Humans have been on the search for the perfect nootropic long before the Limitless movie came out. From racetams to other experimental compounds, scientists have been wondering if there’s a pill that can offset cognitive decline and raise our brain’s potential to another level. And although the research is interesting, the dangers of these compounds are too often downplayed. Read on to uncover the truth.
Disclaimer: This post is not a recommendation or endorsement for the use of any of the particular compounds or drugs discussed in this post. The FDA has not approved any of these compounds for “cognitive-enhancement” purposes, and the available research on them is still in a very early stage overall. We have written this post for informational purposes only, and our goal is solely to inform people about what science currently says about these substances’ potential uses and mechanisms.
Much of the research on the compounds listed below is still in a very early stage, and in most cases, it is not yet possible to come to any firm conclusions about their relative efficacy and safety in human users.
Therefore, the potential effects listed below are still considered to have insufficient evidence , and these findings should be taken with a grain of salt until further research work – including large-scale clinical trials in healthy human users – is performed. 1) Semax
Semax is a drug that has been used in Russia for treating strokes and head injuries, and which has also been claimed to potentially improve learning capacities and memory formation [ 1 ].
Semax is not approved by the FDA for use in the United States due to a lack of adequate safety and effectiveness data.
According to some early studies in animals and humans, some of semax’s reported effects include: Protecting against low oxygen ( hypoxia ) by promoting the survival of neurons when the brain is not receiving enough oxygen (in rats) [ 2 ]
Increasing selective attention at the moment of receiving information, as well as strengthening and promoting overall learning abilities [ 1 ]
Some of the potential mechanisms that have been suggested to be behind the effects of Semax include: Increasing enkephalins (a natural opiate neurotransmitter), which may be involved in memory formation, consolidation, and reactivation/recall [ 5 , 6 ]
Enhancing calcium ion accumulation inside the cells, which may help fight against brain-degenerative processes [ 7 ]
Enhancing the production of key proteins (such as immunoglobulin ) that are believed to play a role in protecting the brain from stress and damage [ 7 ]
2 ) Nicotine
Although it is highly addictive and dangerous in most of its common forms, nicotine is one of the most well-documented drugs to have memory-related effects.
However, we are not recommending starting smoking by any means! Since smoking is a major worldwide cause of death, the risks of smoking far outweigh any possible benefit. Therefore, we highly advise against smoking or using tobacco – and if you are already a smoker, seek professional help as soon as possible. Stopping smoking is among the most important things you can do to improve your health and longevity [ 8 ].
While nicotine can also be ingested in other forms – such as “e-cigarettes” or “vapes” – the safety of these methods have not been fully proven, and many serious concerns remain about their short-term and long-term effects and safety [ 8 ].
Some of the clinical studies on nicotine have relied on other forms, such as nicotine patches or gum. Although these might be “safer”, there is still a high potential for addiction and dependence to nicotine in any form. Therefore, considering how many different – and relatively much safer – options there are, it’s probably best to avoid nicotine altogether, and focus instead on less potentially dangerous options (such as the other ones in this post) [ 8 ].
With all that in mind, some of the purported cognitive effects of nicotine include:
According to one clinical study, nicotine patches reportedly helped alleviate cognitive impairments in Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and ADD/ADHD patients [ 13 ].
Some other researchers have proposed that nicotine may be a promising treatment for Parkinson’s disease, Down’s syndrome, and age-related memory impairment [ 14 , 15 ].
Some of the potential mechanisms that have been suggested to be behind the effects of nicotine include: Activates the alpha-4 beta-2 nicotinic receptor, which has been implicated in learning [ 13 ]
Activates the alpha-7 nicotinic receptor, which has been implicated in long-term memory [ 13 ]
All in all, while some of the existing research on the potential cognitive effects of nicotine might seem promising, the inherent risk of addiction, dependence, and other significant dangers highly suggest against trying to use nicotine for the purposes of “cognitive enhancement”. 3 ) Selegiline
In small doses, selegiline ( L – deprenyl ) has been reported to inhibit the enzyme MAO-B . Similarly, in relatively larger doses, some evidence suggests that it may inhibit both MAO-B as well as MAO-A .
Because these MAO ( monoamine oxidase ) enzymes are involved in the breakdown of several major types of neurotransmitter in the brain ( monoamines ), inhibiting them can lead to increased levels of several different important neurotransmitters throughout the brain: MAO-B: phenylethylamine, dopamine, and other amines
These altered neurotransmitter levels, in turn, could theoretically have a number of effects on the brain and certain cognitive processes.
For example, some early studies in both animals and humans have reported that selegiline may: Improve memory and overall cognitive functioning in Parkinson’s patients (vs. placebo) [ 19 ] Improve memory impairments via the cholinergic system, a major brain system that has been associated with dementia [ 20 ] Improve long-term memory (in aged mice; 0.25 mg/kg, 3 times per week) [ 21 ] Some of the potential mechanisms that have been suggested to be behind the effects of selegiline include: Enhancing the activity of the “P300” signal (a brain response associated with vigilance, attention, and decision-making) [ 19 , […]