What Do “Smart Pills” Really Do to Your Brain?
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What Do “Smart Pills” Really Do to Your Brain?

[♪ INTRO ] We humans are obsessed with getting smarter. So besides your typical methods like school
and hard work, we’ve also tried some pretty strange things in the name of brain enhancement. For example, Nikola Tesla would supposedly
squish his toes 100 times on each foot to stimulate the brain cells, while Isaac Newton
stuck with celibacy. Or there is just like popping some kinda magic
pill like Bradley Cooper does in Limitless. Nootropics are a group of chemicals that supposedly
heighten things like concentration, attention, and memory — without any side-effects. They’re so-called “smart pills.” Some of these drugs do seem to affect brain
chemistry, but scientists aren’t sure if they have consistent, measurable effects yet. And because they’re so experimental right
now, taking them on a whim probably isn’t worth the health risks. Cognition doesn’t just come from one part
of the brain. It involves many regions, chemicals, and processes
like memory, perception, attention, and arousal — basically, when you’re awake and alert. For instance, many studies on learning and
memory formation in animal models involve the neurotransmitter glutamate. It’s the main excitatory chemical in the
brain, which means it spurs neurons to send signals to each other. Neuroscientists have studied glutamate systems
in the brain and worked to create drugs that enhance memory-related performance in animals
like rats and mice. A lot of this research is aimed towards understanding
the biochemistry of memory, and eventually helping treat patients with memory problems,
like those with Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s still a huge gap between rodent
brains and human ones, so many clinical trials haven’t been super effective. And that’s the case for lots of drugs that
affect different pieces of cognition. Yes, there are some stimulants that scientists
have found to be safe and effective and doctors prescribe to treat ADHD, for example. But there’s a lot of uncertainty out there
when it comes to altering brain function, and there aren’t silver bullets that work
for everyone with a given neurological disorder. Despite that uncertainty, nootropic proponents
say that this wide variety of drugs can be used to improve different aspects of your
normal brain function. Basically helping you, like, remember what
you learned in class to get better grades or focus more at work. The history of nootropics kind of began in
1964 with a Romanian chemist named Corneliu Giurgea. He wanted to make a brain-enhancing drug and
coined the term “nootropic” after synthesizing the first of its kind: piracetam. Piracetam is a broad-acting drug — it interacts
with a lot of different things in the brain. One of which is glutamate receptors, which
we know play a role in learning and memory. One of the earlier studies on this chemical
was done in 1976. 8 students from University College in Cardiff
were given a daily dose of piracetam and 8 were given a pill that did nothing. They were all given a few memory tasks after
1 and 2 weeks. And in the group that took piracetam, the
experimenters didn’t see a difference in verbal memory after 1 week compared to the
control group, but did after 2 weeks. So there could be some mild effect, but without
many replication studies, we don’t know how much the drug actually helps with this
kind of learning. Some researchers have also tested whether
piracetam could help fight memory loss from brain diseases, or help protect the brain
from losing function after certain kinds of major surgery. But there’s been a mix of negative and positive
results across years of studies, so there definitely isn’t enough evidence to say
that it helps for sure. And that’s just the beginning when it comes
to nootropics. Since piracetam, there have been dozens of
drugs that people have taken to try and improve cognition in different ways. Like there’s modafinil, which is a wakefulness
agent and FDA-approved treatment for narcolepsy, a sleep disorder where you can fall asleep
without warning. Kind of like piracetam, researchers think
modafinil could affect a lot of chemical systems in the brain — including transporters of
dopamine, which is involved in alertness, and norepinephrine, which is involved in your
stress responses and can give an energy boost. So some people have tried using it as a general
nootropic instead of a specific medical treatment. A meta-analysis published in 2015 in the journal
European Neuropsychopharmacology pooled 24 study results to try and figure out what the
overall effect of the drug seems to be. They concluded that modafinil can help healthy
people with executive function — things like planning and decision making — but
the effects on things like attention were mixed. Now, it’s possible that any positive relationship
between taking nootropics and cognition could be a placebo effect. That’s when a drug doesn’t really do anything,
but your belief in it causes real change. Maybe more importantly, though, there are
some major health concerns because of how much we don’t know about these drugs. Most nootropics are currently being sold without
FDA approval under categories like “dietary supplements” or “research chemicals,”
because there haven’t been enough conclusive studies about them. So there’s not much accountability for how
many nootropics are made and in what dosages, and they can’t be guaranteed safe. Which is kinda dangerous when you’re messing
with brain chemistry. For instance, if you flood the brain with
too much glutamate signaling and neurons get overstimulated, it can lead to pretty bad
side effects like cell death and seizures. Plus, any kind of stimulant, which is what
many nootropics are, can be addictive and cause major withdrawal and depression if used
inappropriately. And while some of these drugs might show positive
effects on cognition and memory in the short term, we haven’t studied long-term effects. So experimenting with nootropics is a risk
right now. And, really, things like exercise, a good
night’s sleep, and a thoughtful diet are probably a much better place to start when
it comes to a healthy brain. Or, you could subscribe to SciShow Psych and
get smarter with us twice a week! And if you want to learn more about when we
started to use drugs to change our brains, check out our video about how doctors accidentally
discovered psychiatric drugs. [♪ OUTRO ]


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