What are Cognitive Enhancers?

Chances are, you have heard someone mention the term “nootropic” at some point- especially recently. After all, in the past couple of years, it has become quite trendy to talk about and use these types of supplements.

According to the dictionary, a nootropic is a substance that has been shown to enhance cognition and memory, as well as facilitate learning. In the slang dictionaries, they are referred to as “smart drugs”.

The truth is, the term “nootropic” is actually derived from two Greek words:

  • “nous”, which translates to “mind”
  • “tropein” which translates to “bend/turn”

Originally, the term “nootropic” was used to refer to synthetic substances that were believed to improve mental abilities. However, the term is now being used to refer to anything and everything that is believed to support cognitive functioning, including botanicals and nutrients found in dietary supplements.

History of Nootropics

While the term has recently become hip and trendy, it’s not really all that new. In fact, several decades ago, it was coined by Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, a Romanian psychologist and chemist. The story goes that sometime in the mid-1960s to early 1970s, he was working to create a sleeping pill. Instead, he ended up with a substance he named “nootropic”, which was piracetam.

He outlined several conditions that were required for something to be called a nootropic, including the following:

  • It must improve memory
  • It must enhance behavior during unfavorable circumstances
  • It must protect the brain from both physical and chemical injury
  • It must improve cortical and subcortical controls
  • It must have a low side-effect and toxicity profile

Though modern-day nootropics are only dated back to approximately 50 years, there is some evidence that plants were used to improve mood and cognition more than 10,000 years ago. Some of these plants include coca leaves and Ginkgo biloba.

There is some belief that Ginkgo biloba use may date back further than that. Ginkgo trees are 250 million years old, making them the oldest living trees on Earth.

Read: Best Memory Support Pills

Who Uses Nootropics?

At one time, many of the ingredients found in a nootropic were only found in your grandmother’s bedside table. However, now these can be found in the briefcase of a millennial or the backpack of a Gen-Z-er.

These products are appealing for studies who are trying to cram for exams and for young professionals who are on the move in their high-powered jobs that need the mental edge to improve their own productivity and creativity in a highly competitive environment.

Common Nootropics

This is where it gets a bit tricky. Your list of common nootropics depends upon whether you stick to the definition of nootropics that Dr. Giurgea created 50 years ago or whether your definition is loose, encompassing anything that may support cognitive functioning.

Some of the substances that are commonly referred to as nootropics include the following:

  • Botanical extracts
    • Rhodiola rosea
    • Panax ginseng
    • Bacopa monnieri
    • Ginkgo biloba
  • Dietary ingredients
    • Creatine
    • Phosphatidylserine
    • L-carnitine
    • Resveratrol
    • L-theanine
    • Caffeine
  • Prescription medications
  • Unregulated substances
    • “racetams”, with piracetam being the most common

Are “Smart Drugs” Actually Nootropics?

It is quite common for millennials and younger generations to use medications such as Adderall and Ritalin to improve their mental focus. These medications are typically prescribed by physicians for patients with ADHD. Some of these medications have a high risk of abuse and do have side effects- especially when taken in doses that are higher than recommended.

Adderall is an amphetamine. Ritalin is not an amphetamine, but it is a very powerful stimulant. Side effects of both of these medications include headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia, and anxiety. When taken in high doses, both of these can result in heart arrythmias, increased blood pressure, hallucinations, seizures, and heart attacks.

So, the answer to the question: “are they nootropics?” is no. Both of these medications have some fairly serious side effects and withdrawal symptoms. Therefore, neither of these fit into the true definition of nootropic.

Read: Top Natural OTC Adderall Supplement Brands

What about Piracetam?

Piracetam falls into a category of substances that are known as “racetams”. This category also includes:

  • Oxiracetam
  • Aniracetam
  • Phenylpiracetam

Of this group, piracetam is the most common and readily available. However, it does not seem to be as available now as it was in the past. It is a synthetic GABA substance that was invented by Dr. Giurgea when he coined the term “nootropic”.

In some countries, including Italy, United Kingdom, and Australia, it is sold as a prescription medication- Nootropil. However, in the United States, it is not regulated either as a medication or a dietary supplement. Instead, it is sold as a research compound, which means it can’t be marketed for human consumption.

Does this mean that piracetam is a nootropic? Yes, since it does have a low-side effect profile, it does fall under the definition of “nootropic”. Plus, the term “nootropic” was invented by Dr. Giurgea when he created piracetam.

Is Caffeine a Nootropic?

According to the FDA, caffeine has GRAS status, which means it is generally recognized as safe. When consumed in small amounts, it may be considered a nootropic. However, in larger amounts, it does not fall into Dr. Giurgea’s definition of nootropic due to the fact that it has significant side effects and withdrawal symptoms.

Dietary Supplements as Nootropics

There is some research indicating that dietary supplements, including a variety of nutrients and botanicals, have some benefits when it comes to supporting neurological health, cognitive functioning, focus, productivity, memory, and creativity.

Due to their lack of dependency risk and withdrawal symptoms and low risk of side effects, they do fall under the definition of nootropic more than “smart drugs”. However, it’s important to note that the effects of these are much more gradual and subtle.

Dietary supplements are often taken as part of a “stack” but can be taken alone. The term “stack” describes combining several nootropics.


Though they have recently exploded in popularity, nootropics have been around for many decades. They are primarily popular among millennials and younger generations to help with focus, memory, creativity, and more.

Read: Top Nootropic Supplements & Smart Drugs to Buy


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Alexandra Lewis

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