Nootropics are substances that enhance cognition and support healthy brain function. Sometimes people refer to them as "smart drugs" or the "limitless pill." They include various foods, nutraceuticals (supplements), and pharmaceuticals (drugs). Healthy individuals may use nootropics to improve memory, learning, focus, mood, concentration, processing, motivation, and attention. Aging individuals may also use them to support healthy cognitive aging or slow cognitive aging.
In 1972, a Romanian psychologist and chemist, Corneliu Giurgea, combined the Greek words for “mind” and “turn” to coin the term “nootropic” (pronounced nō-ə-ˈtrō-pik). Giurgea identified substances with these six features as nootropics:
- “Enhancement of learning acquisition” – improve learning and memory
- “Resistance to impairing agents” – support brain health
- “Facilitation of interhemispheric transfer of information” – improve processing
- “Enhanced resistance to brain ‘aggressions’” – support brain healing
- “Increased tonic, cortico-subcortical ‘control’” – improve focus and attention
- “Absence of usual pharmacological effects of neuro psychotropic drugs” – safe
To summarize Giurgea, a nootropic should safely support and improve cognitive functions. If a substance doesn’t do that, it’s not a nootropic.
That doesn’t mean that everything anyone calls a “nootropic” actually lives up to the name. Scientists haven’t studied some substances enough to know whether nootropic claims are more than anecdotal. And research demonstrates that some substances have little to no nootropic effect or may even pose significant health risks. But studies do support the nootropic efficacy and safety of other substances to varying extents.
History of Nootropics
Long before Giurgea coined the term "nootropic," humanity had begun exploring ways to modify cognition for religious, medicinal, and recreational purposes. Our prehistoric ancestors may have used psychoactive substances to inspire their artwork. Indian Ayurveda, known for adaptogens like Ashwagandha, may have originated as an oral tradition around 5000 BCE. And as early as 1500 BCE, Ancient Egyptians recorded on papyrus their knowledge of hundreds of stimulants, sedatives, motor excitants, motor depressants, narcotics, and hypnotics.
During the last few centuries, our modern ancestors have been working toward more powerful, dependable, and flexible ways to enhance cognition. As the scientific method matured, alchemy became chemistry. In the eighteenth century, James Lind conducted what may have been the first clinical trial. In the nineteenth century, Richard Canton observed electrical impulses in brains. And in the twentieth century, accelerating technological trends sparked imagination. On 26 December 1965, "Our New Age" comic strip predicted that humanity would develop smart drugs and brain computer interfaces by 2016.
In 2011, the Limitless movie brought nootropics to popular attention. In the movie, the main character uses a fictional smart pill, NZT-48, supposedly to access 100% of his brain and thereby radically increase his intelligence. As it turns out, you probably already use your whole brain, and nootropics aren’t (yet) as powerful as NZT-48. But that hasn’t stopped nootropics from climbing in popularity, as illustrated by Google searches for “nootropics” (compared to "mnemonics," which is the study and development of systems to improve memory).
Perhaps the most well known nootropic is Modafinil, sold in the United States as a prescription drug under the brand name Provigil. Developed in France in the late 1970s, Modafinil is an artificial nootropic that appears to have a low risk of side effects. Supplementation may provide a notable decrease to fatigue, a subtle increase to cognition and working memory, and a subtle decrease to reaction time, according to multiple peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. It may also provide other nootropic effects, although evidence for them may not be as reliable. Similar nootropics include Adrafinil and Armodafinil, marketed as the prescription drug Nuvigil.
Another well known nootropic is Piracetam, which is legally available in the United States although the FDA does not allow vendors to market Piracetam as a dietary supplement. Developed by Giurgea in Romania in the early 1970s, Piracetam is an artificial nootropic that appears to have a low risk of side effects. Supplementation may provide a notable decrease to cognitive decline, according to multiple peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. It may also provide other nootropic effects, although evidence for them may not be as reliable. Similar nootropics are in the Racetam family, including Aniracetam, Coluracetam, Nefiracetam, Noopept, Oxiracetam, Phenylpiracetam, and Pramiracetam. Other Racetams appear to be less studied than Piracetam.
