Wise up. Think
fast. Get smart.
At one time
or another, we’ve all had those words hurled at us — or we’ve
murmured them to ourselves in moments of doubt.
don’t always work, but they do reflect something fundamental
to us all: the desire to summon automatic insight and instant
ingenuity at the drop of a pointy hat.
it’s not surprising that, in trendy articles and conversations
these days, the ancient admonition has a new twist: If you really
want to get smart, get with it — and get turned on to one of
the new substances that are being promoted to help you do just
“smart drugs” by the media, “nootropics”
(from the Greek words for “acting on the mind”) and
“cognition expanders” by researchers and students of
the new art of getting smart.
But no matter
what else you call them, call smart drugs a hot topic these days
— and one that seems a sure bet to stay hot from now on.
How hot? Very
hot, according to trend-spotters.
In fact, Fortune
magazine has even forecast smart drugs as a billion-dollar industry-to-be
in the very near future.
On the other
(well-known and oft-burned) hand, if all of this smells
vaguely of snake oil and late-night promise-the-moon infomercial
hype to you, you’re not alone.
reason researchers are turning their focus to the “smartness”
of smart-drug regimens and the media has begun checking out the
claims of smarter-living-through-chemistry proponents.
why we’ve put together this pamphlet. Because smart drugs and
nutrients are a force that shows few signs of fizzling.
And since the
facts about them are not as simple — or as clear-cut — as enthusiasts
would have us believe, we’d all better start getting smart about
smart drugs — fast.
..What are smart drugs?
loosely known as “smart drugs” are a biochemical mixed
bag: vitamins, herbs, nutrients, and prescription drugs that
share one key feature: their advocates’ claims that they enhance
memory, creativity, alertness, learning, or physical performance.
Some of the
drugs first came under serious scrutiny as possible treatments
for aging-related mental decline.
Others — including
the B vitamins and such amino acids as phenylalanine — have
been tried over the years to treat the psycho-pharmacological
fallout of drug abuse.
like melatonin and DHEA, are synthetic versions of natural hormones
which, when taken as supplements, are said to optimize physical
and emotional well-being and mental performance.
substances, such as ginseng and ginkgo biloba, are among the
oldest herbal medicines known.
..How do they work?
In a lot of
different ways. Some increase blood flow to areas of the brain
involved in memory storage and retrieval. Others accelerate the
growth and repair of nerve cells throughout the central nervous
system. Others affect mental functioning by altering body processes
that modify brain activity.
most-noted effect of smart drugs involves changes in the quantity
and quality of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that
convey impulses between nerve cells in the central nervous system.
The most common
way of feeding our heads — and our neurochemistry — is by regularly
loading up on the four basic food groups, along with such socially-approved
additives as coffee, tea, or Jolt® Cola.
drug users go a step further, hoping that mega-doses of benign
chemicals can raise brain levels of the precursors the body needs
to assemble such neurotransmitters and otherwise fine-tune mental
and biological processes.
..Are smart drugs natural?
Some are. And
we’ve known about them for a long time.
for example. We’ve all heard it called “brain food,”
and it looks like it isn’t called that for nothing. There’s evidence
that seafood bolsters the brain through a nutrient called dimethylaminoethanol,
or DMAE. In animal tests, DMAE has been shown to improve memory
and learning, increase energy levels, and elevate mood.
foods and nutrients seem to work in similar ways — by driving
up brain levels of fuel needed for neurotransmitter replenishment.
..How many kinds of smart nutrients are
smart nutrients fall into three basic groups:
Diet supplements. Many users
start the day with a balanced breakfast of such supplements as
vitamin B-5 and choline. They’re converted in the brain to acetylcholine,
a neurotransmitter that figures into memory and learning.
Herbs. Ginseng, ginkgo biloba,
and gotu kola — the three G’s of ancient Chinese medicine —
a re among the most commonly used “smart” herbs and
may sharpen memory and concentration by boosting blood flow in
Amino acids. Leading players
in the smart drug diet, amino acids such as phenylalanine and
tyrosine serve as building blocks for body proteins and the transmitters
that regulate arousal, concentration, and energy.
