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…
- Enhance memory and ability to learn.
- Help the brain function under disruptive conditions, such as hypoxia (low oxygen) and electroconvulsive shock.
- Protect the brain from chemical and physical assaults, such as anti-cholinergic drugs and barbiturates.
- Increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain.
- 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?← Frequently Asked Questions