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What Are They, and How Do They Work?
Let's start with the basics of what smart drugs are and what they aren't. The field of cosmetic psychopharmacology is still in its infancy, but the use of smart drugs is primed to explode during our lifetimes, as researchers gain increasing understanding of which substances affect the brain and how they do so. For many people, the movie Limitless was a first glimpse into the possibility of "a pill that can make you smarter," and while that fiction is a long way from reality, the possibilities - in fact, present-day certainties visible in the daily news - are nevertheless extremely exciting.
“Smart Drugs” are chemical substances that enhance cognition and memory or facilitate learning. However, within this general umbrella of “things you can eat that make you smarter,” there are many variations as far as methods of action within the body, perceptible (and measurable) effects, potential for use and abuse, and the spillover impact on the body’s non-cognitive processes.
Why Are Smart Drugs Just Now Beginning to Go Mainstream?
Many of the most popular “smart drugs” (Piracetam, Sulbutiamine, Ginkgo Biloba, etc.) have been around for decades or even millenia but are still known only in medical circles or among esoteric practicioners of herbal medicine. Why is this? If these compounds have proven cognitive benefits, why are they not ubiquitous? How come every grade-school child gets fluoride for the development of their teeth (despite fluoride’s being a known neurotoxin) but not, say, Piracetam for the development of their brains? Why does the nightly news slant stories to appeal more to a fear-of-change than the promise of a richer cognitive future?
There is no clear answer to this question. Many of the smart drugs have decades of medical research and widespread use behind them, as well as only minor, manageable, or nonexistent side effects, but are still used primarily as a crutch for people already experiencing cognitive decline, rather than as a booster-rocket for people with healthy brains. Unfortunately, there is a bias in Western medicine in favor of prescribing drugs once something bad has already begun, rather than for up-front prevention. There’s also the principle of “leave well enough alone” – in this case, extended to mean, don’t add unnecessary or unnatural drugs to the human body in place of a normal diet. [Smart Drug Smarts would argue that the average human diet has strayed so far from what is physiologically “normal” that leaving well enough alone is already a failed proposition.]
Probably most significantly, use of the term “drug” has a significant negative connotation in our culture. “Drugs” are bad: So proclaimed Richard Nixon in the War on Drugs, and Nancy “No to Drugs” Reagan decades later, and other leaders continuing to present day. The legitimate demonization of the worst forms of recreational drugs has resulted in a general bias against the elective use of any chemical to alter the body’s processes. Drug enhancement of athletes is considered cheating – despite the fact that many of these physiological shortcuts obviously work. University students and professionals seeking mental enhancements by taking smart drugs are now facing similar scrutiny.
However, history has shown that genies don’t stay in bottles. All ethics aside, there is ample proof that use of smart drugs can profoundly improve human cognition, and where there is an advantage to be gained – even where risks are involved – some people will leap at the chance to capitalize. At Smart Drug Smarts, we anticipate the social tide will continue to turn in favor of elective neural enhancers, and that the beneficial effects to users who choose to make the most of their brains will inevitably outweigh the costs.
Classes of Smart Drugs
There are seven primary classes used to categorize smart drugs: Racetams, Stimulants, Adaptogens, Cholinergics, Serotonergics, Dopaminergics, and Metabolic Function Smart Drugs. Despite considerable overlap and no clear border in the brain and body’s responses to these substances, each class manifests its effects through a different chemical pathway within the body.
Racetams are the best-known smart drugs on the market, and have decades of widespread use behind them. Piracetam is a leading smart drug, commonly prescribed to seniors with Alzheimer’s or pre-dementia symptoms – but studies have shown Piracetam’s beneficial effects extend to people of all ages, as young as university students. The Racetams speed up chemical exchange between brain cells. Effects include increases in verbal learning, mental clarity, and general IQ. Other members of the Racetam family include Pramiracetam, Oxiracetam, аnԁ Aniracetam, which differ from Piracetam primarily in their potency, not their actual effects.
Studies have shown that using racetams can deplete the brain of choline and cause headaches. To counteract this effect, users tend to take a choline supplement – generally choline bitartrate – in proportion to the amount of the racetam in their smart drug regimen.
The Racetams are not controlled substances in the US or most of the world, and can be purchased without prescription as over-the-counter dietary supplements. “Overdosing,” per se, isn’t really possible on these extremely non-toxic supplements, with the most extreme side effects felt by users being similar to drinking excessive caffeine.
Stimulants are the smart drugs most familiar to people, starting with widely-used psychostimulants caffeine and nicotine, and the more ill-reputed subclass of amphetamines. Stimulant drugs generally function as smart drugs in the sense that they promote general wakefulness and put the brain and body “on alert” in a ready-to-go state. Basically, any drug whose effects reduce drowsiness will increase the functional IQ, so long as the user isn’t so over-stimulated they’re shaking or driven to distraction.
