Whether you're a college student hoping to ace your exams, a busy professional striving for a promotion, or an older adult concerned about dementia, the idea of popping a pill that boosts your brainpower might seem pretty appealing. So perhaps it's not surprising that the use of nootropics -- aka cognitive enhancers or smart drugs -- is on the rise. But do they work? And are they safe?
The term "nootropics" first referred to chemicals that met very specific criteria. But now it's used to refer to any natural or synthetic substance that may have a positive impact on mental skills. In general, nootropics fall into three general categories: dietary supplements, synthetic compounds, and prescription drugs.
While health experts generally agree that taking a prescription nootropic for an FDA-approved purpose (such as a stimulant medication if you have ADHD or donepezil if you have Alzheimer’s) may be helpful, the use of any type of cognitive enhancer in healthy people is far more controversial.
Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the cognitive neurology/neuropsychology division at Johns Hopkins Medicine, says there's "no strong evidence" that any of the supplements now being sold for their supposed memory-boosting powers are helpful. "It's not clear that they work and not clear that they're safe," he says. He’s also skeptical of the basic premise behind nootropics.
"The circuits that are involved in human cognition are very complicated and not fully understood," he says. "You can't just 'turn up the dial' that easily." He notes that people who believe their mental performance has increased thanks to nootropics are largely being influenced by a placebo effect. "If you're more confident and think you'll do better, you will do better."
Chris D'Adamo, PhD, director of research and education at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine, has a different take. Like Gordon, he doesn't think nootropics will give you superhuman mental abilities, but he does believe they have the potential to offer some people an edge.
"Most people seeking to optimize cognitive function would be better off focusing on getting enough sleep, eating a nutrient-dense diet, and managing their stress," he says. But once you have those basics down, the right nootropics might serve as a bonus, helping you think more clearly and sharply or reduce your chances of cognitive decline as you age, he says.