Nootropics and smart drugs are natural or synthetic substances that can be taken to improve mental performance in healthy people.
They have gained popularity in today’s highly competitive society and are most often used to boost memory, focus, creativity, intelligence and motivation.
Here’s a look at the 14 best nootropics and how they enhance performance.
It’s naturally found in coffee, cocoa, tea, kola nuts and guarana and added to many sodas, energy drinks and medications. It can also be taken as a supplement, either on its own or in combination with other substances (2).
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain, making you feel less tired (3).
Summary Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical that increases your alertness, improves your attention and reduces your reaction times.
Taking even just 50 mg — the amount found in roughly two cups of brewed tea — has been found to increase alpha-waves in the brain, which are linked to creativity (9).
L-theanine is even more effective when taken with caffeine. For this reason, they’re often used together in performance-enhancing supplements. What’s more, they are both naturally found in tea (7, 10).
Summary L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea that can increase feelings of calmness and may be linked to increased creativity. Its effectiveness is even greater when combined with caffeine.
Creatine is an amino acid, which your body uses to make protein.
It’s a popular bodybuilding supplement that promotes muscle growth but is also beneficial for your brain.
After it’s consumed, creatine enters your brain where it binds with phosphate, creating a molecule that your brain uses to quickly fuel its cells (11).
Studies show that it’s safe to take 5 grams of creatine per day without any negative effects. Larger doses are also effective, but research on their long-term safety is unavailable (15).
Summary Creatine is an amino acid that can improve short-term memory and reasoning skills. It’s most effective in vegetarians and people who are stressed. Doses of 5 grams per day have been shown to be safe in the long term.
Bacopa monnieri is an ancient herb used in Ayurvedic medicine to enhance brain function.
Bacopa monnieri contains active compounds called bacosides, which protect your brain from oxidative stress and improve signaling in your hippocampus, an area of your brain in which memories are processed (19).
Summary Bacopa monnieri is an herbal supplement that has been shown to improve memory and information processing when taken for several months.
Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogenic herb that helps your body handle stress more effectively.
Taking small daily doses of Rhodiola rosea has been shown to reduce mental fatigue and increase feelings of well-being in college students during stressful exam periods (24).
More research is needed to determine optimal dosing and better understand how the herb causes these effects.
Summary Rhodiola rosea is a natural herb that may help your body adapt to periods of high stress and reduce associated mental fatigue.
Panax ginseng root is an ancient medicinal plant used to boost brain function.
However, it’s unclear how Panax ginseng boosts brain function. It may be due to its strong anti-inflammatory effects, which help protect your brain from oxidative stress and enhance its function (28).
Some longer-term studies have found that your body may adapt to ginseng, making it less effective after several months of use. Therefore, more research is needed on its long-term nootropic effects (29).
Summary Occasional doses of Panax ginseng may help improve mental function, but more research is needed on its long-term effectiveness.
Extracts from the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree may also have positive effects on your brain.
It’s hypothesized that some of these benefits may be due to increased blood flow to the brain after supplementing with Ginkgo biloba (34).
While these results are promising, not all studies have shown beneficial effects. More research is needed to better understand the potential benefits of Ginkgo biloba on your brain (35).
Summary Some research suggests that Ginkgo biloba can improve memory and mental processing and may be beneficial in stressful situations. Yet, more research is needed.
Nicotine is a naturally occurring chemical found in many plants, especially tobacco. It’s one of the compounds that make cigarettes so addictive.
It can also be consumed through nicotine gum or absorbed through your skin via a nicotine patch.
It has also been found to improve motor function. What’s more, chewing nicotine gum is linked to better handwriting speed and fluidity (38).
However, this substance can be addictive and is lethal in high doses, so caution is warranted (39).
Summary Nicotine is a naturally occurring chemical that boosts alertness, attention and motor functions. Nonetheless, it’s addictive and toxic in high doses.
Noopept is a synthetic smart drug that can be purchased as a supplement.
Animal studies have shown that Noopept speeds up how quickly the brain forms and retrieves memories by boosting levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a compound that promotes the growth of brain cells (42, 43, 44).
Human research has found that this smart drug helps people recover more quickly from brain injuries, but more studies are needed to understand how it might be used as a nootropic in healthy adults (45, 46).
Summary Noopept is a fast-acting, synthetic nootropic that may improve memory by increasing BDNF levels in your brain. However, more human-based research is needed.
Piracetam is another synthetic nootropic molecule that’s very similar to Noopept in structure and function.
Though piracetam is widely available and promoted as a smart drug, research on its effects is lacking.
Summary Piracetam is marketed as a nootropic supplement, but research supporting its effectiveness is lacking.
Phenotropil, also known as phenylpiracetam, is a synthetic smart drug that is widely available as an over-the-counter supplement.
One study in rats found that phenotropil slightly enhanced memory, but research to support its use as a smart drug in healthy adults is unavailable (55).
Summary Phenotropil is marketed as a smart drug, but research showing memory-enhancing benefits in healthy adults is unavailable.
Commonly sold under the brand name Provigil, modafinil is a prescription drug that is often used to treat narcolepsy, a condition that causes uncontrollable drowsiness (56).
It also enhances executive functioning, or the ability to properly manage your time and resources to accomplish your goals (60).
While modafinil appears to have strong nootropic effects, it’s only available via prescription in most countries.
Even when prescribed, it’s important to use this drug responsibly to avoid negative side effects.
Summary Modafinil is a prescription drug that can reduce drowsiness and improve brain function in healthy adults, particularly those who are sleep deprived. However, it should only be taken as prescribed.
Adderall is a prescription medication that contains highly stimulating amphetamines.
Adderall works by increasing the availability of the brain chemicals dopamine and noradrenaline within your prefrontal cortex, an area of your brain that controls working memory, attention and behavior (65).
The amphetamines found in Adderall make people feel more awake, attentive and optimistic. They also reduce appetite (66).
A review of 48 studies found that Adderall significantly improved people’s ability to control their behavior and enhanced short-term memory (67).
Depending on the dose and type of pill prescribed, the effects last up to 12 hours (68).
It’s important to note that these drugs are not without side effects.
Adderall is widely abused on college campuses, with some surveys indicating that up to 43% of students use stimulant drugs without a prescription (69).
The side effects of Adderall abuse include anxiety, low sex drive and sweating (70).
Evidence that Adderall enhances mental performance is strong, but it should only be taken as prescribed.
Summary Adderall is not available without a prescription but does appear to improve brain function in healthy adults and those with ADHD.
Ritalin is another prescription drug used to manage symptoms of ADHD and narcolepsy.
It’s typically well tolerated, but may have the opposite effect and impair thinking if an excessive dose is taken (77).
Like Adderall, Ritalin is widely abused, especially by people aged 18–25 (78).
The most common side effects of Ritalin include insomnia, stomach ache, headache and loss of appetite (79).
Ritalin is a powerful stimulant that should only be taken as prescribed and monitored closely for abuse.
Summary Ritalin is a smart drug that enhances information processing, memory and attention. It’s only available with a prescription.
Nootropics and smart drugs refer to natural, synthetic and prescription substances that enhance mental function.
Prescription smart drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin, have the strongest and most significant effects on memory and attention.
Synthetic nootropic supplements like Noopept and piracetam are widely available, but research on their effectiveness in healthy adults is lacking.
Many natural nootropics are used in alternative medicine, but their effects are typically more subtle and slower acting. They’re sometimes taken in combination to boost their effectiveness.
The use of nootropics and smart drugs is on the rise in today’s society, but more research is needed to better understand their benefits.