Racetams & Nootropic Drugs: Does the Limitless Pill Exist?

Limitless Pill – Does the Limitless Pill Exist?

Racetams & Nootropic Drugs: Does the Limitless Pill Exist?

For those who don't already know, Limitless is the title of the hit blockbuster movie starring Bradley Cooper, about a man who becomes super-humanly intelligent after taking a “smart pill” called NZT-48. (If you haven't seen the movie, or want to add it to your movie collection, it can be found super cheap on Amazon.)

Ever since the release of this movie, people have been jumping at the chance to get their hands on the limitless pill, NZT-48 — and for good reason, Bradley Cooper's character becomes unstoppable while on this limitless pill, capable of processing unbelievable amounts of information and analyzing every detail to perfection. In short, who wouldn't want to have these cognitive abilities?

People want their own limitless pills. This begs the ultimate question: Does the limitless pill exist?

The Answer is in the Question

The answer to the above question — Does the limitless pill exist? — is yes and no.

Confusing? Of course, very much so. But it really is the best answer. Here's why:

Sadly, the limitless pill as it was presented in the movie is pure fiction (as of this writing; it may be, after all, possible in the future). There is no limitless pill called NZT-48.

I'm sure this fact will make many people sad. However, don't fret too much over it.


Because while the specific smart pill NZT-48 doesn't exist, other smart drugs — limitless pill- substances — are beginning to sweep the supplement industry. These smart drugs were created to enhance cognition, and they're called nootropics.

Nootropics – The Real Limitless Pills

Nootropics are relatively new players on the world's stage. Many people have never even heard of the term, which was created in 1972 by a chemist and psychologist named Corneliu Giurgea.

These new types of supplements are made to be cognitive enhancers — meaning they were synthesized to improve cognition in healthy people, specifically by improving any of the following:

  • Executive functioning
  • Decision making
  • Focus
  • Memory
  • Motivation
  • Creativity

The above list is not exhaustive, as nootropics have many potential uses — some have even been linked to helping with anxiety and depression — but this list should give you a general idea about the incredible applications of smart drugs.

Which Nootropics Are Limitless Pills?

Now, real life nootropics are obviously nowhere near as potent as the fictional limitless pills. However, there are some very real benefits to nootropics, which often have rather subtle effects — effects that are additive over time to produce significant differences and improvements.

There are many kinds of nootropic supplements that may effect a person similiarly to a limitless pill (though admittedly to a much milder degree), such as:

Proprietarily Blended Nootropics

This type of nootropic supplement is produced by a supplement company and is composed of a “blend” of substances known for their nootropic properties.

An example of a nootropic “smart pill” with a proprietary blend is OptiMind. (Learn more about this nootropic supplement in this OptiMind review.

) If you're interested in trying OptiMind, a good place to get it is Amazon.

While looking at nootropics with proprietary blends you should be mindful that some can be a waste of money because the “blend” does not contain enough of the individual chemicals to be effective at a nootropic level. For this reason it's important to do your own due diligence and research these supplements (reading reviews is a great place to start).

Nootropic Stacks

A nootropic stack can be produced by a supplement company or made manually by the consumer. It is a combination of individual nootropic substances at known quantities.

A good example of a “nootropic stack” (albeit a small stack) is one of the most popular nootropic combinations out there: L-theanine and Caffeine.

This combo has been shown to increase mental alertness, focus, and motivation while maintaining a profound sense of calm — i.e. without increasing anxiety or making the person jittery. It is one of the most widely-used nootropic stacks.

(A great L-theanine + caffeine supplement can be found on Amazon.)

Individual Nootropic Substances

At the root of every nootropic, whether a blend or a manual stack, are the individual substances that elicit the nootropic effects. They can be naturally occuring substances or made synthetically in a lab.

One of the most popular types of nootropic substances are racetams. The mechanisms of racetams aren't well understood, but they are widely accepted as having nootropic effects, such as increased memory, focus, and motivation, among other cognitive benefits.

Final Thoughts

While the limitless pill as it is known in the movie is purely a work of fiction, other smart drugs exist called nootropics that can give your brain a boost and improve cognitive function by way of increased memory, focus, creativity, and motivation. It's important to perform due diligence before trying any substance, and preferably talking to your doctor beforehand.