The stimulant now most popular in news articles as a legitimate “smart drug” is Modafinil, which came to market as an anti-narcolepsy drug, but gained a following within the military, doctors on long shifts, and college students pulling all-nighters who needed a drug to improve alertness without the “wired” feeling associated with caffeine. Modafinil is a relatively new smart drug, having gained widespread use only in the past 15 years. More research is needed before scientists understand this drug’s function within the brain – but the increase in alertness it provides is uncontested.
Adaptogens are plant-derived chemicals whose activity helps the body maintain or regain homeostasis (equilibrium between the body’s metabolic processes). Almost without exception, adaptogens are available over-the-counter as dietary supplements, not controlled drugs. Well-known adaptogens include Ginseng, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, St. Johns Wort, and Gotu Kola. Many of these traditional remedies border on being “folk wisdom,” and have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years, and are used to treat everything from anxiety and mild depression to low libido. While these smart drugs work in a many different ways (their commonality is their resultant function within the body, not their chemical makeup), it can generally be said that the cognitive boost users receive is mostly a result of fixing an imbalance in people with poor diets, body toxicity, or other metabolic problems, rather than directly promoting the growth of new brain cells or neural connections.
The choline-based class of smart drugs play important cognitive roles in memory, attention, and mood regulation. Acetylcholine (ACh) is one of the brain’s primary neurotransmitters, and also vital in the proper functioning of the peripheral nervous system. Studies with rats have shown that certain forms of learning and neural plasticity seem to be impossible in acetylcholine-depleted areas of the brain. This is particularly worth mentioning because (as noted above under the Racetams section), the Racetam class of smart drugs tends to deplete cholines from the brain, so one of the classic “supplement stacks” – chemical supplements that are used together – are Piracetam and Choline Bitartrate. Cholines can also be found in normal food sources, like egg yolks and soybeans.
Another well-known smart drug classed as a cholinergic is Sulbutiamine, a synthetic derivative of thiamine which crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to improve memory while reducing psycho-behavioral inhibition. While Sulbutiamine has been shown to exhibit cholinergic regulation within the hippocampus, the reasons for the drug’s discernable effects on the brain remain unclear. This smart drug, available over the counter as a nutritional supplement, has a long history of use, and appears to have no serious side effects at therapeutic levels.
Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HTP), is another primary neurotransmitter and controls major features of the mental landscape including mood, sleep and appetite. Serotonin is produced within the body by exposure, which is one reason that the folk-remedy of “getting some sun” to fight depression is scientifically credible. Many foods contain natural serotonergic (serotonin-promoting or releasing) compounds, including the well-known chemical L-Tryptophan found in turkey, which can promote sleep after big Thanksgiving dinners.
Iluminal is an example of an over-the-counter serotonergic drug used by people looking for performance enhancement, memory improvements, and mood-brightening. Also noteworthy, a wide class of prescription anti-depression drugs are based on serotonin reuptake inhibitors that slow the absorption of serotonin by the presynaptic cell, increasing the effect of the neurotransmitter on the receptor neuron – essentially facilitating the free flow of serotonin throughout the brain.
Dopaminergics are smart drug substances that affect levels of dopamine within the brain. Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter, responsible for the good feelings and biochemical positive feedback from behaviors for which our biology naturally rewards us: tasty food, sex, positive social relationships, etc. Use of dopaminergic smart drugs promotes attention and alertness by either increasing the efficacy of dopamine within the brain, or inhibiting the enzymes that break dopamine down. Examples of popular dopaminergic smart drug drugs include Yohimbe, selegiline and L-Tyrosine.
Sulbutiamine, mentioned earlier as a cholinergic smart drug, can also be classed a dopaminergic, although its mechanism is counterintuitive: by reducing the release of dopamine in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the density of dopamine receptors actually increase after continued Sulbutiamine exposure, through a compensatory mechanism. (This provides an interesting example of how dividing smart drugs into sensible “classes” is a matter of taste as well as science, especially since many of them create their discernable neural effects through still undefined mechanisms.)
Metabolic Function Smart Drugs
Metabolic function smart drugs provide mental benefits by generally facilitating the body’s metabolic processes related to the production of new tissues and the release of energy from food and fat stores. Creatine, a long-time favorite performance-enhancement drug for competitive athletes, was in the news recently when it was found in a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial to have significant cognitive benefits – including both general speed of cognition and improvements in working memory. Ginkgo Biloba is another metabolic function smart drug used to increase memory and improve circulation – however, news from recent studies raises questions about these purported effects.