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What Are Nootropics? And Do They Really Work?

Updated 20 October 2020
Lincoln Cannon

Nootropics Mental Enhancement

Nootropics are cognitive technology. They support healthy brain function or enhance mental ability. You might have heard others refer to them as "smart drugs" or "the limitless pill." This is your Nootropics 101.

Nootropics include various foods, supplements, and drugs. Healthy adults use them to improve memory, learning, focus, mood, concentration, information processing, motivation, and attention. Some people use them to decrease brain fog and increase mental clarity. Older adults also use them to support healthy cognitive aging.

What’s the meaning of the term "nootropic" (pronounced nō-ə-ˈtrō-pik)? Corneliu Giurgea, a Romanian psychologist and chemist, coined the term in 1972. He combined the Greek words for "mind" and "turn." So if we transliterate the meaning of "nootropic" into English, it would be something like "mind-turner."

That may sound strange. Can recreational nootropics get you high? Generally, no. But that's also not their purpose. Their purpose is much more practical.

Giurgea identified substances with these six features as nootropics:

  1. "Enhancement of learning acquisition" – improve learning and memory
  2. "Resistance to impairing agents" – support brain health
  3. "Facilitation of interhemispheric transfer of information" – improve processing
  4. "Enhanced resistance to brain 'aggressions'" – protect the brain
  5. "Increased tonic, cortico-subcortical 'control'" – improve focus and attention
  6. "Absence of usual pharmacological effects of neuro psychotropic drugs" – safe

Corneliu Giurgea

To summarize Giurgea, a nootropic should safely support and improve cognitive performance. If a substance doesn’t have these features, it’s not a nootropic.

That doesn’t mean that everything anyone calls a “nootropic” actually lives up to the name. Some Scientists haven’t studied some substances enough to know whether claims are more than anecdotal. And research demonstrates that some substances have little to no effect or may even pose significant health risks. But studies have shown the efficacy and safety of other substances to varying extents.

History of Nootropics

The history of cognitive enhancement began thousands of years before Giurgea. After all, we didn't need to know anything about brain cells to use our brains. And humanity had already begun exploring ways to modify cognition for purposes of religion, medicine, and recreation.

Our prehistoric ancestors may have used psychoactive substances to inspire their artwork. Indian Ayurvedic medicine, known for adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha, may have begun as an oral tradition around 5000 BCE. And as early as 1500 BCE, Ancient Egyptians cataloged 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. And in the nineteenth century, Richard Canton observed electrical impulses in brains.

In the twentieth century, scientists greatly expanded efforts to address the challenges of mental health. Doctors began diagnosing Alzheimer's and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) early in the century. And by mid-century, chemists had introduced many new drug interventions to improve brain function.

Also in the twentieth century, science fiction and emerging technology sparked imagination. A fun example appeared in "Our New Age" comic strip on 26 December 1965. It predicted that humanity would develop nootropic smart drugs and brain computer interfaces by 2016.

Our New Age comic strip, smart drugs, and brain computer interfaces

In 2011, the Limitless movie brought nootropics to popular attention. You might remember. In the movie, the main character uses NZT-48. It’s a fictional smart drug that activates 100% of his brain and radically increases his intelligence.

As it turns out, you already use your whole brain. And real nootropics are not yet as powerful as smart drugs in science fiction. But that hasn’t stopped them from becoming popular. For example, see Google searches for “nootropics” compared to "mnemonics" (the study of systems to improve memory).

Google Trend for Nootropics Compared to Mnemonics

Given humanity's ancient and persistent interest in cognitive enhancement, it seems unlikely that scientists will stop researching it any time soon. And who knows? Maybe right now, someone in a silicon valley garage is integrating a smart drug with a brain computer interface. And the powerful brain boosting drugs of the future are just an epiphany away.

Nootropic Examples

Perhaps the most well known cognitive enhancers are the Afinil wakefulness drugs. They were first developed in France in the late 1970s. And they are sold in the United States as prescription drugs under various brand names. These prescription nootropics are artificial, but they appear to have a low risk of side effects.

Afinils are particularly notable for reducing mental fatigue, according to multiple human studies. They may also provide subtle improvements to mental performance, such as reaction time and short term memory in healthy adults. And studies suggest that Afinils may provide other benefits, although the evidence may not be as reliable.

Afinil Example

Other well known cognitive enhancers include the Racetams. They are legally available in the United States. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow vendors to market Racetams as dietary supplements.

First developed by Giurgea in Romania in the early 1970s, Racetams are artificial smart drugs. They may provide a notable decrease to cognitive decline, according to multiple human studies. They may also provide other benefits, although evidence for them may not be as reliable. And they appear to have a low risk of side effects.