Nootropics are an exciting new world. Start your nootropic journey today to unlock your limitless potential.

Next up: There's much debate over the DEA's recently-proposed ban of kratom, which is a plant that is said to provide more effective pain relief than standard medications.

In the next post we will explore this potential ban and what it could mean for the people who have become dependent on the herb for pain relief, as well as other alternative remedies for dealing with chronic pain.

Source: http://secs.oakland.edu/~bowser/blog/health/limitless-pill-does-the-limitless-pill-exist.html

Fake or Real Limitless Pill – Does the Limitless Pills Exist?

Racetams & Nootropic Drugs: Does the Limitless Pill Exist?

Limitless is a power, never-ending limit of anything which can make someone strong and powerful.

Nevertheless, this limitless is the power of the brain and mental stamina.

However, in this case, “Limitless” is a title of a super hit movie which, produced in 2011, starring Bradley Cooper.

Bradley cooper acted as a character of the man who got super intelligent by taking a “smart pill” called “NZT-48.” This pill made him super genius from zero to 100.

He was an average person who wanted his life to turn, and after taking this pill, his life completely changed.

He became famous and super active, with attention to every detail and precision and mind completely open. As he takes the pill, he can think fast, make smarter moves, and can even calculate much quicker.

Ever since the release of this film, people have been craving to get their hands on this pill.

As this pill had made Bradley Cooper far more intelligent and made his mind work faster, able to analyze information with every detail in perfection and in a small amount of time.

Who doesn’t want to get a powerful mind with these cognitive abilities? The main question is, does the limitless pill exist?


The above question has been a common question for many people, as they want to know if it is a real pill that has this much power.

The answer to the question is yes or maybe no.

Well, the movie limitless was a story that was on pure fiction; it may or not be possible in this real world. So the answer to the question is No. A limitless pill does not exist.

While the smart pill NZT-48 does not exist, other smart drugs which have limitless pill type substance in them are available in the supplement industry. Not as same as NZT-48, but something similar to that pill is available.

These smart drugs are to enhance cognitive abilities and are known as nootropics. These nootropic drugs not only affects our brain improvement but also it has got other factors, which makes us strong.

REAL LIMITLESS PILL – Can You Count on Nootropics?

Nootropics are widely used pills which are consumed to enhance cognition.

These pills are now selling in a considerable amount throughout the world. A Roman chemist and psychologist in 1972, Corneliu Giurgea, termed these pills as nootropics.

These new supplements are for the betterment of people, to enhance cognitive abilities, which means they help to enhance cognition in healthy people and improves:

  • Decision-making power
  • Focus
  • Memory
  • Creativity
  • Motivation
  • Executive functioning
  • Alertness
  • Concentration

Not only the above-listed properties, but these nootropics also help to reduce anxiety and fatigue. With enhance in cognition, these nootropic pills help in improve other bodily deficiencies as well.

These pills are a mixture of natural ingredients that are effective without any side effects.

These pills have minor side effects but nothing serious to worry about. These nootropics are used and are worldwide famous because of their brain-enhancing properties.

These nootropic pills are useful for those people who need a head start in their low-paced life. Adults and adolescents mostly use it.

Young students who have a heavy load of studies and worry about their career; they take this pill to make their brain work faster and can easily manage to learn.

Adults, who have an age-related decline in mental functions, can use these pills to enhance their mind and focus.

These pills have effective results on people who are addicted to this pill.

It has got positive results, and many people who use this pill are happy and satisfied.


Nootropics of real life are nowhere that fictional limitless pill.

However, there are some benefits from these nootropics, which have delicate effects that are additive over time to produce significant improvements.

Some nootropic blends may give effects of the limitless pill but in a milder way. These supplements are effective and have a bit of impact a limitless pill.

These nootropics include:

1) Proprietary Blended Nootropic

This nootropic supplement is a blend of different nootropic ingredients and is available in Supplement Company.

These ingredients said to have nootropic properties. Optimind is an example of a nootropic smart pill proprietary blend.

This supplement is available on online sources and is the best nootropic pill in the market.

Before buying this blended nootropic, one must do complete homework because some can be a complete waste of money because they do not tend to contain enough chemicals to be as effective as you require.

