Nootropics: What are nootropics? Do ‘smart drugs’ really work?

Nootropics are substances which enhance one or more aspect of cognitive performance, such as focus, memory retention and recall, processing speed, reaction times, mood, and brain cell health itself. There are natural nootropics and there are synthetic nootropics; these are the so-called ”smart drugs” so often written about by journalists today. Every day, the nootropics industry becomes larger and more sophisticated, and thus more difficult to understand.

On this page you’ll find a brief overview of everything you need to know about nootropics and ”smart pills”. I’ll explain what nootropics are, how different types of nootropics work, and how they are used today. We will go through how nootropics can help with motivation, studying and memory. I’ll also discuss the health and safety risks associated with the use of various nootropics.

If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section at the end, or check out some of our nootropics learning resources (like our best nootropics rankings) at the bottom of the page.

What Are Nootropics?

In simple terms, nootropics are supplements, drugs, or any other type of substances which improve cognitive function, particularly the executive cognitive functions; focus, learning, memory, and motivation. A substance which promotes brain health and development may also be deemed a nootropic. Most classifications of nootropics demand that the substance enhance cognition in healthy people, while others class substances which exclusively improve symptoms of cognitive decline as nootropics as well.

Nootropics are generally broken down into two distinct classes: natural nootropics and synthetic nootropics. Natural nootropics are, as the name suggests, naturally occurring substances known to improve mental performance or brain health. They include herbs, plant extracts, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Synthetic nootropics are man-made substances designed specifically to augment specific aspects of brain function and overall brain health. Popular synthetic nootropics include Piracertam, Noopept, Modafinil, Phenibut and Ritalin.

While nootropics have, in the past, been something only used by specialists and researchers, today they are decidedly a mainstream supplement category. Nootropics have arguably risen to prominence over the last few years as a result of changes in our working patterns; the workplace is much more competitive and fast-moving than it was a decade ago, and most jobs are now far more cognitively demanding.

The word “nootropic” is derived from the Ancient Greek words νόος (nóos) meaning “mind” and τροπή (tropḗ) meaning “turning”. It was first used by Corneliu E. Giurgea, a Hungarian Psychologist and Chemist, in 1972 to describe Piracetam; the first synthetic nootropic which he himself created in 1964. According to Giurgea’s original definition, nootropics have very specific criteria:

  1. They should enhance learning and memory
  2. They should enhance the resistance of learned behaviors/memories to conditions which tend to disrupt them (e.g. electroconvulsive shock, hypoxia)
  3. They should protect the brain against various physical or chemical injuries (e.g. barbiturates)
  4. They should increase the efficacy of the tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms
  5. They should lack the usual pharmacology of other psychotropic drugs (e.g. sedation, motor stimulation) and possess very few side effects and extremely low toxicity

This definition is, of course, hotly debated in the biohacking community today.

Many people contend that the likes of Modafinil, Phenibut and caffeine should not be classed as nootropics as they pose such serious side effect and long-term health risks as well as significant toxicity and dependency concerns. Others point to the fact that the likes of nicotine, Modafinil and Piracetam can be used safely and sensibly, and suggest that the abuse of certain substances should not alter their classification.

For our purposes here, it’s best to think of synthetic drugs such as Modafinil and natural substances such as Bacopa monnieri as two distinct kinds of nootropics.

How Do Nootropics Work?

The term nootropic encompasses a wide range of substances. As a nootropic is any substance which enhances cognition without causing serious side effects, the number of different nootropics is obviously very large. As such, there is no one way in which nootropics work. To answer the question ”how do nootropics work?”, we have to look at individual substances and examine how they work on a case by case basis.

Broadly speaking though, you can lump different nootropics into a few distinct subgroups according to how they work.

Most nootropics work through one of the following mechanisms:

  • Neurotransmitter potentiation
  • Stimulating neuropeptide release
  • Increasing cerebral blood flow
  • Protecting brain cells from oxidative stress
  • Stimulating neuron growth and dendrite branching

Let’s take a look at how different nootropic substances work. To make things easier, it’s best look at synthetic smart drugs and natural nootropics separately. Below are some examples of popular natural and synthetic nootropics and a little detail on how they work.

Natural Nootropics

Here are some popular natural nootropics along with some details on how they work:

  • Citicoline: Raises choline availability in the brain, which in turn increases the synthesis of acetylcholine and phosphatidylcholine. Some people suggest that Citicoline may also promote nerve cell growth by delivering cytidine, a component of RNA. Studies show that Citicoline supplementation dramatically improves cognitive performance[source]
  • Bacopa monnieri: A herb long used in traditional Ayurverdic medicine as a general purpose adaptogen and well being supplement. Multiple clinical trials have found that Bacopa monnieri consumption significantly improves memory function in both healthy people and in older people with mild cognitive decline. The evidence suggests that Bacopa works primarily by stimulating the growth of dendrite branches[source]
  • Lion’s Mane Mushroom: Clinical trials have found that Lion’s Mane Mushroom greatly increases the expression of the neuropeptide Nerve Growth Factor in the brain. Higher levels of NGF leads to greater neuronal growth and development, which promotes better cognitive function over the long term

Synthetic Nootropics

There is a wide range of synthetic nootropics to choose from. The pharmaceutical industry is constantly innovating new chemicals to treat various cognitive issues, from ADHD to dementia. With billions of dollars in research budgets and a desire to constantly improve upon existing drugs, there are new nootropic drugs hitting the market every year. Here are some of the most popular synthetic nootropics and what they do:

  • Piracetam: The “original” nootropic substance, this was the first brain drug synthesized specifically for the purposes of cognitive enhancement in healthy people, although most studies focus on older people with mild cognitive decline. Piracetam is said to improve every aspect of mental performance, including focus, working memory, and even brain cell health. It is the ”parent” compound of the racetam class of nootropics, which includes Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, and Fasoracetam (but not Noopept as is often erroneously claimed)
  • Noopept: A dipeptide analogue of Piracetam, Noopept is said to deliver many of the same benefits as Piracetam while needed a tiny fraction of the dose. While Noopept is considered safe for most users when taken in sensible doses, it is not suitable for long-term, daily use, and it can easily cause acute cognitive impairment
  • Modafinil: Modafinil is probably the most revered of all nootropic drugs because it typically produces the most extreme effects in users. it is unclear exactly how Modafinil works, although judging by the effects commonly reported by users (extreme focus and motivation, determination, loss of time perception, etc.) it is likely that Modafinil works on dopamine pathways in the brain

Our Nootropics Research: Articles, Analysis & Reviews

We produce articles, studies and analyses relating to natural bio-hacking. We are keenly interested in the application of natural nutraceuticals to enhance aspects of health and performance, with a heavy focus on cognitive enhancement through the use of nootropics.  To that end, we produce in-depth research papers on specific nootropics, nootropic supplement reviews, and analyses of commonly used ingredients.

Nootropics research

Here are some of our nootropic substance guides:

Here are some of our most read nootropic supplement reviews:

Nootropics FAQs