Box 10-1: Through a Glass, Darwinian

Nootropics, The Smart Drugs: Can Genius Be Purchased in Pill Form?

Using drugs to enhance cognitive performance is nothing new. The 19th century writer, Balzac regularly dosed himself with massive amounts of coffee (caffeine) in order to maintain his prolificacy. Today, many thousands use caffeine to help them meet the cognitive demands of daily life. Thousands also use the drug nicotine, which stimulates excitatory acetylcholine receptors, as a cognitive aid despite the severe health hazards associated with it. These drugs and their cognitive effects were discovered serendipitously but currently the search for new nootropics is a major goal of many major pharmaceutical laboratories.

The term nootropic comes from a Greek word meaning "acting on the mind" (Dean, 1993). The “grandfather” of nootropic drugs is piracetam which, in fact, carries the brand name nootropyl. Piracetam was invented by UCB Laboratories in Belgium. Piracetam is reported to boost mental clarity and alertness, improve problem solving ability and verbal ability and enhance memory and concentration. Remarkably, it may have a regenerative effect upon the nervous system. When piracetam was given to older mice for a two-week period, researchers found a 30-40% increase in the number of cholinergic receptors in their frontal cortexes. Piracetam may also improve creativity by increasing the flow of information between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Moreover, these effects are achieved without promoting addiction. Few, if any negative side effects have been reported with short term usage. The discovery of piracetam set off a competitive race in the pharmaceutical industry to find more nootropics. Some of the related compounds that have been produced include; aniracetam, pramiracetam, and oxiracetam.

Most of the nootropics, to date, have been developed by European pharmaceutical companies. However, researchers, Jerry Yin and Tim Tully of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Long Island, New York are on the verge of clinical trials for their own memory-enhancing drug (Weed, 2000). They have isolated a protein that helps nerve cells in the brain store memories. They created two genetically altered strains of fruit flies: one with extremely high levels of this protein and the other with almost none. They then looked at how rapidly individuals from the respective strains would learn to avoid a certain odor that presaged an electric shock. The high protein strain learned in one trial. The low protein strain never made the association. Fruit flies with normal levels of the memory protein needed an average of 10 trials to learn the association.

Yin and Tully are close to developing a pill that will temporarily produce an overproduction of this memory protein in the human brain, thus permitting extreme memory enhancement upon demand. This memory protein does not enhance intelligence, so if its widespread use becomes a reality, we have the prospect many students who have indelibly stamped volumes of information into their memories but who remain clueless as to what it all means.        

Nootropics can not really give you something you do not already have. What they do is make performance at the upper range of one’s potential, in terms of problem solving, verbal fluency, clarity and memory more available on a day to day basis. As any competitive athlete will attest, anything that allows one to consistently perform closer to their best is a major helping factor. Many individuals are capable of turning in an outstanding performance occasionally but it is consistent high level performance, day in and day out that separates the champions from the also-rans. This is not to suggest that everyone with academic aspirations should rush out and purchase nootropic compounds.

Nootropic research is still in its infancy. Although, findings from animal research confirm the efficacy of existing nootropics, their mechanism of action is largely unknown. Moreover, the nature and magnitude of their effects on human cognition remains a mystery because of the lack of experimental studies with humans. One very serious consideration is the fact that almost nothing is known about the long-term effects of these drugs. The FDA has not approved most of these drugs. Paradoxically, one of the most commonly used nootropics, nicotine, is fully legal, highly addictive, and proven to cause cancer and heart disease. Given the labile nature of human rationalization, this last fact could be used to argue for either tighter controls or looser controls on nootropics.