How Things Work: Nootropics

Every few weeks at Carnegie Mellon University, hell rolls around. It comes in the form of three exams, two problem sets, a research paper, and a group presentation — all in the span of five horrible days. At times like these, we all feel like we could use a boost to our brainpower. If it were as easy as a pill, would you do it?

Pharmaceutical companies know the potential of “smart pills.” These pills are collectively known as nootropics, meaning “to act on the mind.” Nootropics have a mind-boggling potential: increased cognitive abilities, improved memory recall, slowed aging of the brain, and even reversal of mentally degenerative diseases.

Chemists have a long way to go before such promises can be realized. Currently, no nootropics in the U.S. have been certified by the Food & Drug Administration as meeting their claims. Nevertheless, nootropics have found a niche acceptance among supporters of dietary and herbal supplements.

Nootropics work in a variety of ways, but they all involve interaction with the brain. The very first nootropic ever developed, Piracetam, works by optimizing transmission of neurons in the corpus callosum, the bridge connecting the two hemispheres of the brain. Many other “smart pills” function by affecting the body’s regulation of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals related to brain function. These nootropics work comparably to many antidepressants, which seek to balance chemical production in the brain.

The problem with the development of nootropics lies in the complexity of the brain. An average adult brain contains about 100 billion neurons. Each of these neurons averages 7000 connections to other neurons, which allows for trillions of interactions.

Neuroscientists have made little progress understanding whether these interactions take place individually, in clusters, or in sweeping, brain-wide interactions. The brain is arguably the hardest-to-understand part of the body, and greater understanding may take decades.

But progress is being made. In 2003, there were already 40 nootropics in human trials. The largest demand for nootropic development is not among the stressed-out student demographic, however. The real value of smart drugs lies with the elderly. Nootropics have shown great promise in treating many mentally degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and senile dementia.

With the population of the elderly steadily increasing in the United States, these conditions are on the rise. Alzheimer’s disease strikes nearly half of all people over 85 and 10 percent of those over 65. It is believed that a treatment that delays Alzheimer’s symptoms by five years could halve the occurence of the disease. Nootropics are being developed to do just that.

For now, the best recommendations for improving brain power are two familiar words: diet and exercise. Less heavy, fatty foods and more complex carbohydrates will contribute to a richer diet that keeps the mind alert and increases the flow of oxygen to the brain. Exercise can be consist of anything from brisk walking to dancing, swimming, and even sex — all will lead to more braininess. Studies have also shown that adults with mentally stimulating jobs reduce the risk of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s later in life.