As you explore the world of nootropics, you’ll no doubt come across the phrase ‘smart drugs’. This term is often used interchangeably with the phrase nootropic, so are they the same thing?
The simple answer is no, they’re not. The confusion comes about because both groups share some of the same cognitive boosting effects, but the way smart drugs work is very different to that of nootropics.
The layperson may claim that they don’t care about the difference. After all, they’re only looking for something that boosts their mental powers and helps them finish that report on time, or gives them the incentive they need to keep cramming for exams.
I say that they should care, if only to protect their health.
The best way to understand the distinction between smart drugs and nootropics is to go back to the beginning…
Let’s remind ourselves of the definition of nootropics.
The term nootropic was first coined by Romanian researcher and neuroscientist, Corneliu E. Giurgea. Giurgea synthesized the popular nootropic Piracetam, and before this, the term nootropic didn’t exist. So his definition is pretty much the standard bearer for what a nootropic should be.
He said that a nootropic should:
- Enhance memory and learning
- Help the brain to resist any disruption to learned behaviour and memory
- Shield the brain against injury, physical or chemical
- Boost efficacy of the cortical/subcortical control mechanisms
- Lack the interactions of psychotropic drugs
- Be extremely low in toxicity and have very few side effects.
It’s a pretty stringent list, and one that means there aren’t many genuine nootropics around. Certain natural substances such as L-Theanine and Huperzine-A tick all the boxes. Racetams – synthetic nootropics such as Piracetam, the first nootropic ever made, and Pramiracetam – also meet the criteria.
Caffeine definitely isn’t a nootropic, though it is often confused as one. Yes, it does increase cognitive function as a stimulant, but it doesn’t protect the brain against injury.
Popular drugs such as Adderall and Modafinil fail point number five so can’t be nootropics. They are smart drugs instead.
A nootropic then is generally a non-prescribed mix that includes herbs, vitamins or compounds (natural or synthetic) that improves or protects the brain and cognition. Think of a boost in focus and attention, and/ or the ability to tackle some element of ageing and effect cellular metabolism, without appreciable side effects.
Nootropics are generally not used to treat any specific mental condition or disorder directly, but instead work to encourage peak function and give a short-term boost as well as protection against longer-term risks.
Versus Smart Drugs
In contrast, a smart drug is most often a drug or prescribed medication used to treat a specific mental disorder that is then taken by non-sufferers to enhance cognitive function.
Unlike illegal drugs, they are not intended to give a high. Nor do they make you smarter; instead they improve the natural functioning of your brain chemicals. Users take them to boost their brain power, improving memory, reason, focus and the ability to learn.
The use of so-called smart drugs is rife in British universities. Poll a group of students anywhere and the majority have probably taken Modafinil, a prescription-only treatment for narcolepsy that acts as “a central nervous system stimulant”. They claim the drug helps them study for longer and focus better.
Researchers at Oxford and Harvard Universities agree that Modafinil can help with problem-solving and decision- making, and may even make people think more creatively.
Other popular smart drugs include Adderall, Ritalin and Dexedrine, all ADHD medications. Users swear they boost concentration and performance.
It’s not just students, either. Polls demonstrate that professionals from CEOs downwards have dabbled in smart drugs, if not used them regularly to help them deal with tough workloads. A poll of Nature journal readers in 2008 reported that one in five used drugs to improve focus. Smart drugs have only increased in popularity and awareness since then.
Smart Drugs and Safety
Does this mean that smart drugs are safe? No, it does not.
Unlike genuine nootropics, many smart drugs come with significant side effects. Adderall, for instance, can cause headache, fear, anxiety, restlessness, chest pain, hallucinations, palpitations, increased blood pressure and heartrate, and is habit forming.
Smart drugs acting as stimulants tend to produce spikes in dopamine and norepinephrine, which can lead to potential addiction.
It is worth noting too that even though researchers in Oxford and Harvard universities branded Modafinil the world’s first safe smart drug, they acknowledged that there was limited information available on its long-term safety.
Finally, the brain is a complicated organ. Can you be sure that by upgrading one system, you don’t damage another?
Evidence does agree that memory can be boosted by pharmacological agents, but where do the cognitive resources to achieve this come from? Smart drugs can only work with the intellectual reserves that you have, so where are you diverting the energy from? Which other process are you depriving?
Honing your focus may improve performance temporarily but can mean that you miss significant elements in your periphery as well as narrowing your range and thought process.
Knowing all of this, is the promise of a mental boost worth the risk?
Even those drugs that seem to be successful have drawbacks. Research discovered that nicotine drugs only improved performance in users with a certain variant of gene, for instance. Annoying if you’re the user without said gene.
There are hints too that the smarter you are, the less likely smart drugs will work for you. One King’s College study on Modafinil found it improved performance in a group of students with an average 106 IQ, but did nothing for a group with a 115 average.
Smart drugs are also susceptible to your own metabolism and DNA, and what works for one person may not work for the next.
I’d argue that it’s not worth risking your health over.
In short, if you want to enjoy a cognitive boost in safety, you’re better off sticking to genuine nootropics.