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What are nootropics and how do they work?

  • Published5 Nov 2015
  • Reviewed5 Nov 2015
  • Author Martha Farah, PhD
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

A nootropic is any substance believed to enhance mental function. They range from nutritional supplements to synthetic products made by pharmaceutical companies. Some are used to improve memory and others to boost attention and mental energy, but whether they actually do these things is another question.

Caffeine is undoubtedly the most widely used nootropic. While most people don’t think of their daily cup of coffee as a nootropic, they would probably admit that they’re often looking to improve their focus or boost their energy with that cup of coffee. So, in a sense, they are using caffeine as a nootropic. Other potentially nootropic foods and nutritional supplements include fish oil, the plant ginkgo biloba, tea and chocolate.

Many pharmaceutical products are also used as nootropics. Many of these, such as medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Adderall) and narcolepsy (Provigil), are controlled substances in the U.S. and require a prescription from a doctor. In contrast, racetams are a class of legal, nonprescription drugs that many users believe to enhance cognition, though there is limited research to support any enhancing effects in normal, healthy adults.

It’s very hard to say whether nootropics work. One of the things we’ve learned in biomedical research is that one study — or even quite a few — cannot settle an issue for all time. Many of these nootropic substances have some published evidence suggesting efficacy, but we have to weigh this against other evidence that shows no effects or even impairing effects.  It’s also important to point out that some nootropics carry substantial risk. For example, the use of prescription stimulants like Adderall can lead to dependence. So while some people may derive cognitive benefits from these substances, at present we cannot say precisely who will benefit from what.

Farah M. The Unknowns of Cognitive Enhancement. Science. October 23, 2015.
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