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Nootropics aka Smart Drugs: Do They Work?

Nootropics (smart drugs) have been touted to boost memory and increase concentration. However, do they actually work? Are they safe to take? This overview can help you understand these medications. However, always have a discussion with your healthcare provider before starting any new medication.

What are nootropics?

Nootropics (smart drugs) are a broad group of medications that can improve memory, cognitive performance, and alertness. They include prescription and over-the-counter medications as well as herbal supplements.

The name itself is derived from the Greek words nöos which means “thinking” and tropein which means “to guide”. However, the term nootropics refer to a wide variety of substances with different characteristics.

Types of nootropics

Prescription nootropics:

  • methylphenidate (Ritalin)
  • amphetamines (Adderall)
  • modafinil (Provigil)

Natural nootropics:

  • caffeine
  • L-theanine
  • creatine
  • Bacopa monnieri
  • Panax ginseng
  • Ginkgo biloba

Synthetic nootropics:

  • Piracetam
  • Noopept
  • Phenotropil

How do they work?

Nootropics work through three mechanisms:

  1. Interact with receptors in the brain
  2. Interact with neurotransmitters (chemicals) in the brain
  3. Act as anti-inflammatories and free radical neutralizers

Generally, the drugs work to increase oxygen and glucose supplies in the brain. They reduce inflammation and prevent injuries due to free radicals.

They work on chemicals in the brain that are involved in memory (ie. acetylcholine) and attention (ie. norepinephrine, dopamine).

However, each medication has its own specific mechanism of action and should be researched individually before taking.

Do nootropics work?

Studies have shown nootropics to reduce cognitive decline in mild-to-moderate dementia when used in combination with dementia medications. However, there is conflicting data that shows nootropics to be of no benefit.

The use of nootropics in healthy individuals is controversial. There are studies that suggest these drugs can help improve memory and mental processing. However, the literature is incomplete and rarely addresses the long-term effects of these medications.

Additionally, the current research does not clarify whether the effects are due to the drug itself or simply a placebo effect.

Are there side effects?

As with any medication or supplement, side effects can occur especially when not taken as recommended. The trend of nootropic “stacking” can significantly increase the risk of side effects.

Nootropic “stacking” is defined as using different nootropics in combination to enhance the benefits. However, each drug can have unwanted interactions with one another causing an increase in side effects.

Prescription nootropics commonly cause side effects including difficulty sleeping, high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and blurry vision.

Similarly, herbal and synthetic nootropics can cause these side effects, especially when taken in dosages above the recommendations.

One of the most concerning aspects of nootropics (especially prescription nootropics) is addiction. Many of these drugs have addictive properties and thus should only be used under the guidance of a physician.

Where can I get a nootropic?

Nootropics such as Adderall and Provigil require a prescription. As these medications are used in the treatment of attention hyperactivity attention deficit (ADHD) disorder and narcolepsy. In addition, the risk of addiction associated with these nootropics requires monitoring and supervision.

Similarly, many synthetic nootropics also require a prescription to obtain.

Natural nootropic supplements are available online and at various stores. However, many of these supplements lack regulatory guidance and thus may not be pure or may vary in strength.

Regardless, if you are considering taking a nootropic, talk to your doctor and/or pharmacist to ensure the safe use of these medications.


Improving your memory and cognitive performance are two things everyone is interested in. Nootropics have been suggested to do just that. However, their ability to accomplish this has not been proven in healthy individuals.

Additionally, like all medications, they are not without side effects. Therefore, it is important to talk with your doctor or pharmacist before starting any new medication.

Key takeaways

Nootropics are comprised of prescription, natural, and synthetic drugs.

They have shown promise in preventing cognitive decline in dementia patients.

Their ability to improve memory in healthy individuals has not been fully proven.

Addiction can be a significant issue with nootropics, especially prescription nootropics.

Talk with your pharmacist or physician before starting any nootropic and use only as directed.


Journal of Clinical Medicine. Effectiveness of Nootropics in Combination with Cholinesterase Inhibitors on Cognitive Function in Mild-to-Moderate Dementia: A Study Using Real-World Data.

The Lancet: Neurology. Long-term use of standardised ginkgo biloba extract for the prevention of Alzheimer's disease (GuidAge): a randomised placebo-controlled trial.

Frontiers in Bioscience. Smart drugs and neuroenhancement: what do we know?

Nutrients. Nootropics as Cognitive Enhancers: Types, Dosage and Side Effects of Smart Drugs.

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