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Nootropic: a term coined the pharmacologist Cornelius Giurgea in the 1970s. To qualify as a nootropic, Giurgea argued, a drug had to:

  • enhance learning and memory, especially under conditions of disturbed neural metabolism resulting from a lack of oxygen, electroshock or age-related changes
  • facilitate information flow between the cerebral hemispheres
  • enhance the general resistance of the brain to physical and chemical injuries
  • be devoid of any other psychological or physiological effects.
  • The term roughly translates as 'acting on the mind' and derives from the Greek words noos meaning mind and tropein meaning turn.

    Some popularly labelled 'smart' chemicals are more nutritional in nature, often based on the notion that dietary precursors for some neurotransmitters or neuromodulators can beneficially influence brain chemistry. This has some legitimate theoretical basis but seems to have little reliable clinical support. While dietary variations can influence levels of brain signalling chemicals, the commercially marketed nutritional supplements seem to effect mental function at best haphazardly if at all.

    Pharmaceutical nootopics (as opposed to the dietary supplements) sometimes have definite neurological effects, but conclusions about the significance of those effects in enhancing human mental functions appear to be very premature. Basically, this is a case of humans playing around with fire with no Prometheus around to educate them about it. Current evidentiary and theoretical information suggests that smart drugs can achieve cognitive enhancement in three different ways:

  • by minimizing the natural deterioration of one's brain functions
  • by repairing some of the damage already done
  • by enhancing brain functions above usual levels.
  • The human nervous system deteriorates with age through the natural aging process and sometimes due to drinking or smoking. This deterioration is usually caused by oxidation, which destroys brain cells. Although neurons cannot be regenerated, it is possible to repair some of the other damage (such as that caused by the low levels of electric current utilized during metabolic processes). It is also possible to enhance the brain's natural properties with by helping the brain to build extra neural connections. The existence of such catalysts introduces an immense performance increase in tasks that require memorization or access to a wide field of background information. Smart drugs can also enhance one's mental functions by providing neurons with more oxygen or by increasing the amount of available neurotransmitters.

    The identity of nootropics may be as fascinating for some as their functions may be for others. The former group may well find it intriguing to learn that nootropics come in three very fuzzy identities: Drugs, nutrients and herbs. Although most would immediately conclude that differentiating among the three groups could potentially be as difficult as differentiating among aspirin, pepperoni pizza and ginseng, the reality is far from it. Certain nutrients which are sufficiently potent are marketed as drugs, whereas certain commercially available smart drugs do not go beyond providing one's cerebrum with mild nutritional boosts, while herbs are still more obscure since they could fulfill neither, one or both categories due to the inability to standardize their growth and therefore specific chemical content.

    Drugs are intimidating - attractive - addictive - all or none?

    Nutrients are comforting - beneficial - natural - all or none?

    Herbs are refreshing - obscure - mystical - all or none?