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Nootropics [no-eh-tro-pik], also referred to as smart drugs or memory enhancers, are drugs that improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration. The word nootropic was coined in 1972 by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea of Romania, derived from the Greek words nous, or ‘mind,’ and trepein meaning ‘to bend/turn.’

Nootropics are thought to work by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals (neurotransmitters, enzymes, and hormones), by improving the brain’s oxygen supply, or by stimulating nerve growth. However the efficacy of nootropic substances, in most cases, has not been conclusively determined. This is complicated by the difficulty of defining and quantifying cognition and intelligence.

Cognitive enhancers are drugs that enhance concentration and memory. Nootropics are cognitive enhancers that are neuroprotective or extremely nontoxic. Nootropics are by definition cognitive enhancers, but a cognitive enhancer is not necessarily a nootropic. At present, there are several drugs on the market that improve memory, concentration, and planning, and reduce impulsive behavior. Many more are in different stages of development. The most commonly used class of drug is stimulants. These drugs are used primarily to treat people with cognitive difficulties such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ADHD. However, more widespread use is being recommended by some researchers.

These drugs have a variety of human enhancement applications as well. In academia, modafinil has been used to increase productivity, although its long-term effects have not been assessed in healthy individuals. Stimulants such as methylphenidate are being used on college campuses, and by an increasingly younger group. One survey found that 7% of students had used stimulants for a cognitive edge in the past year, and on some campuses the number is as high as 25%. The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, and these concerns apply to cognitive-enhancing drugs as well.

A class of drugs called Racetams are sometimes cited as an example of a nootropic with few side-effects and wide therapeutic window; however, any substance ingested could produce harmful effects. In fact, the word nootropic was coined upon discovery of the effects of piracetam, developed in the 1960s. Although piracetam is the most commonly taken nootropic, there are many relatives in the family that have different potencies and side-effects.

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