What’s all this talk about smart drugs then?

Are you good with names? I’m not. But what can you do? Once you’ve got diet, sleep, meditation and exercise under control and you still can’t remember where you left your keys, what’s left?

It turns out quite a lot. Smart drugs have been in the news a lot lately. So what are they? Smart drugs include foods, vitamins, herbs and pharmaceuticals that improve mental abilities like memory, creativity, mood and concentration. Some people call them nootropics which from the Greek root means ‘mind (noo) and turning (tropic)’. And they seem to work.

Everybody is going nuts over them

A quick search turns up hundreds of clinical studies on everything from freely available stimulants like coffee and gingko biloba, to controlled substances like modafinil. But these studies are mostly for diseases like Alzheimer’s and ADHD. The results are impressive, but just because Grandad now remembers your name, that doesn’t mean his box of pills will give you Jedi mind powers (ALT: a drug slows memory loss in Alzheimer sufferers doesn’t mean it’s going to enhance yours).

There’s also stories from pschyonauts. These drugs are used by millions of people in business and study to give them a performance edge….and they get rave reviews. Sure this is anecdotal evidence, but there is an abundance of it.

And finally, there’s clinical reviews showing substantial positive effects on the mental abilities of healthy individuals. There’s quite a number of these, but in many cases they are small scale and have not yet been replicated (In science if your experiment hasn’t been repeated by another group of scientists with the same results…it never happened).

So the science is still pretty mixed. Lots of evidence for their positive effects on sick people and less evidence for their use as a cognitive enhancer on healthy people. But everybody is going nuts over them anyway.

Proceed with caution

Also like everything in science it’s complicated. The effects can vary depending on the physical and mental state of the individual, as well as dose and what else you’re taking. There’s also side effects to consider. Sure I want to burn bright, but I also want to live long.

The first thing to remember here is that some of these smart drugs are over the counter substances like caffeine, 5-HTP and ginko. So for the most part these are proven, regulated and safe. But there’s a great saying in chemistry; Dose maketh the poison. So even some over the counter substances should be dosage controlled.

A few of the more powerful pharmaceutical smart drugs like piracetam have been around for decades and have actually been carefully studied. The results suggest they are pretty safe too. You don’t develop a tolerance (meaning you don’t need to take bigger and bigger doses), you don’t become addicted and you don’t experience withdrawal symptoms.


But there are hundreds of smart drugs and only a handful have been looked at carefully. Also, there has been little study done on the long term effects of regular usage. That doesn’t mean they’re dangerous, it just means nobody really knows yet. However it’s worth remembering that the dozens of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds we’ve been offered for the last 60 years are also nootropics. So is that coffee or energy drink in your hand.


The bottom line is that this is not really a new thing. It’s a new use for an old thing. So the take away for me here is proceed, but with caution. Do your homework and stick with the well-studied ones. Don’t mega-dose, take yourself off them regularly, think carefully before combining them and keep a close eye on your health.

Taking the plunge

Well me and my friend Jay are taking the plunge. Over the next few months we’ll do a bunch of research, try some of these smart drugs and talk about what we’re learning. While I don’t expect a call from Mensa any time soon, hopefully by month three, at least I’ll remember where my damn keys are!

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