What are “Nootropics”?

Nootropics is an umbrella term for a class of chemicals — some naturally-occurring, some manmade — that give cognitive benefits to the human brain.  

To get really technical, in order to be a nootropic, a substance must meet five criteria set by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, the man who coined the term “nootropic.”  The substance must…

  1. Enhance memory and ability to learn.
  2. Help the brain function under disruptive conditions, such as hypoxia (low oxygen) and electroconvulsive shock.
  3. Protect the brain from chemical and physical assaults, such as anti-cholinergic drugs and barbiturates.
  4. Increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain.
  5. Possess few or no side effects and be virtually non-toxic.

This is a pretty hefty list of requirements for any chemical.  In fact, anything that meets this full definition, could equally well be called a “miracle drug,” not just a nootropic.

However, normally when you hear the term nootropic kicked around, people really mean a “cognitive enhancer” — something that does benefit thinking in some way (improved memory, faster speed-of-processing, increased concentration, or a combination of these, etc.), but might not meet the more rigorous definition above.  “Smart drugs” is another largely-interchangeable term.

With this looser definition, discussions about nootropics can range from innocuous everyday substances like caffeine and Omega-3 fatty acids to regulated (and deservedly so) substances like Adderall.

For a more visual definition of nootropics, check out our infographic What Are Nootropics?

Category: General

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