Many nootropics with the best evidence and notable effect come from herbs and other substances that are legally and widely available in the United States as dietary supplements. Ashwagandha may decrease stress. Bacopa Monnieri may increase memory. Creatine may increase energy. Feverfew may decrease migraine. Fish Oil may support mood. Ginkgo Biloba may decrease cognitive decline. Inositol may decrease stress. Melatonin may promote sleep. Rhodiola Rosea may increase energy and improve focus. Theanine may promote relaxation. Vitamin B2 may decrease migraine. And Zinc may support mood.
Do nootropics really work? Everyone's different, but some nootropics work for most people. For example, our list of top tier nootropics references more than 100 studies for more than 12 substances. Most of the studies are peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. Some are meta-analyses or cohort studies. All are the formal collaborative work of credentialed scientists – not just journalists writing news articles or enthusiasts tapping out blog posts. All of the studies are related to clinical trials on humans – not just on mice or in test tubes. And most of the studies found statistically significant support for notable nootropic effect. The few that didn’t are still helpful for scoping effective applications, dosages, and timelines.
How well do nootropics work? Different nootropics have different effects at different magnitudes and on different timelines. So the answer depends in part on the effect you’re looking for – focus, memory, mood, or otherwise. But we can make some observations about magnitude of effect in general.
In 2013, a study quantified a magnitude of effect for the popular nootropic drug, Modafinil, using a standard statistical method from behavioral science, Cohen's D. The method generates outputs on a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 is no effect, .2 is small effect, .5 is medium effect, and .8 is large effect. Applying this method to the results of seven placebo-controlled studies on humans, the scientists found that the Modafinil magnitude of effect was .77, an approximately large effect.
The study also used the Modafinil magnitude of effect as a benchmark for assessing two herbal nootropics. One of them was Ginseng, and another was Bacopa. Applying Cohen's D to nine placebo-controlled studies on humans, the scientists found that the Ginseng magnitude of effect was .86. And applying the method to another seven placebo-controlled studies on humans, the scientists found that the Bacopa magnitude of effect was .95. These results indicate that Ginseng and Bacopa may both have large effects, larger than the effect of Modafinil, although for different cognitive functions and on different timelines.
The 2013 study concluded, "neurocognitive enhancement from well characterized nutraceuticals can produce cognition enhancing effects of similar magnitude to those from pharmaceutical interventions".
Nootropics come in many formats. Natural nootropics are available in foods. And both natural and artificial nootropics are available in powders, liquids, and pills – capsules, tablets, softgels, caplets, and chewables. If you’re looking for dosage flexibility and low cost, powders may be the way to go. And for nootropics like Creatine, which require doses measured in grams, powders are also practical. For other nootropics, which require smaller doses, pills may save you a lot of time and frustration.
People often combine two or more nootropics into a “stack.” Stacks sometimes consist of nootropics that may be more effective in combination, such as Caffeine for energy and Theanine for relaxation. And stacks often include nootropics that simply complement each other, such as Bacopa for memory and Rhodiola for focus. You can make your own stack by purchasing ingredients separately. Or you can purchase premade stacks.
Premade stacks are the most convenient, but the market is full of stack products with all too typical problems. Many contain ingredients that don't work, or for which there's little or no supporting evidence in scientific studies. Some contain ingredients that could work, but they provide tiny ineffective dosages. And more often than not, it's difficult if not impossible to tell, because they hide their dosages behind secret formulas. On top of that, stack products tend to be expensive, with many vendors charging exorbitant prices for their secretive ineffective products.
At Thrivous, we’re proud to offer better alternatives. Our nootropics have better ingredients, with better evidence for nootropic effect. They have better formulas, with better dosages openly shared. And they have better prices, competing with the prices of individual-ingredient encapsulations. If you’re new to nootropics, our nootropics are an easy and dependable way to get started. If you’ve been using nootropics for years, our nootropics are a convenient and cost-effective base from which you can build out the rest of your stack. Either way, talk to your doctor about using Thrivous nootropics. It’s a smart choice.