As we pointed
out, we all take in smart nutrients every day in the foods we
eat. But most smart drug-folk see virtue in excess, and augment
their supplies with supplements.
some turn to the “hard stuff” — prescription drugs
and black-market elixirs that are purported to maximize brain
..What’s ‘hard’ about them?
It’s hard to
pigeonhole them, for one thing. And it’s harder still to predict
their potential actions and side effects.
their kinder, gentler nutrient neighbors, these chemicals are
often powerful pharmacological agents that produce a variety
of far-reaching effects.
In fact, most
“hard” smart drugs are used medically to treat specific
diseases and medical conditions — from dizziness and age spots
to injury-related brain damage or Alzheimer’s disease.
..How are they different?
in lots of ways. For starters, unlike the gentle buzz often ascribed
to the natural substances, some smart drugs trigger full-fledged
of just providing bigger and better building blocks for the brain,
some smart drugs are believed to alter the way the brain puts
those blocks together.
list of commonly-used “hard” smart drugs are:
Vasopressin (Diapid®). A
pituitary hormone marketed as a nasal spray to improve bladder
control in some forms of diabetes. It also triggers release of
Hydergine. One of the most widely-used
treatments for senility, hydergine is believed to stimulate nerve
cell growth and protein synthesis in the brain.
Piracetam (Nootropyl®). Widely
used in Europe to treat alcoholism, senility, stroke, and Alzheimer’s
disease, piracetam has no approved medical use in the U.S. today,
according to the Food and Drug Administration. The drug is believed
to aid development of new brain cell receptors.
smart drugs are legal — but hard to come by. Since they’re prescribed
for specific medical conditions, doctors usually won’t recommend
them merely to treat curiosity about their alleged “smart”
be obtained — often legally — through international pharmaceutical
A variety of
web sites have made information about necessary procedures and
likely distributors easily accessible, fueling the explosion
of interest in “smart” chemical agents in recent years.
..Are smart drugs safe?
Yes, no, and
most medications, even “hard” smart drugs seem relatively
side-effect free when taken in prescribed doses for approved
It’s when they’re
not taken as directed or when they’re taken to ward off hypothetical
risks that worries arise.
have tracked the drugs’ effects in healthy users. And researchers
wonder about the potential for problems among smart-drug pioneers
gulping down untested combinations of chemicals — often in doses
exceeding those approved for medical use.
to smart nutrients are similar.
is possible to get too much of a good thing. Large amounts of
some nutrients, particularly the amino acids, can add as much
to the workload of the liver and kidneys as a similar amount
of food. And some vitamins — particularly vitamins A, D, E,
and K — can be harmful in high doses.
center on the way the products are sold, rather than the substances
products are legally classified as nutritional supplements, they
don’t have to meet the same standards of safety and testing as
do prescription drugs.
that products which carry potentially harmful effects — choline,
for instance, can cause diarrhea, while large doses of phenylalanine
can cause problems for those with high blood pressure — are
often sold without specific warning labels.
even relatively safe nutrients can pose big problems, as was
the case in 1989, when the amino acid L-tryptophan was linked
to an outbreak of eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS), a painful
muscle and blood disorder.
were eventually traced back to a single contaminated batch of
L-tryptophan (and all products containing it were pulled off
the U.S. market), 31 deaths and 1,500 illnesses were linked to
Do smart drugs
work? In lots of ways, yes.
Do they work
as well as smart-drug proponents claim? Not necessarily.
though users rave about the substances’ brain-boosting effects,
many researchers think that at least some are only revved-up
by a placebo effect — plain-old wishful thinking.
to the fact that intelligence and creativity have strong genetic
roots that aren’t easily altered. And the sheer complexity of
the brain and its component parts makes simplistic thinking seem
dumb when it doesn’t seem dangerous.
For now, there’s
limited evidence backing claims for the “hard” smart
drugs. Studies based on Alzheimer’s patients and other victims
of brain trauma show promise, but researchers warn that those
effects may not translate to healthy users. Drugs can’t fix what
So for the
time being, the smartest way to take smart drugs is with a grain
of salt and a gallon of caution. Smart nutrients probably won’t
hurt, but it may be a good idea to wait for researchers (who
earned their smarts the old-fashioned way) to confirm the harder
If and when they do, be careful
then, too — or you might get crushed by the crowds outside the