For this reason, it is better to do a little research on the supplement which you wish to buy.

2) Nootropic Stacks

A nootropic stack is a production by Supplement Company or manually made by the consumer.

It is a mixture of nootropic substances in a particular quantity. One of the most popular nootropic combinations is L-Theanine and Caffeine.

This combination is to increase alertness, focus, and motivation while maintaining a sense of calm, which means it increases focus without increasing anxiety.

It is the most widely used nootropic stack and is available in most of the brain power supplements.

These blends are easily available on online sources that sell supplements and other dietary supplements.

Caffeine and L-Theanine are the most used ingredients in nootropic pills. These ingredients have got great results in the pill.

As for a morning cup of coffee, we need coffee to open our eyes and broadens the mind. In the case of nootropics, caffeine plays a vital role in nootropics.

As caffeine, when combined with L-Theanine, its impact is much stronger and more effective than caffeine alone.

Individual nootropic substances: at the core of every nootropic combination (that is effective), are individual substances that bring forth the nootropic effects.

They are made with both natural substances or synthetically made in a lab. One of the most famous nootropic substances is racetam.

Racetam’s mechanism is not well studied, but they are widely accepted as nootropic effects, such as increased focus, memory and motivation, and other cognitive benefits.


Racetam is a wide category of synthetic nootropics. The first racetam to be made was in 1972 was dubbed piracetam.

For describing piracetam enhancing cognitive ability, it was termed as a nootropic.

Since then, research on piracetam has expanded, and many other compounds have been introduced, creating a wide range of supplements, known as “racetam.”

There are a few common racetams, which needs a little attention but still, some of them are in use as a popular supplement for boosting cognition:

  • Piracetam
  • Aniracetam
  • Oxiracetam
  • Aniracetam
  • Phenylpiracetam ( also known as Phenotropil)

a) Piracetam

Piracetam was the first racetam. It works to improve brain health and capacity.

It also helps to improve the processes of storing user information and accessing the information. It is also useful in treatment for preventing neurodegeneration caused by a number of conditions.

Patients treated with piracetam have shown improvement in memory and attention as well as motor functioning.

b) Aniracetam

Aniracetam is more potent than piracetam. It improves concentration and focuses while studying or working.

It also helps to improve mood with its stress-reducing properties.

There have been reports showing that it also helps in improving sensory experience.

Aniracetam can also improve cognitive processes of learning and applying information.

In addition, some results showed Aniracetam to improve memory and performance at various stages of the learning process.

c) Oxiracetam

Oxiracetam is on top of the list on racetam family.

It plays a vital role in protecting the nerves and nervous system from degeneration.

It also improves the function of mind when learning new information.

In addition, it helps to treat an impaired brain and preventing degenerative conditions.

d) Phenylpiracetam

Phenylpiracetam also is known as Phenotropil, is 60 to 100 times more potent than piracetam.

As an all-around nootropic, Phenylpiracetam performs extremely well featuring anti amnesia, anticonvulsant and anxiolytic actions. It also is useful in boosting the nervous system.

As it has got anti-amnesic properties, one study displayed memory-enhancing capacity and has got rid of the amnesia effect.

It also protects and preserves the brain to avoid cognitive decline. One study has observed the benefits of Phenylpiracetam in treating brain lesions.

However, racetam needs time to absorb in the body. It takes around a few days or weeks to experience the full benefit.

Racetam is a family of synthetic chemicals with nootropic capabilities.

Each racetam is different from others but has the same functions.

By boosting the oxygen, nutrients, and glucose for the brain travels through the blood, providing the brain with all the nutrients.

This makes the brain works faster, helps in increased focus and concentration, brain stamina functions longer, and reduces degeneration of brain cells.


The pill showed in the limitless movie, NZT-48 is a fictions pill, but in real life, there are pills that have almost the same effect as the pill in the film.

One such real-life pill is Modafinil.

Modafinil is an FDA approved medicine for a sleep disorder, but the reason behind this pill, as a limitless pill because of its smart features.

Modafinil helps to promote fatigue levels, mindfulness, and vigilance in adults. For active users, Modafinil works as a brain and memory supplement and to improve focus and concentration.

However, Modafinil has been approved to be a pill closer to limitless pill.

