Nootropics: Can “Smart Drugs” Really Make You Smarter?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could simply take a pill that would instantly boost your intelligence? How about one that would help you achieve an edge? If you’ve seen the movie Limitless, you have some idea of what this would look like, albeit an exaggerated Hollywood version. Despite the fact that it is a fictional movie, reality may not be far behind. This guide discusses whether “smart drugs” can make a user smarter. It also covers nootropic basics, their benefits, safety, and expected side effects, as well as the best products you can give a try. But first things first.

What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics, also known as “smart drugs” or brain pills, are a category of substances that are believed to enhance cognitive function, creativity, motivation, memory, & attention, as well as improve mental performance. They are typically available as supplements or drugs, either over-the-counter or as a prescription. 

There are three main types of nootropics [1]: 

  • dietary supplements: This type includes herbal extracts (e.g., ashwagandha, ginkgo biloba, Bacopa monnieri, & ginseng), amino acids (e.g., L-tyrosine and acetyl-L-carnitine), vitamins and minerals, and adaptogens. Products that consist of a mix of all-natural ingredients like Alpha Brain and Mind Lab Pro also fall into this category. Dietary supplements can be purchased without a prescription;
  • synthetic compounds: These are nootropics formulated in a lab. Racetams are a well-known class of synthetic nootropics that enhance cognition. Common examples of racetams are piracetam, phenylpiracetam, oxiracetam, aniracetam, and nebracetam. Such compounds are available over the counter;
  • prescription drugs: These are medications that are designed to treat health conditions such as narcolepsy, dementia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Modafinil (Provigil), methylphenidate (Ritalin), and amphetamine (Adderall) are the most prominent examples of prescription nootropics. People often use them off-label for their cognitive-enhancing effects, but these drugs can be bought only with a doctor’s prescription. 

It’s important to note that the long-term safety & effectiveness of many nootropics aren’t well established, and they should be used with caution & under the guidance of a physician.

How Do “Smart Drugs” Work?

The mechanism of action of nootropics is not well understood by researchers. However, most of them are believed to affect neurotransmitters, which are chemicals in the brain that transmit signals between neurons. They alter the levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, acetylcholine, & serotonin and regulate the production of hormones & enzymes through the improvement of the brain’s glucose & oxygen supply. Cognitive enhancers also increase blood flow to the brain, which can improve brain function.

The Best Brain Boosting Nutraceuticals & Nootropics

On the market, there are many nutraceuticals and brain drugs to make you smarter. Most are supplements that are available over the counter. Here is a list of the most popular ones:

  • Alpha Brain: It’s a proprietary blend of natural compounds and nutrients that is marketed as a cognitive enhancer. It contains ingredients such as bacopa, Huperzia serrata, and alpha-GPC, which are believed to support memory, focus, and mental clarity. The product improves cognitive performance and ameliorates mood. However, though it’s one of the safest nootropics, in some users, it may cause side effects such as headaches, jitters, anxiety, sleeplessness, and nausea. In general, the side effects of Alpha Brain are rare and don’t occur if it is used properly;
  • Mind Lab Pro: It’s marketed as a “universal nootropic” because it contains a wide range of natural compounds that enhance cognitive function in multiple ways. It contains bacopa, lion’s mane mushroom, & phosphatidylserine, which support memory, focus, & mood. This product also lessens anxiety & offers better sleep;
  • Provigil (modafinil) & Nuvigil (armodafinil): Although these drugs are designed to treat narcolepsy & other sleep disorders, they are most commonly used off-label to ameliorate cognitive function and boost productivity. They are safe and effective if used correctly; modafinil was even dubbed the “world’s first safe ‘smart drug’” by researchers at Harvard and Oxford; 
  • Brain Pill: It’s a nootropic supplement that contains 13 nootropic ingredients including ginkgo biloba, folic acid, L-theanine, vitamin B6, and L-tyrosine. It improves cognitive function and memory. It also lessens cognitive decline, increases focus and mental clarity, enhances mood, and reduces stress;
  • Qualia Mind: The dietary supplement contains 28 ingredients including Rhodiola rosea, N-acetyl-L-tyrosine, taurine, L-theanine, alpha-GPC, and phosphatidylserine. It improves cognitive performance and boosts mental clarity, focus, memory, creativity, & concentration, plus it reduces brain fog;
  • Performance Lab Mind: It’s made using various natural ingredients including citicoline, phosphatidylserine, L-tyrosine, and maritime pine bark extract. It helps improve mental clarity, boost concentration, reduce stress, and improve mood. It also ameliorates brain function and reduces cognitive decline;
  • Gorilla Mind Rush: Some of its ingredients include bacopa monnieri, N-acetyl-L-tyrosine, L-theanine, and alpha-GPC. It provides several benefits related to cognitive function and mental performance, such as heightened focus & mental clarity, boosted concentration, increased energy & motivation, plus augmented mood. It also heightens memory & lessens mental fatigue;
  • methylphenidate (Ritalin): This is one more prescription drug used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, but due to its cognitive-enhancing effects, it’s widely used as a nootropic. In healthy adults, it improves short-term memory, info-processing speed, & attention [2][3]. It’s typically well-tolerated, though it may have the opposite effect & impair thinking if an excessive dose is administered;
  • amphetamines (Adderall): It’s a prescription stimulant med used to treat ADHD & narcolepsy. As a nootropic, it’s often used to improve cognitive function, including attention, concentration, motivation, & memory, plus executive function. However, it carries a risk of side effects and can be habit-forming.

