Can you improve mental performance with a tablet? A growing number of self-appointed biohackers and Silicon Valley types swear that so-called nootropics explain their ability to adapt things for 30 hours to a 24-hour day. But the science behind this is a mixed bag.
Nootropics are mostly cognitive enhancers; users claim they help memory, help focus or improve brain function without the side effects of dangerous or addictive drugs. It sounds perfect, but when you talk about nootropics, things get more complicated.
First, the term is extremely broad. Attention deficit – Ritalin – Nootrope – just ask a college student about the finals. Like modafinil, prescribed for the treatment of narcolepsy, which, according to users who do not use the label, contributes to decision-making, attentiveness and concentration. Even caffeine is nootropic because it stimulates the brain. But it is obvious that the emergence of a black market on a ritalin is far from Starbucks' daily habit.
There are also many amino acids, vitamins and herbs that promise to use the power of natural compounds in an easily taken capsule, powder or drink. A recent global survey showed that about 30 percent of respondents in the US tried one of these natural supplements to boost their brains. Which raises two questions: do they work? And they are dangerous?
Even boosters say that various nootropics, whether herbal or pharmaceutical, carry their own risks. At the same time, researchers are exploring many specific compounds, trying to determine efficacy and possible side effects. For example, we know that the level of NAD +, a compound found in cells that protects against neurological damage and fights cell aging, decreases with age. And nicotinamide riboside – a type of vitamin B – can help restore levels, research in Nature connection offers.
Another popular nootropic is L-Theanine, an amino acid found in green and black tea leaves. It can induce calm vigor by interacting with brain neurotransmitters to increase well-being chemicals, dopamine, GABA and serotonin, says Crystal Haskell-Ramsay, a researcher at the University of Northumbria in the UK. L-theanine supplements are sometimes sold in a mixture with caffeine, which, according to manufacturers, causes a feeling of concentration and calm.
And studies in humans show the promising plant Bacopa monnieri – a.k.a. water hyssop – to increase the amount of a certain key to the memory, says Laurenne Grigoryan, a pharmacist from Glendale, California.
Some experts, however, are doubtful. Nicholas Barringer, a specialist in nutritional physiology and nootropics research at US Army Institute for Environmental Medicine Research in Natik, Massachusetts, says he hasn’t seen enough conclusive evidence that any dietary supplement actually enhances cognitive abilities rest, without stress.
In a study published in Journal of the International Society of Sports NutritionBarringer found no difference in marksmanship skills among soldiers taking nootropics compared to those taking a placebo for 30 days.
Given how much of the research is preliminary and how important our brain is, Barringer warns against taking over-the-counter supplements — almost all of which are unregulated — in order to hack your mind. “If we do something to shift the physiology of our body to one extreme, there is always a consequence,” he says.
As long as we do not have a complete picture, the safest way to find peace of mind is wearing methods: good sleep, healthy food, exercise, a little less booze and a little more water. “If we were spending the same amount of energy on the basics of good health than on finding the magic pill,” says Barringer, “we would be much more efficient.”