Many of the best nootropics with solid evidence and notable effect come from herbs, amino acids, vitamins, and other natural substances. Complementary and alternative medicine often recommends them. As dietary supplements, these are widely available and legal nootropics in the USA. You can buy nootropics in stores or online without a prescription.

Here are some examples:

Ginkgo Biloba, Nootropic Herb

Nootropic Effects

Do nootropics work? Everyone's different, but some nootropics work for most healthy people. For example, my list of real smart drugs 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 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 significant statistical support for notable effect. The few that didn’t are still helpful for scoping effective applications, dosages, and timelines.

How do nootropics work? And how well do they work? Different substances have different effects on different timelines and at different magnitudes. So the answers depend in part on the effect you’re looking for: focus, memory, mood, or otherwise.

The answers also depend in part on how disciplined you think you can be. Some, such as Caffeine, work best when you use them only for a short term. And there are others that you can take daily, like Bacopa, which becomes more effective over the long term.

In 2013, a study quantified the magnitude of effect for a popular nootropic drug. The scientists used Cohen’s D, which is a standard statistical method from behavioral science. The method generates outputs on a scale of 0 to 1:

  • 0 is no effect
  • .2 is small effect
  • .5 is medium effect
  • .8 is large effect.

The scientists applied this method to the results of seven human studies. They found that the nootropic drug had a magnitude of effect of .77, which was nearly a large effect. The study also used the nootropic drug as a benchmark for assessing two natural nootropic herbs.

Bacopa Monnieri, Nootropic Herb to Improve Memory

One of the herbs was Panax Ginseng and the other was Bacopa Monnieri. When the scientists applied Cohen's D to nine studies of Ginseng, they found that the Ginseng magnitude of effect was .86. And when they applied the method to seven studies of Bacopa, they found that the Bacopa magnitude of effect was .95.

These results indicate that Ginseng and Bacopa may both have large effects. And their effects may be larger than the effect of the nootropic drug. However, each affects different cognitive functions on different timelines. The study concluded:

"Neurocognitive enhancement from well characterized nutraceuticals can produce cognition enhancing effects of similar magnitude to those from pharmaceutical interventions."

How to Buy Nootropics

Brain supplements come in many formats. Natural nootropics are available in foods. And both artificial and natural nootropics are available in powders, liquids, and pills – capsules, tablets, softgels, caplets, and chewables.

If you’re looking for flexible dosage and low cost, powders may be the way to go. And for some like Creatine, which require high doses measured in grams, powders are also practical. For others, which require smaller doses, nootropic pills may save you a lot of time and frustration.

Capsules, Pills, and Tablets

People often combine two or more ingredients into a "stack." A stack may include ingredients that are more effective together, such as Caffeine for energy and Theanine for relaxation. Both are components of green tea, for example. And a stack may include ingredients 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 a pre-made stack.

Pre-made 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 doses. And more often than not, it's difficult if not impossible to tell, because they hide their doses 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. We develop high quality natural nootropic supplements. They combine nutrients and doses with the highest levels of scientific evidence for the greatest magnitudes of enhanced cognitive function.

  • Clarity Daily Nootropic is designed to enhance memory, focus, and mood. Each bottle provides a month supply (60 capsules) of Synapsa® Bacopa Monnieri, L Theanine, and Rhodiola Rosea.
  • Alpha Neuroprotector is designed to enhance brain and nerve function for better aging. Each bottle provides a month supply (120 capsules) of Acetyl L Carnitine, Alpha GPC, Ginkgo Biloba, and SerinAid® Phosphatidylserine.
  • Serenity Nightly Nootropic is designed to enhance relaxation, sleep, and next-day focus. Each bottle provides a month supply (60 capsules) of L Theanine, Magnesium Glycinate, and Melatonin.
  • Surge Acute Nootropic is designed to enhance productivity, energy, and focus. Each bottle provides a multi-month supply (60 capsules) of Caffeine, L Theanine, and Panax Ginseng.

The benefits of each of these supplements complements the others. So Thrivous also provides combination stacks at discounted prices:

All Thrivous formulas are completely open source. The supplement facts panel on each label fully discloses all ingredients and amounts. And we publish all quality control test results from our suppliers, manufacturing, and third parties. This is an exceptional practice among supplement vendors.

If you’re new to nootropics, Thrivous is an easy and dependable way to get started. If you’ve used them for years, Thrivous is a convenient base on which you can build your stack. Either way, try Thrivous today. It’s a smart choice.

Buy Nootropic Stack

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