Minor side effects have been reported to those people who are addicted to this pill.

Most nootropics have a subtle effect and take days or weeks to demonstrate effectiveness and influence, Modafinil, on the other hand, offers an effective result from a single dose.

This drug technically used to make us feel alert and active and has the benefit of increasing dopamine levels in the brain. This benefit causes improvement in learning, memory, and concentration.

People using Modafinil can work up to 10 to 15 hours non-stop.

Modafinil does not make you super-intelligent, but its effects are close in making our brain work faster; it makes us alert and focused on our work, thus giving us the feeling of intelligence. 


As we know that limitless was just a fiction movie that showed what a pill could do.

Nevertheless, this pill is present in real life in the form of nootropic, which not only enhances cognition but also improves cognitive functions such as increased memory, focus, motivation, and creativity.

These nootropic supplements used to increase and enhance brain power.

They have a positive effect on those who are addicted to them. These effects are beneficial for those who need cognitive enhancement either for work purposes or for study.

These nootropics are a blend of natural ingredients and have no side effects. Minor side effects are normal in those who are allergic to some of the elements, other than that, these pills are safe and free from side effects.

However, it is vital to know all the details of the particular nootropic you want to buy.

As some of the products may be less effective or might not affect your brain. It is essential to consult the doctor and ask him to tell which nootropic may be better and effective.

Nootropics are accessible worldwide in a wide range and are famous all over the world.

People have great experience who used these nootropics.

It takes you to the next level of life but not in an extreme way but in a calm manner and helps to achieve the desired goal.

Before buying the product, it is necessary to know its pros and cons.

It is better to consume this nootropic to increase the power and to unlock limitless potential.

The True Limitless Pill Revealed

Racetams & Nootropic Drugs: Does the Limitless Pill Exist?

Last updated: June 28, 2018

Humans (homo sapiens specifically) have many characteristics and attributes that have led to our domination of the Earth and the living creatures that inhabit it. We aren’t omnipotent, but we have found a great degree of power in our nature.

Part of our nature is a desire to find shortcuts, easier routes, and better solutions. Bill Gates famously said “I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job… because he will find an easy way to do it.” Indeed, for thousands of years humans have been rewarded for seeking the easiest route to overcome whatever obstacle stands in our way.

As with any other characteristic, there is a downside to this part of human nature. The same desire for a shortcut has lead to a search for the limitless pill. It is the same feature that encourages people to spend billions of dollars on face creams, muscle building supplements, fat burners, and a whole host of other consumer products.

The bottom line is: there is no limitless pill.

I will discuss nootropic drugs that have a huge impact on cognitive abilities, but it is imperative to start off on the right foot. You aren’t “bad” or “dumb” for trying to find a limitless pill. You’re just following human nature.

A Limitless Pill in the Small Things

When Bill Gates developed Microsoft and collected his billions of dollars ($76+ billion to be exact), it had nothing to do with a limitless pill. In fact, even though Gates talks about finding an easy way to do things, the foundation and building of Microsoft was anything but easy.

Gates instead focused on the small things. At age 13 he was already using a teletype block computer at his private prep school. By the age of 17 he had studied source code diligently and started a business with a friend [1].

He did not fast track his way to success with a limitless pill, but instead spent many years of his life doing small things that mattered. He learned skills coding, negotiation, sales, and he did all of this at a time when most other children were outside playing and having fun. He was taking a disciplined approach that focused on small tasks done repeatedly and done rightly.

This is where success happens and this is the true limitless pill revealed: the small things.

The small, daily tasks we engage in make a big difference. If you ensure to get enough sleep, eat the right foods, and read the right books, you won’t need a limitless pill in order to make giant leaps in your education, professional life, or entrepreneurial project.

Nootropic Drugs – A Bargain to Break Through

Even though small tasks and practices make the biggest difference in success or failure, sometimes having a nootropic drug may help you to break through to another level. A perfect example of this is the author Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour Workweek, 4 Hour Body and 4 Hour Chef, and one of the most enjoyable, inspiring, and informative podcasts that exists [2].

When he was writing his books, he took a drug called CILTeP (“chemically induced long-term potentiation”), which is said to increase focus, concentration, and memory.

