‘Smart’ drugs, more accurately referred to as nootropics, are a growing global market. By 2017, the global nootropic market was estimated at around 1,234 million USD, according to a report published by Zion Market Research.1

With these drugs growing in popularity, it is important to understand exactly what they are and their dangers. It’s tempting to fully believe that there is a wonder pill, something to make you more intelligent and a better thinker without any adverse effects. However, as with all drugs, there are side effects and consequences of misuse.

When work demands are high, and we don’t have the focus or energy to get everything done, it can be tempting to use substances to help. The majority of people already use a performance enhancer without thinking much about it – caffeine. Still, we know that caffeine should be used in moderation, and over-use can make us feel anxious and unnecessarily stressed, hindering our ability to actually perform as well as we would like.

Some of us work in jobs where high focus and concentration are required every single day. Both professionals and academic students often need to meet high demands where time is of the essence. To help, some people use performance-enhancing, or cognitive-enhancing, drugs such as Modafinil, Ritalin, or Piracetam. These drugs are created to help those with attention, memory, or other cognitive-based disorders reduce the severity of their symptoms.

It has been suggested that these drugs could have cognitive-enhancing abilities in healthy individuals. Still, there is a distinct lack of evidence to support their safe use. Unfortunately, their misuse is on the rise, as professionals and students worldwide use these substances to enhance their performance and get more work done.

These drugs are commonly referred to as ‘smart’ drugs because of the common misconception that these drugs make you smarter. This is a misconception because these drugs do not actually boost your intelligence. They work by increasing concentration, attention, and memory, and reducing fatigue, thus allowing users to sustain their focus for a longer time than usual. The problem is that many people don’t fully understand the dangers of using these drugs outside of their designated medical purpose.

Some dietary supplements and synthetic compounds fall under the category of ‘nootropics’ or cognitive enhancers. The third category of nootropics is prescription drugs.

Are Nootropics Addictive?

There is a real risk of addiction when prescription nootropic drugs are misused. First, a person who misuses these drugs will be at risk of dependence, where we come to rely on the use of pills and tablets to help us feel normal. Following dependence, there is a high chance of developing an addiction. Nootropic addiction is characterized by a compulsive need to use these drugs and the experience of difficult withdrawal symptoms when the drugs are not used.

Types of Nootropics, or ‘Smart’ Drugs

Nootropics are defined in the journal Brain Research as ‘any substance that may alter, improve, or augment cognitive performance, mainly through the stimulation or inhibition of certain neurotransmitters.’2

There are three main types of nootropics or ‘smart’ drugs commonly used among professionals for their performance and cognitive enhancing properties. These are:

  • Stimulants

  • Analeptics

  • Racetams

Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to those with attention disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)3. These are amphetamine-type drugs, which means that they promote alertness and concentration in the user.

Analeptics are used to stimulate the central nervous system.4 Modafinil is the most commonly used analeptic drug. A medical professional typically prescribes them to treat or manage narcolepsy. They are also prescribed to those with ADHD.

Racetams are typically used to help patients with epilepsy and seizures.5 They work by strengthening communication and chemical exchange between neurons or brain cells. Piracetam, Oxiracetam, and Aniracetam are commonly prescribed and commonly used types of Racetam.

What Are the Effects of Smart Drugs?

As with any drug, prolonged use has adverse effects. In the short-term, a user will typically experience positive results. According to Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, some of the desirable effects of nootropics include6:

  • Increased focus and concentration

  • Improved memory

  • Increased cognitive function

However, in the long-term, there are many negative effects. Though users turn to these drugs to improve focus, cognition, and memory, their long-term effects can actually reduce our ability to focus and concentrate. Further, they can lead to a range of health complications that undermine our ability to function normally and healthily day to day.

Long-term Effects of Nootropics

Nootropics such as Ritalin, Modafinil, and Piracetam should only be used in adherence with strict guidelines recommended by a doctor. When people use these outside of a prescription to enhance their cognitive abilities, there is a high risk of abuse. The effects might seem advantageous at first, allowing us to get ahead of our work schedule or perform better on exams. Still, over time we become dependent on the drugs to achieve those results.

