Is This Your Brain on Smart Drugs?
(First published in Java Magazine, nov 1996)
Years ago, after suffering an accident-induced concussion, I (along with everyone around me) suffered through a period where I laughed pretty much all the time, at just about anything. Fortunately it was only temporary, but for a few months there I was a giggling dork, liable at any moment to fall into an uncontrollable laughing jag. One day my boss told me an old joke that made me laugh so hard I started crying (so much so that he panicked and sent me home). You may have heard the joke: Two morons are sitting on a street corner eating smart pills. The first moron says, “These smart pills taste just like rabbit shit.” The second moron answers, “Hey…we’re getting smarter already!”
I guess some things are funnier after you’ve been hit on the head. But I resurrect that terrible joke here to illustrate how hard it might be to gain popular acceptance for anything called “smart drugs.” I mean, the idea of taking drugs to make yourself smarter? Sounds more than a little kooky, and probably would even if the federal government hadn’t spent the last quarter-century demonizing the word drugs itself. Before “Just Say No to Drugs,” and “This is Your Brain on Drugs,” the official anti-drug slogan was “Why Do You Think They Call ItDope?” Those who were programmed with that slogan may find it especially difficult to associate the words drug and smart. A growing number of researchers and scientists are out to change that.
What smart drugs do
Though descriptive, “smart drugs” is a somewhat unfortunate phrase, smacking of snake oil and panaceas, and sounding about as scientific as Roger Ramjet’s proton pills, or Popeye’s spinach. If you’ve had such thoughts upon hearing the term smart drugs, so did I. But you can relax. No one is claiming that smart drugs that will transform you into some kind of superhuman genius; life, as we all know, isn’t like Flowers for Algernon.
A term that better describes these substances is steadily gaining currency: nootropic agents—nootropics, for short. The word comes from Greek roots and means “acting upon the mind.” True, even that definition may be too broad—after all, hallucinogenic drugs act upon the mind, too. Smart drugs, however, have the opposite effect of hallucinogenics. Dr. Ward Dean and John Morgenthaler, authors of Smart Drugs and Nutrients, define nootropics as “substances that improve learning, memory consolidation, and memory retrieval without other central nervous system effects and with low toxicity, even at extremely high doses.”
What these drugs can do, according to Dean and Morgenthaler, is enhance such things as “alertness, mental energy, concentration, [ability] to concentrate for longer periods at a time, ability to memorize material, productivity, organization, planning ability, verbal memory, problem-solving ability, mood, sexual desire, overall health, and performance at intellectual games such as chess or computer games.”
How smart drugs work
Bold claims—is there anything to them? According to the latest scientific findings, yes.
Researchers are discovering that nootropics act upon the brain in many different ways. Some nootropics imitate or reproduce chemicals naturally found in the brain or produced by the brain itself. Vasopressin, for example, is a hormone required for the proper functioning of memory. Ordinarily produced by the pituitary gland, Vasopressin is available as a nasal spray. A blast of it is said to produce an almost instantaneous enhancement of recall and memory imprint.
Many nootropics occur naturally. Fish, for example, has long been referred to as “brain food” (readers of P. G. Wodehouse will remember this as Bertie Wooster’s stock explanation for Jeeves’s great intelligence). Research has revealed that fish contain large amounts of a compound called DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol), a B-complex nutrient that is, indeed, thought by scientists to enhance brain activity by helping the brain synthesize neurotransmitters. DMAE is now available as a nutritional supplement, and what with the oceans being as polluted as they are these days, taking DMAE as a supplement might well be safer than loading up at Red Lobster.
Other natural nootropics include chocolate (partially, but not entirely, because of its caffeine—see below) and almonds (which contain magnesium, a cognitive enhancer and stress reducer)—good news to those who love almond M&Ms (though you have to suspect that any corporate sugar-pusher worth its salt probably includes harmful additives that outweigh the good). Many naturally-occurring nootropics, such as Vincamine (an extract of the periwinkle), are said to enhance cognition in a more general way, by improving the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
Besides the natural or nutritional nootropics, there are also powerful pharmaceutical nootropics, and smart drug users all have their favorites. According to local nootropic enthusiast John Posner, “The basis of any good smart drug regimen are two pharmaceutical nootropics, hydergine and piracetam. There’s no drug company in this country that’s willing to make piracetam because they can’t make usurious profits on it. It’s fallen out of patent. But you can get it in Mexico.” In addition to the memory and cognition enhancers hydergine and piracetam, Posner recommends the use of choline, a B-complex vitamin necessary for your body to manufacture acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter required for imprinting and accessing memories).
One of the most important ways nootropics such as hydergine and piracetam can enhance cognition is by helping to cleanse the brain of a substance called lipofuscin—a fatty material that interferes with the brain’s synapses, preventing them from releasing neurotransmitters that enable the communication of information among nerve cells. Lipofuscin is a product of the buildup of free radicals, which are molecules with a free—that is, unpaired—electron.
