In the movie Limitless, a struggling author with writer’s block stumbles across a new “smart drug” called NZT-48. Desperate, he takes the pill and then finds himself extremely productive. He is able to learn and analyze new information at an astonishing rate, recall memories from his distant past, and even write 90 pages of his book in one sitting.

Although it sounds like pure science fiction, smart pills—or nootropics—are a reality in a growing market for drugs of the like. They get their name from the Greek word “noos” for “mind” and are part of a broader category of drugs known as performance- and image-enhancing drugs (PIED) used for the enhancement of memory and cognition.

Nootropics work in a number of different ways, but all involve interaction with the brain. Piracetam is the first smart pill ever developed and works by optimizing the transmission of neurons in the corpus callosum of the brain. Many other nootropics affect the body’s regulation of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals related to brain function. They can be comparable to antidepressants, which bring balance to the brain’s chemical production.

There are numerous smart pills already being sold online that can easily be purchased with the click of a button. However, nootropics have a long way to go before they reach mainstream acceptance. Currently, no smart pill in the United States has been approved by the Food & Drug Administration. Despite this, nootropics are sold on the open market as “research chemicals” and cannot be labeled for human consumption. Even with the risk, people still buy the drugs because of the promising, yet preliminary, data showing that smart pills can increase memory, endurance, and concentration.

A number of people who have tried nootropics have taken to the Internet to share their experiences while using the drugs. Vice editor for Supercompressor Jeremy Glass spent a week on Nuvigil (armodafinil), the drug that Limitless is based on. Nuvigil is meant to increase dopamine flow in the brain and fight excessive daytime sleepiness. However, Glass notes that the adverse effects associated with the smart pill include vomiting, severe blistering, mouth sores, and even “suicidal thoughts.” Yikes.

After moving forward with the experiment, Glass took one 150-mg pill each morning.

“My brain waves—usually jumbled, misfiring, and inconsistent—felt untangled and clean, like a futuristic room full of glowing servers from Dubai, if you will,” Glass said of the experience. “My overall focus? Relentless. Writing, I found, became a superhuman trait (granted, the most boring superhero on Earth, but still). I felt words and their synonyms flow from my fingers like lightning and I was typing verbatim what I was thinking. I felt articulate, concentrated.”

Glass reported that the main drawback of taking Nuvigil was that although his mind was clear, focused, and alert, his body was exhausted. “I found it very hard to sleep,” he said. “The outside of my body felt like what the inside of my brain usually feels like: exhausted. I was mentally alert with a tired outer shell; I was lethargic and my muscles wanted to remain idle.”

At the end of the experiment, Glass said that although he doesn’t have a longing to continue using the drug, he would consider trying it again in the future.

It is inevitable that nootropics will go mainstream, and before you know it, they will be easily found at the checkout counter next to 5-hour energy shots. But that doesn’t mean they are right for everyone, and a good amount of research still has to be done before we see them easily available in stores.

After all, many of the same cognitive advantages of nootropics can be achieved simply by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising daily.

Reference

  1. Glass J. I spent a week on Nuvigil, the drug from “Limitless.” Supercompressor website. http://www.supercompressor.com/vice/i-spent-a-week-on-nuvigil-the-drug-from-limitless. July 10, 2014. Accessed September 21, 2015.
  2. Nicoll W. How things work: nootropics. The Tartan website. https://thetartan.org/2006/4/10/scitech/howthingswork. April 10, 2006. Accessed September 21, 2015.
  3. Novella S. The PIED piper of nootropics. Science Based Medicine website. https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-pied-piper-of-nootropics. May 20, 2014. Accessed September 21, 2015.
  4. Smith J. Nootropic brain drugs rise in popularity for today’s cutthroat corporate climbers. Observer website. http://observer.com/2015/04/nootropics/. April 14, 2015.  Accessed September 21, 2015.
  5. Woo G. Nootropics aren’t just for tech millionaires. Tech Crunch website. http://techcrunch.com/2015/02/12/nootropics-arent-just-for-tech-millionaires/#.79l1lp:b6a. February 12, 2015. Accessed September 21, 2015.
  6. Woo G. Smart drug regulation for smart drugs. Tech Crunch website.  http://techcrunch.com/2015/05/22/smart-regulation-for-smart-drugs/. May 22, 2015. Accessed September 21, 2015.