a pretty good sense of what is and is not normal performance for my body. This was not anything as simple as failing to notice increasing fitness or something.) This was driven home to me one day when in a flurry before class, I prepared my customary tea with piracetam, choline & creatine; by the middle of the class, I was feeling faint & tired, had to take a break, and suddenly, thunderstruck, realized that I had absentmindedly forgot to actually drink it! This made me a believer.
The difference in standard deviations is not, from a theoretical perspective, all that strange a phenomenon: at the very beginning of this page, I covered some basic principles of nootropics and mentioned how many stimulants or supplements follow a inverted U-curve where too much or too little lead to poorer performance (ironically, one of the examples in Kruschke 2012 was a smart drug which did not affect means but increased standard deviations).
A big part is that we are finally starting to apply complex systems science to psycho-neuro-pharmacology and a nootropic approach. The neural system is awesomely complex and old-fashioned reductionist science has a really hard time with complexity. Big companies spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to separate the effects of just a single molecule from placebo – and nootropics invariably show up as “stacks” of many different ingredients (ours, Qualia , currently has 42 separate synergistic nootropics ingredients from alpha GPC to bacopa monnieri and L-theanine). That kind of complex, multi pathway input requires a different methodology to understand well that goes beyond simply what’s put in capsules.
An entirely different set of questions concerns cognitive enhancement in younger students, including elementary school and even preschool children. Some children can function adequately in school without stimulants but perform better with them; medicating such children could be considered a form of cognitive enhancement. How often does this occur? What are the roles and motives of parents, teachers, and pediatricians in these cases? These questions have been discussed elsewhere and deserve continued attention (Diller, 1996; Singh & Keller, 2010).
It is often associated with Ritalin and Adderall because they are all CNS stimulants and are prescribed for the treatment of similar brain-related conditions. In the past, ADHD patients reported prolonged attention while studying upon Dexedrine consumption, which is why this smart pill is further studied for its concentration and motivation-boosting properties.
The search to find more effective drugs to increase mental ability and intelligence capacity with neither toxicity nor serious side effects continues. But there are limitations. Although the ingredients may be separately known to have cognition-enhancing effects, randomized controlled trials of the combined effects of cognitive enhancement compounds are sparse.
"They're not regulated by the FDA like other drugs, so safety testing isn't required," Kerl says. What's more, you can't always be sure that what's on the ingredient label is actually in the product. Keep in mind, too, that those that contain water-soluble vitamins like B and C, she adds, aren't going to help you if you're already getting enough of those vitamins through diet. "If your body is getting more than you need, you're just going to pee out the excess," she says. "You're paying a lot of money for these supplements; maybe just have orange juice."

Not all drug users are searching for a chemical escape hatch. A newer and increasingly normalized drug culture is all about heightening one’s current relationship to reality—whether at work or school—by boosting the brain’s ability to think under stress, stay alert and productive for long hours, and keep track of large amounts of information. In the name of becoming sharper traders, medical interns, or coders, people are taking pills typically prescribed for conditions including ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s. Others down “stacks” of special “nootropic” supplements.
If you’re concerned with using either supplement, speak to your doctor. Others will replace these supplements with something like Phenylpiracetam or Pramiracetam. Both of these racetams provide increased energy levels, yielding less side-effects. If you do plan on taking Modafinil or Adrafinil, it’s best to use them on occasion or cycle your doses.
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.
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The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics.[13] Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.[19]
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