When dependence happens, trying to perform and function without the drugs becomes more difficult. Furthermore, unless we continue to take the drugs and feed our dependence, we are likely to a range of physical and mental health symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Fatigue

  • Stomach pain

  • Sleep issues, insomnia

  • High blood pressure

  • Addiction

How Do Nootropics Work?

‘Smart’ drugs act on the central nervous system (CNS) to keep us awake and energised.7 The issue is that when we do this with substances, we can push the CNS beyond its natural capacity.

Nootropics also act on our brain’s dopamine receptors.8 Similar to cocaine, nootropics inhibit the reuptake of dopamine in the brain. This means that dopamine, our brain’s reward chemical, stays in the synapses for longer than usual. This is what causes these drugs’ pleasurable effects.

Nootropic Addiction

Most of us know that cocaine, for instance, has a high potential for abuse and addiction.9 It is less known that nootropics also pose a risk of abuse and can lead to addiction. When we use Modafinil, Ritalin, or any other performance-enhancing drug, the brain and body become accustomed to this chemical substance’s presence in the system. The more we use, the more likely it is that we will become dependent on the drug to function. Since these drugs cause an abnormally large amount of dopamine to flood the brain, more than we are naturally able to produce, our natural production of dopamine will be insufficient at making us feel happy and motivated.

With a compromised dopamine reward system, we tend to seek out external means of making ourselves feel better. This could be using more nootropics, in greater doses and higher frequency, or by using other, stronger drugs to achieve the effects we seek. Those who develop a dependence on nootropics might turn to stronger stimulants to achieve the desired effects. This can lead to a dangerous pattern of substance abuse and ultimately lead to addiction.

1 “Global Nootropics Market Size & Share To Reach USD 5,959 Million By 2024”. Zionmarketresearch.Com, 2019, https://www.zionmarketresearch.com/news/nootropics-market#:~:text=10%2DJan%2D2019%20%7C%20Zion%20Market%20Research&text=According%20to%20the%20report%2C%20the,cognitive%20enhancers%20or%20smart%20drugs. Accessed 28 Jan 2021.

2 Nishizaki, T et al. “A ‘long-term-potentiation-like’ facilitation of hippocampal synaptic transmission induced by the nootropic nefiracetam.” Brain research vol. 826,2 (1999): 281-8. doi:10.1016/s0006-8993(99)01312-8

3 Lakhan, Shaheen E, and Annette Kirchgessner. “Prescription stimulants in individuals with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: misuse, cognitive impact, and adverse effects.” Brain and behavior vol. 2,5 (2012): 661-77. doi:10.1002/brb3.78

4 Wang, S.C., and John W. Ward. “Analeptics”. Pharmacology & Therapeutics. Part B: General And Systematic Pharmacology, vol 3, no. 1, 1977, pp. 123-165. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/0306-039x(77)90008-3. Accessed 28 Jan 2021.

5 Fedi, Marco et al. “Long-Term Efficacy And Safety Of Piracetam In The Treatment Of Progressive Myoclonus Epilepsy”. Archives Of Neurology, vol 58, no. 5, 2001, p. 781. American Medical Association (AMA), doi:10.1001/archneur.58.5.781. Accessed 28 Jan 2021.

6 Talih, Farid, and Jean Ajaltouni. “Probable Nootropic Induced Psychiatric Adverse Effects: A Series of Four Cases.” Innovations in clinical neuroscience vol. 12,11-12 (2015): 21-5.

7 Coper, H, and W M Herrmann. “Psychostimulants, analeptics, nootropics: an attempt to differentiate and assess drugs designed for the treatment of impaired brain functions.” Pharmacopsychiatry vol. 21,5 (1988): 211-7. doi:10.1055/s-2007-1014678

8 Urban, Kimberly R., and Wen-Jun Gao. “Performance Enhancement At The Cost Of Potential Brain Plasticity: Neural Ramifications Of Nootropic Drugs In The Healthy Developing Brain”. Frontiers In Systems Neuroscience, vol 8, 2014. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00038. Accessed 28 Jan 2021.

9 Cregler, L L. “Adverse health consequences of cocaine abuse.” Journal of the National Medical Association vol. 81,1 (1989): 27-38.

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