They’re being called “nootropics” -- so called smart drugs that offer a shortcut to sharpen your focus and your thinking. It’s an online sensation hitting the $30 billion dietary supplement industry.
Geoff Woo is the CEO of Nootrobox/HVMN, and he says he’s sure he can make us smarter and quicker on our feet. Woo’s company and other competitors want us to think about supplements in a drastically new light.
“Typical vitamins focus on micro nutrients, so these things are deficiencies in a person’s normal diet,” he said. “What we look at our company is looking at things that can enhance human performance.”
Since he’s been taking his smart pills, Coleman Maher says his wrestling workouts are easier.
“It’s a really, really tough grind and it’s hard to stay focused or motivated sometimes,” Maher said. “So, having an energy boost is very valuable.”
But beyond an energy boost, could these super supplements also boost our brain power? Piracetam is one smart drug gaining popularity. It’s sold as a prescription in Europe, but over the counter here, Dr. Vinh Ngo says.
“That one has a lot of research behind it,” he said. “I think there’s a potentially huge audience for Nootropics. Anyone can benefit for having improved cognition.”
Since supplements escape regulation by the FDA, doctors remind us to be cautious.
“I’ve tried to kind of clear up a lot of questions people have, make it safe for them to use,” Dr. Ngo said.
So what should we be asking before giving them a try?
“Just get some sound advice from a medical professional and do your homework,” Dr. Ngo said.
While nootropics is not considered a field of medicine just yet, it has gained a huge following within Silicon Valley. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen both are said to have invested in them. Some doctors point out that there can be a risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, and Dr. Ngo makes all of his patients sign waivers for certain nootropics programs.
NOOTROPICS: BOOST BODY AND BRAIN?
BACKGROUND: Nootropics were first discovered in 1960s, and were used to help people with motion sickness and then later were tested for memory enhancement. In 1971, the nootropic drug piracetam was studied to help improve memory. Romanian doctor Corneliu Giurgea was the one to coin the term for this drug: nootropics. His idea after testing piracetam was to use a Greek combination of “nous” meaning mind and “trepein” meaning to bend. Therefore the meaning is literally to bend the mind. Since then, studies on this drug have been done all around the world. One test in particular studied neuroprotective benefits with Alzheimer’s patients. More tests were done with analogues of piracetam and were equally upbeat. This is a small fraction of nootropic drugs studied over the past decade. Studies were done first on animals and rats and later after results from toxicity reports, on willing humans.
A COGNITIVE EDGE: Many decades of tests have convinced some people of how important the drugs can be for people who want an enhancement in life. These neuro-enhancing drugs are being used more and more in the modern world. Nootropics come in many forms and the main one is caffeine. Caffeine reduces physical fatigue by stimulating the body’s metabolism. The molecules can pass through the blood brain barrier to affect the neurotransmitters that play a role in inhibition. These molecule messengers can produce muscle relaxation, stress reduction, and onset of sleep. Caffeine is great for short–term focus and alertness, but piracetam is shown to work for long-term memory. Piracetam enhances brain oxygen supply and the removal of the inhibitory transmitter GABA, thus theoretically improving attention, memory, and learning. While, there are supplements such as alpha GPC or choline bitartrate for piracetam users, choline is also found in some foods such as vegetables and eggs leading to the theory that a vegetarian diet leads to mental acuity. Modafinil is a prescription drug traditionally used to treat narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is an uncommon neurological disorder where individuals are susceptible to repeated sleep throughout the day. Modafinil elevates levels of histamine in the hypothalamus. This leads to a greater amount of alertness. Military pilots have been given this medication for long missions.
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PRECAUTIONS: Nootropics are sold as nutritional supplements and natural products and refrain from making health claims causing them to avoid close government scrutiny. Piracetam is only one of many formulations in the racetam drug family. Newer ones include aniracetam, phenylpiracetam and oxiracetam and all are available on line where their efficacy and safety are debated and reviewed on message boards and in podcasts. If you are taking Adderall, albuterol or piracetam, you could be at risk for high blood pressure and heart problems. Vinh Ngo, MD, a San Francisco family practice doctor who specializes in hormone therapy, requires his patients to sign waivers acknowledging possible health risks in taking nootropics. While studies have found short-term benefits, Professor Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System, told The New York Times “there is no evidence that what are commonly known as smart drugs, of any type, improve thinking or productivity over the long run. That’s because when you up one circuit in the brain, you’re probably impairing another system.”