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.
Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world ().
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 ().
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain, making you feel less tired ().
A low to moderate caffeine intake of 40–300 mg increases your alertness and attention and decreases your reaction time. These doses are especially effective for people who are fatigued (, , ).
Summary Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical that increases your alertness, improves your attention and reduces your reaction times.
L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in tea, but it can also be taken as a supplement ().
Several studies have shown that taking 200 mg of L-theanine has a calming effect, without causing drowsiness (, ).
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 ().
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 (, ).
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 ().
This increased availability of energy for your brain cells is linked to improved short-term memory and reasoning skills, especially in vegetarians and highly stressed people (, , ).
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 ().
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.
Several studies have found that Bacopa monnieri supplements can speed up information processing in your brain, reduce reaction times and improve memory (, , ).
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 ().
The effects of Bacopa monnieri are not felt immediately. Therefore, doses of 300‒600 mg should be taken for several months for maximum benefit (, ).
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.
Several studies have found that Rhodiola rosea supplements can improve mood and decrease feelings of burnout in both anxious and highly stressed individuals (, ).
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 ().
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.
Taking a single dose of 200–400 mg of Panax ginseng has been shown to reduce brain fatigue and significantly improve performance on difficult tasks like mental math problems (, , ).
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 ().
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 ().
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.
Ginkgo biloba supplements have been shown to improve memory and mental processing in healthy older adults when taken daily for six weeks (, , ).
Taking Ginkgo biloba before a highly stressful task also reduces stress-related high blood pressure and decreases levels of cortisol, a type of stress hormone ().
It’s hypothesized that some of these benefits may be due to increased blood flow to the brain after supplementing with Ginkgo biloba ().
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 ().
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.
Studies show that nicotine can have nootropic effects, such as improved alertness and attention, especially in people with naturally poor attention spans (, ).
It has also been found to improve motor function. What’s more, chewing nicotine gum is linked to better handwriting speed and fluidity ().
However, this substance can be addicting and is lethal in high doses, so caution is warranted ().
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.
Unlike some of the natural nootropics, the effects of Noopept can be felt within minutes, rather than hours, days or weeks, and typically last for several hours (, ).
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 (, , ).
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 (, ).
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.
It has been shown to improve memory in people with age-related mental decline but does not seem to have much benefit in healthy adults (, ).
During the 1970s, a few small, poorly designed studies suggested that piracetam may improve memory in healthy adults, but these findings have not been replicated (, , ).
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.
It’s similar in structure to piracetam and Noopept and helps the brain recover from various injuries like stroke, epilepsy and trauma (, , ).
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 ().
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 ().
Its stimulating effects are similar to those of amphetamines or cocaine. Yet, animal studies suggest it has a lower risk of dependence (, ).
Several studies have shown that modafinil significantly reduces feelings of fatigue and improves memory in sleep-deprived adults (, , ).
It also enhances executive functioning, or the ability to properly manage your time and resources to accomplish your goals ().
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.
Though modafinil is generally considered non-addictive, instances of dependence and withdrawal have been reported at high dosages (, ).
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.
It’s most commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, but it’s increasingly taken by healthy adults to improve attention and focus ().
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 ().
The amphetamines found in Adderall make people feel more awake, attentive and optimistic. They also reduce appetite ().
A review of 48 studies found that Adderall significantly improved people’s ability to control their behavior and enhanced short-term memory ().
Depending on the dose and type of pill prescribed, the effects last up to 12 hours ().
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 ().
The side effects of Adderall abuse include anxiety, low sex drive and sweating ().
Recreational Adderall abuse can also cause more severe side effects, such as heart attack, especially when mixed with alcohol (, , ).
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.
Like Adderall, it’s a stimulant and increases dopamine and noradrenaline concentrations in your brain. However, it does not contain amphetamines ().
In healthy adults, Ritalin improves short-term memory, information-processing speed and attention (, ).
It’s typically well tolerated, but may have the opposite effect and impair thinking if an excessive dose is taken ().
Like Adderall, Ritalin is widely abused, especially by people aged 18–25 ().
The most common side effects of Ritalin include insomnia, stomach ache, headache and loss of appetite ().
It can also cause hallucinations, psychosis, seizures, heart arrhythmias and high blood pressure, particularly when taken in high doses (, , , ).
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.