Ferriss mentioned “I love CILTeP… if I use it, I just need to ensure that I can budget for 10 to 12 hours of sleep that night because I need to replenish whatever is being put into hyper-drive, but for writing it’s fantastic.”[3]

Ferriss made a bargain to increase his level of writing capabilities even if it meant he needed more time to recuperate. He traded something in order to go above and beyond 100% for a short while.

This is what most people are doing with nootropics and that is fine. However, it’s imperative to realize you are making a trade off before you do so. CILTeP and similar products aren’t simply a limitless pill or shortcut, but an added bonus if you are doing all the other small things right.


This nootropic was developed within the community by a man pseudonym “Abelard Lindsay”. He wrote on the Longecity forums in 2011 and thousands of people used the formulation for themselves [4].

As this stack developed, people Tim Ferriss and Dave Asprey started to discuss the common positive effects they experienced while using it. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the conversation on the forums and Reddit.

Many of them experience similar positive effects as Ferriss and Asprey. In 2013 Abelard Lindsay also partnered to create the Natural Stacks CILTeP product, which is currently the most affordable and easy way to use this combination.

Modafinil / Adrafinil

Another common drug people look to as a “limitless pill” is called modafinil. Within some communities, modafinil is the go-to drug of choice because it can improve memory [5], reaction time [6], and prevent fatigue in those who are sleep deprived [7].

Dave Asprey has famously gone on CNN in order to discuss the drug and considers most people to be “suffering from a modafinil deficiency” [8]. Despite the exaggeration, there are hundreds of studies proving the efficacy of modafinil.

If you want to buy modafinil, there are online pharmacies where you can purchase it (and armodafinil). Nootropedia recommends Afinil Express, but you may also choose to purchase adrafinil if that legal option is more in alignment with your values.


Racetams are one of the first class of drugs considered “nootropics”. Piracetam was initially synthesized in the 1960s and has since become a classic starting point amongst those who are starting a nootropics journey. While some sources tout piracetam as a limitless pill, the truth is quite different.

Piracetam is well studied in many regards, but it is assuredly not the most potent of the racetams. Phenylpiracetam, however, has been listed on the 2016 World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances [9].

While athletes may not be able to buy phenylpiracetam because of the enhanced stimulation, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage. This drug is similar to aniracetam and fasoracetam, but a little more stimulating.

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Other Powerful Nootropics

Just because we have outlined 3 of the more powerful drugs that can help increase focus and concentration (along with other aspects of cognitive performance), there are many more with dozens being released every few months. Some of the unique blends that have stood the test of time include Qualia or Mind Lab Pro (the former is far more stimulating than the later).

If you want an “easy win” when it comes to nootropics and mental clarity, consider the combination of L-theanine and caffeine. This is not only well-studied, but simple, and more effective than the standard cup of coffee alone.

Limitless Pills & Doing the Work

Bill Gates took no shortcuts, neither did Tim Ferriss, or any of the successful people in this world. At least, not from the perspective of finding a “limitless pill” that solved all of their problems. Many of these men were ingenious in their pursuit of the easiest way to do things, but it all came through steady, deliberate, practice and discipline regarding small practices.

That doesn’t mean nootropics and cognitive enhancers can’t work. Ferriss and many others have obviously used nootropics with great success, but that wasn’t the magic pill that made them achieve.

Nootropics can help and sometimes it is a trade off, but the real limitless pill is in the small tasks. Be wary of magic potions and limitless pills. They will never be a substitute for doing the work.

References (Click to Expand)

Source: https://www.nootropedia.com/limitless-pill/

Do Nootropics Actually Work? I Took a Bunch of Magic Brain Pills to Find Out

Racetams & Nootropic Drugs: Does the Limitless Pill Exist?

The resurgent popularity of nootropics—an umbrella term for supplements that purport to boost creativity, memory, and cognitive ability—has more than a little to do with the recent Silicon Valley-induced obsession with disrupting literally everything, up to and including our own brains. But most of the appeal of smart drugs lies in the simplicity of their age-old premise: Take the right pill and you can become a better, smarter, as-yet-unrealized version of yourself—a person that you know exists, if only the less capable you could get your own way.