Overall, it’s essential to use any of these cognitive enhancers, especially prescription drugs, with caution & under the guidance of a doctor.

Are “Smart Drugs” Safe?

The safety of “smart drugs” depends on various factors, including the specific compound being taken, dosage, frequency of use, and the user’s medical condition. Some nootropics, like caffeine, modafinil, & L-theanine, have a good safety profile when used in moderate doses. Nonetheless, other “smart drugs,” like Adderall & Ritalin, may have more risks & negative effects and should only be used under the supervision of a physician. It’s essential to be informed about the potential risks & benefits of any “smart drug” and to use them responsibly & with caution.

It’s important to remember that while nootropics may offer benefits in terms of cognitive performance, they aren’t a substitute for healthy habits such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and stress management. These healthy habits are crucial for maintaining good overall health, including cognitive health. 

Possible Side Effects and Risks

While most nootropics are generally safe and well-tolerated, there are several potential side effects & risks to consider. Below are some mild side effects linked with most nootropics [4]:

  • headaches;
  • insomnia;
  • nausea;
  • upset stomach;
  • jitters or nervousness;
  • anxiety or restlessness.

Some “smart drugs” may rarely cause serious side effects that may require medical help. Call your doctor immediately if you show any of these symptoms:

  • high blood pressure;
  • irregular heartbeat;
  • seizures;
  • liver/ kidney failure;
  • psychosis or mania;
  • hallucinations.

Not all nootropics have the same negative effects, and some may have few to no side effects at all. Take note that dietary supplements may have milder adverse reactions compared to prescription drugs. Additionally, the severity & frequency of side effects can vary depending on the individual medical condition, dosage, & other factors. Note that overdosing or incorrect use of some “smart drugs” can lead to serious consequences.

Further, some nootropics such as modafinil come with contraindications. Some can interact with other meds, supplements, or drugs, leading to adverse reactions or reduced efficacy. Also, nootropics may not be safe for people with certain underlying medical conditions, such as liver or kidney disease, hypertension, or cardiovascular disease. Besides, the safety of nootropics during pregnancy & breastfeeding isn’t well established, and their use is not recommended.

In Closing

Nootropics are unique products that offer a lot of benefits. While they can provide improved cognitive abilities, the long-term safety & effectiveness of most of them aren’t well established. It’s essential to use the given drugs and supplements with caution & under the guidance of a doctor. Note that nootropics don’t make you smarter but rather assist you to gain an edge. They don’t increase your intelligence but just provide you with cognitive benefits that can help you achieve better performance in specific tasks.


  1. What Are Nootropics? By Kendra Cherry. Medically reviewed by Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, FAAN. Updated on November 3, 2022.
  2. Cognitive Effects of Methylphenidate in Healthy Volunteers: A Review of Single Dose Studies. By A. M. W. Linssen, A. Sambeth, E. F. P. M. Vuurman, and W. J. Riedel. Published: June 2014.
  3. Methylphenidate Enhances Brain Activation and Deactivation Responses to Visual Attention and Working Memory Tasks in Healthy Controls. By D. Tomasi, N. D. Volkow, G. J. Wang, R. Wang, F. Telang, et al. Published: February 2011.
  4. What Are Nootropics? Benefits, Chart, Side Effects. By Divya Jacob, Pharm. D. Medically reviewed by Pallavi Suyog Uttekar, MD.

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