According to research conducted by the University of Nebraska’s Denham Harman (cited in Brain Boosters, by Beverly Potter and Sebastian Orfali), free radicals are “unstable and dangerous to the functioning of the brain. Pairs of positive and negative particles are in balance and more stable. By contrast, free radicals are unstable, because they are missing an electron. Like single men cruising the bars looking for a date wherever they can find one, free radicals will steal an electron from any other molecule to create a complete pair again, thereby making themselves stable and whole. Unfortunately, the molecule that loses its electron to a free radical is damaged and may even be destroyed.”
Free radicals have a variety of causes, including ultraviolet radiation from the sun (attention, sunbathers), faulty breakdown of body fats, smoking, and plain ordinary metabolic processes. Nootropics such as hydergine, piracetam, or centrophenoxine can neutralize free radicals, preventing them from stealing molecules. Even some vitamins and nutrients—most notably, C, E, A, and some B vitamins—can help the body eliminate free radicals.
The effects of smart drugs in everyday life can be dramatic. “When I started taking smart drugs,” Posner recalls, “there were days that went by and I didn’t have a cup of coffee. You’re up, you’re alert, you feel fresh. I never thought about a cup of coffee. A couple of weeks went by without any coffee, and I thought, this is cool.” There can be other benefits to smart drugs. “Deprenyl really lights up your sex life,” says Posner. (Interestingly, deprenyl “is a derivative of phenethylamine (PEA), which is contained in chocolate and might be considered a kind of `love chemical,’ because people in love have above-average amounts of it in their brains,” according to the authors of Brain Boosters.)
Many smart drugs are now used to treat people suffering from senility, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s (as dramatized in the film Awakenings), but the effects of these drugs on healthy brains has only recently become apparent through the experimentation of nootropic researchers.
Because nootropics is a relatively new field, however, much more research needed. Unfortunately, this research is hampered by several problems.
The first problem is that there is often a lack of incentive for pharmaceutical companies to spend millions to research substances that cannot always be patented, which is the case for naturally-occurring substances. There is a growing U.S. market for pharmaceutical nootropics, but the chief obstacle is (surprise) the federal government. The Food and Drug Administration’s capricious requirements cause pharmaceutical companies to spend millions needlessly, trying to jump through federal hoops. And even if they do everything the FDA requires, there is no guarantee that the drug will be approved.
Another problem with the FDA is that it will not approve drugs unless the drugs are directed at specific diseases. If you’re healthy and there is a drug that can make you even healthier, the FDA is not going to approve it.
A friendly word of caution
It is a strange fact, but the most complex object human beings have ever discovered is right inside their own skulls. It has been estimated that there are more electrical connections in one human brain than in all the electrical appliances on the entire earth. Given the brain’s complexity and mystery, anyone who wants to experiment with theirs would be wise to exercise great caution. Read all you can, learn from others, and then take it slow. All things being equal, your brain will still be here tomorrow, so don’t rush it. Even if you plan to experiment only with natural (as opposed to pharmaceutical) nootropics, you should still by all means do so with the help of a sympathetic but qualified physician. Despite the relative safety of most nootropics, there are still dangers. For example, according to The New York Times, some smart drinks (often sold at raves) contain Chinese herbs such as ephedra (or ma-huang), which—if the dosage is too high—can cause “irregular heartbeat, stroke, seizures, and even death.” Even at lower dosages, some individuals will suffer shakiness or nausea.
Of course, anyone who is pregnant or has any kind of heart condition should definitely not experiment with smart drugs.
Most smart drugs, however, seem to be remarkably free of side effects. The main problem is making sure you find the right dosage and combination of drugs, which can vary greatly from person to person. Apart from general guidelines, you have to rely on trial and error. If your dosage is too small, or you combine the substances in a way that neutralizes, or even reverses their effects—that is, it is possible to experiencereduced cognition.
The future of smart drugs
It’s fairly certain that the more that is learned about nootropics, the more popular they will become. As more doctors become familiar with the benefits that healthy people can gain from smart drugs, the more smart drugs will be prescribed—eventually they may even become available over the counter, as is the case in many countries today.
The largest hindrance to our learning more about how nootropics can help us is the current legal climate and resulting anti-drug hysteria. The demonization of drugs often blurs important distinctions. Just as industrial hemp is unjustly lumped together with marijuana, so smart drugs are often lumped together with psychoactive drugs. For many people, “drugs is drugs.” That would seem to be the view of the government and the FDA, at any rate.
Only when legal restrictions are lifted and public perceptions are educated, will there be significant gains in nootropics here in the United States. Perhaps before long it will be common knowledge that there are different classes of drugs, just as there are different classes of drug users. The difference between types of drug users is as great as the difference between the drugs themselves; it is the difference between those who see drugs as toys and those who see drugs as tools.
Those interested in scientific articles and papers concerning smart drugs will find loads of them referenced in the Ward and Morgenthaler books, Smart Drugs & Nutrients (Santa Cruz, CA: B & J Publications, 1990) and Smart Drugs II: The Next Generation (Menlo Park, CA: Health Freedom Publications, 1993). Another helpful source is Brain Boosters, by Beverly Potter and Sebastian Orfali (Berkeley: Ronin Publishing, 1993).