Federal law classifies most nootropics as dietary supplements, which means that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate manufacturers’ statements about their benefits (as the giant “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” disclaimer on the label indicates).

And the types of claims that the feds do allow supplement companies to make are often vague and/or supported by less-than-compelling scientific evidence.

“If you find a study that says that an ingredient caused neurons to fire on rat brain cells in a petri dish,” says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “you can probably get away with saying that it ‘enhances memory’ or ‘promotes brain health.’”

Since dietary supplements do not require double-blind, placebo-controlled, pharmaceutical-style human studies before going to market, there is little incentive for companies to really prove that something does what they say it does.

This means that, in practice, nootropics may not live up to all the grandiose, exuberant promises advertised on the bottle in which they come. The flip side, though? There’s no need to procure a prescription in order to try them out.

Good news for aspiring biohackers—and for people who have no aspirations to become biohackers, but still want to be Bradley Cooper in Limitless (me).

After consulting Reddit’s (predictably) excessive guide for beginners—it features 270 footnotes!—I began fiddling with “stacking”: the practice of taking different amounts of varying nootropic substances, which users are encouraged to refine for as long as it takes to achieve Peak Cooper.

Listen only if you want smart people giving real advice on how to stay sane in an insane world.

First was a combination of L-theanine and aniracetam, a synthetic compound prescribed in Europe to treat degenerative neurological diseases.

I tested it by downing the recommended dosages and then tinkering with a story I had finished a few days earlier, back when caffeine was my only performance-enhancing drug.

I zoomed through the document with renewed vigor, striking some sentences wholesale and rearranging others to make them tighter and punchier.

It was a productive hour, sure. But it also bore a remarkable resemblance to the normal editing process.

I had imagined that the magical elixir coursing through my bloodstream would create towering storm clouds in my brain which, upon bursting, would rain cinematic adjectives onto the page as fast my fingers could type them.

Unfortunately, the only thing that rained down were Google searches that began with the words “synonym for”—my usual creative process.

Each “failure” is but another step in the process-of-elimination journey to biological self-actualization, which may be just a few hundred dollars and a few more weeks of amateur alchemy away.

The next morning, four giant pills’ worth of the popular piracetam-and-choline stack made me… a smidge more alert, maybe? (Or maybe that was just the fact that I had slept pretty well the night before. It was hard to tell.

) Modafinil, which many militaries use as their “fatigue management” pill of choice, boasts glowing reviews from satisfied users.

But in the United States, civilians need a prescription to get it; without one, they are stuck using adrafinil, a precursor substance that the body metabolizes into modafinil after ingestion. Taking adrafinil in lieu of coffee just made me keenly aware that I hadn’t had coffee.

After my rudimentary stacking efforts flamed out in unspectacular fashion, I tried a few ready-made stacks—brand-name nootropic cocktails that offer to eliminate the guesswork for newbies. They were just as useful. And a lot more expensive. Goop’s Braindust turned water into tea-flavored chalk.

But it did make my face feel hot for 45 minutes. Then there were the two pills of Brain Force Plus, a supplement hawked relentlessly by Alex Jones of InfoWars infamy. The only result of those was the lingering guilt of knowing that I had willingly put $19.

95 in the jorts pocket of a dipshit conspiracy theorist.

Source: https://www.gq.com/story/do-nootropics-work

The truth about smart drugs

Racetams & Nootropic Drugs: Does the Limitless Pill Exist?

“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.

” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48.

Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.

Limitless is what you get when you flatter yourself that your head houses the most complex known object in the universe, and you run away with the notion that it must have powers to match.

A number of so-called ‘smart drugs’ or cognitive enhancers have captured attention recently, from stimulants such as modafinil, to amphetamines (often prescribed under the name Adderall) and methylphenidate (also known by its brand name Ritalin). According to widespread news reports, students have begun using these drugs to enhance their performance in school and college, and are continuing to do so in their professional lives.

Yet are these smart drugs all they are cracked up to be? Can they really make all of us more intelligent or learn more? Should we be asking deeper questions about what these pharmaceuticals can and can’t do?

Thought process

Cognition is a suite of mental phenomena that includes memory, attention and executive functions, and any drug would have to enhance executive functions to be considered truly ‘smart’.

