Does slapping fish together make you smarter?

Strictly speaking, nootropics are chemical compounds (natural or lab made) that improve brain function. But there’s a whole lot of other things that may also do this. Sleep, exercise and meditation are the obvious ones. There are also things like electrical brain stimulation (kind of like targeted shock therapy with a 9-volt battery), neurofeedback (brain wave detectors that help you consciously control your alertness level) breathing techniques, probiotics, the list goes on and on.

In fact the reddit thread on nootropics lists 194 substances and techniques. This list doesn’t even touch on futuristic things like cybernetic enhancements (think robocop) or genetic re-engineering (using modified viruses to change your DNA to make you smarter). So in answer to my own stupid question. Maybe slapping fish together will make you smarter!


What this abundance of pseudoscience tells us is that we have a pretty poor systemic understanding of what influences cognitive function, so instead we are in the scatter-gun phase where we’ll try anything in the hope that it works. It also tells me that you better have your bullshit detector turned up full. The space abounds with misinformation and scams. Why? Because in 2015 the consumer smart drugs market passed the $US1 billion mark and is growing at a fast rate. The markets have spoken. Here take my money and make me a freakin genius!

Unsurprisingly doctors, shrinks and neuroscientists are advising that people stop screwing with their brains until we know more. Fairly sensible advice, because they don’t really know how safe this stuff is and are applying the precautionary principle. But it’s also pretty easy to find these same experts using nootropics, longevity drugs and drinking the stem cell rich blood of human foetuses (OK I made the last one up, but I for one welcome our new technocratic overlords). So make of that what you will.

Who’s to blame (or thank?) for this smart drug madness?

Anyway with all this in mind, let’s delve deeper. Some Romanian boffin came up with the word nootropics in 1972 and its Greek for mind turning or bending. He worked with the first Nootropic called Piracetam and found it helped improve the memory of Alzheimer’s sufferers. From there they scienced the shit out of it (Matthh Daaaamon!) throughout the 80’s with heaps of other drugs coming online and being tested on animals and then people for a whole range of diseases that affect cognitive function.

But it wasn’t until the first decade of the new millennium (when students brought up on a diet of Ritalin and other ADHD drugs started experimenting with smart drugs to improve their academic performance), that things really took off. Then it bled into corporate life especially amongst high flyers who pulled long hours and wanted something safer than amphetamines. Then finally in the last 10 years, the startup crowd got on board and it suddenly became very trendy and visible to mainstream media. The era of consumer smart drugs had arrived!

Where can I get some?

The short answer is lots of places. Because this is a relatively unregulated market and the internet is a cesspool of depravity (it is, I checked…multiple times just to be sure), you can get them pretty easily, both locally and overseas.

But the better question is ‘where should I buy them?’ Call me old fashioned but I lean towards western vendors with licenced manufacturing facilities. They have stuff like purity testing, quality standards and hygiene controls. All pretty useful processes when you’re ingesting something that hopefully ends up in your brain. But if you’re of a more adventurous bent, there are heaps of Chinese and Russian vendors that are cheap and have pretty good reputations on the interweb.

Another consideration is that some of the more powerful substances like Modafinil and Piracetam are schedule IV ‘prescription only’ substances in Australia. But don’t worry, the vast majority of nootropics are schedule II drugs, which means they are legal to sell and purchase without a prescription.

Finally newer drugs like Aniracetam, Coluracetam, and Noopept have not been approved by the TGA yet. So this means you can’t sell them in Australia, but you can buy them! This is part of what’s called the Personal Importation Scheme. So these you’ll have to get overseas for the moment, but you can’t import more than a 3 month supply (of the maximum dose recommended by the manufacturer) at any one time. Also they have to be for your own personal use. So no sharing or dealing!

There’s also the whole quarantine thing to think about, especially if you’re importing actual plant bits like leaves or roots. For the most part you should be OK, because they will have been partly processed (dried, extracted etc), but if you plan to bring in fresh plant substances, do some research first, to avoid it being confiscated.

Finally, keep in mind that this is a fast paced, fast changing scene. The TGA is constantly playing catch up, so what I’ve said above could change.