In the movie Limitless, a depressed and frustrated Bradley Cooper uses the experimental drug NZT-48. Within moments, the room becomes brighter and his world more vivid. His senses are heightened and his mind more adept. What was once a writer’s block becomes a frantic pace to finish a best selling novel. Even quantum mechanics and stock trading become child’s play as his mind is able to grasp the infinite complexities of linear algebra. Cooper quickly masters subjects that take years to perfect.
The NZT drug presents the idea that one does not need a private tutor and vast amounts of learning and reading in order to unlock one’s potential. Any individual could unlock their inner Mozart and Einstein. But the drug is a fictional catalyst. So audiences created a demand for a silver bullet, a drug that can cure headaches, anxiety and unlock the “genius” that is within all of us. The market responded, and more attention was placed on the neuropharmacology industry to create a brand of casual drugs that heighten the human mind. This new brand of neural supplements has been dubbed “nootropics,” a combination of the Greek words for mind and bend.
Neurotransmitters are special chemical messengers that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell via a synapse. These molecules bind to specific receptors and can cause a variety of responses, including muscle relaxation, stress response and sleep. Nootropics are based on the premise that optimal neurotransmitter levels have a correlation with brain performance. With the correct levels, individuals are able to learn and recall information efficiently. When levels are imbalanced, a whole array of neural deficits ranging from slower reasoning, reduced coordination and mental fatigue occur. Although the brain naturally provides an optimal amount of these molecules, aging slows down the process, degrading these important molecules. This requires some to ingest these outside supplements to maintain high cognitive function.
Arguably, the most common nootropic is also the most studied: caffeine. Millions of individuals self-medicate with their morning drink before work or late night study sessions. Caffeine is a metabolic stimulant that reduces physical fatigue and drowsiness. It allows for clearer thought and its level of toxicity is beyond most normal consumption. The caffeine molecule is able to bypass the blood-brain barrier and directanyly affect other neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, epinephrine and serotonin, which play roles in the inhibition process. However, there has been no definite answer on caffeine for its short and long term memory benefits. The controversial nature of this supplement has pushed more users into pursuing another nootropic: Piracetam, of the racetam family.
Next to caffeine, Piracetam is most the most widely used “smart drug.” Like other members of this family, this substance enhances GABA uptake, oxygen supply and nerve growth, a wholly different mechanism compared to coffee, which merely affects neurotransmitters. Piracetam directly affects the brain’s communication, as one study claimed that it “facilitates learning and memory in healthy animals and enhances inter-hemispheric transfer of information”. The data suggest that thoughts are produced faster and connections are more readily made.
Individuals can additionally ingest cholinergic sources, another dietary supplement. Choline is a common substance found in most foods. It is primarily available in vegetables and eggs, and some studies suggest vegetarian diets correlate to higher mental function due to the availability of this compound for nerve growth . Choline acts as a precursor molecule to acetylcholine, the most common neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Most Piracetam users take Alpha GPC or Choline Bitartrate, two substances that are widely available online. Cholinergic drugs can also block the activity of enzymes that destroy naturally occurring acetylcholine, allowing for higher levels of this transmitter. Most users claim that using a choline source with a member of the racetam family allows for individuals to have higher levels of cognitive function, as these sources provide for raw materials and shield the brain from headaches and other side effects of this commonly used nootropic.
Most recently, another nootropic has captured the public’s attention: Modafinil. This drug is used for treating narcolepsy, which is a rare neurological disorder in which individuals are prone to unwillingly falling asleep during the day. As a result, these individuals are heavily debilitated, as they cannot control their levels of awareness, limiting most of their day-to-day activities. Modafinil has been shown to counteract the effects of narcolepsy by elevating hypothalamic histamine levels, in contrast to the traditional stimulant and amphetamine compounds. This allows for more hours of wakefulness.
This neurological mechanism has been studied heavily and does not seem to bear many side effects to healthy users. In fact, Rolling Stone Magazine had a recent op-ed piece in which the author himself ingested Modafinil on a weekly basis . He was able to stay awake for twenty-four hour periods without any symptoms of fatigue or cognitive reduction. The demand for this sleep-reducing drug indicates something that society wants: a pill that could give back hundreds of lost hours due to the biological necessity of sleep.
The availability of these cognitive enhancing drugs is coming into question. According to a recent FDA ruling, these drugs can no longer be classified under dietary supplements per se . Still, online distributors such as Amazon.com have been able to sell these supplements without major legal issues. But Piracetam itself is no longer available in bulk due to its controversial nature, even though studies correlate it to cognitive enhancement. Most of these drugs can now be procured through more dubious means, such as offshore websites. The most common method is through the Indian pharmacology industry, as this form of regulation is much more lax compared to its American counterpart.
In the end, these “smart drugs” will become widespread throughout the general public. As Ritalin and Adderall were seen as a major supplement of college students, so too will these drugs be used for recreational purposes. We all want to have that magic pill, that NZT-48 pellet that unlocks our inner Mozart and Einstein.
1. Margaret Vernon and Eugene M. Sorkin, “Piracetam”, Drugs and Aging 1.1 (1991): 17-35
2. Steven H. Zeisel “Choline: Critical Role During Fetal Development and Dietary Requirements in Adults.”, Annual Review of Nutrition 26.2 (2006) 229-50, accessed January 15, 2013, doi:10.1146/annurev.nutr.26.061505.111156.
3. McMillen, Andrew. “Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics.” Rolling Stone Magazine, November 6, 2012, accessed January 15, 2013, http://andrewmcmillen.com/2012/11/06/rolling-stone-story-building-a-better-brain-wired-on-nootropics-november-2012
4. Braintropic. “Piracetam banned and removed from Amazon.com.” Last modified December 16, 2013. http://www.braintropic.com/piracetam-banned-and-removed-from-amazon-com
5. Digital image. Mindnutrition. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://www.mindnutrition.com/images/iStock_000018892265XSmall-300×225.jpg>.
Varun Moktan is a junior majoring in English Language and Literature at the George Washington University. He currently conducts research in the Department of Emergency Medicine at George Washington and will be attending medical school in the Fall of 2014. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.