Executive functions occupy the higher levels of thought: reasoning, planning, directing attention to information that is relevant (and away from stimuli that aren’t), and thinking about what to do rather than acting on impulse or instinct.

You activate executive functions when you tell yourself to count to 10 instead of saying something you may regret. They are what we use to make our actions moral and what we think of when we think about what makes us human.

Smart drugs may enhance focus, but they don't make you smarter (Thinkstock)

These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate.

Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction.

This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”

The prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain is the zone that produces such representations, and it is the focus of Arnsten’s work.

“The way the prefrontal cortex creates these representations is by having pyramidal cells – they’re actually shaped little pyramids – exciting each other.

They keep each other firing, even when there’s no information coming in from the environment to stimulate the circuits,” she explains.

Several chemical influences can completely disconnect those circuits so they’re no longer able to excite each other. “That’s what happens when we’re tired, when we’re stressed.

” Drugs caffeine and nicotine enhance the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which helps restore function to the circuits.

Hence people drink tea and coffee, or smoke cigarettes, “to try and put [the] prefrontal cortex into a more optimal state”.

True enhancement

In a broad sense, this is enhancement; in a stricter one, it’s optimisation.

“I think people think about smart drugs the way they think about steroids in athletics,” Arnsten says, “but it’s not a proper analogy, because with steroids you’re creating more muscle.

With smart drugs, all you’re doing is taking the brain that you have and putting it in its optimal chemical state. You’re not taking Homer Simpson and making him into Einstein.”

Smart drugs have provoked anxiety about whether students who take drugs to enhance performance are cheating, and whether they will put pressure on their peers to do wise to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage.

Some students who use smart drugs say it makes studying more pleasurable (Thinkstock)

Yet some researchers point out these drugs may not be enhancing cognition directly, but simply improving the user’s state of mind – making work more pleasurable and enhancing focus.

“I’m just not seeing the evidence that indicates these are clear cognition enhancers,” says Martin Sarter, a professor at the University of Michigan, who thinks they may be achieving their effects by relieving tiredness and boredom.

“What most of these are actually doing is enabling the person who’s taking them to focus,” says Steven Rose, emeritus professor of life sciences at the Open University. “It’s peripheral to the learning process itself.”

Or as one US student told researcher Scott Vrecko in 2013: “I remember getting just completely absorbed in one book, and then another, and as I was writing I was making connections between them [and] actually enjoying the process of putting ideas together. I hadn’t had that before.”

Dangerous substances?

That doesn’t necessarily mean all smart drugs – now and in the future – will be harmless, however. The brain is complicated. In trying to upgrade it, you risk upsetting its intricate balance. “It’s not just about more, it’s about having to be exquisitely and exactly right.

And that’s very hard to do,” says Arnstein. “What’s good for one system may be bad for another system,” adds Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

“It’s clear from the experimental literature that you can affect memory with pharmacological agents, but the problem is keeping them safe.”

Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless. Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others.

“There are costs to narrowing your attention,” Sarter points out. “Not only all the stuff in the periphery that might be very significant that you might be missing, but internally – if you narrow your attentional field, it also narrows the range and scope of associations you could bring into your thought process.”

In many settings that could well prove costly. But in others, where you’re not being asked to think about the meaning of life, it could be beneficial, such as an air traffic controller, for example.

The brain is complex, so enhancing one talent with drugs may hamper others (Thinkstock)

If paying Paul always requires robbing Peter, we can’t expect drugs to produce a general, cortex-wide expansion of cognition. But by allocating extra resources to one domain or the other, could you surpass the maximum levels you could previously have attained or even the highest levels attained by anyone?

“I think you can and you will,” says Sarter, but crucially, only for very specific tasks. For example, one of cognitive psychology’s most famous findings is that people can typically hold seven items of information in their working memory. Could a drug push the figure up to nine or 10? “Yes. If you’re asked to do nothing else, why not? That’s a fairly simple function.”

Future enhancement

So is there a future in smart drugs? Some scientists are more optimistic than others.

Gary Lynch, a professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine argues that recent advances in neuroscience have opened the way for the smart design of drugs, configured for specific biological targets in the brain.

“Memory enhancement is not very far off,” he says, although the prospects for other kinds of mental enhancement are “very difficult to know… To me, there’s an inevitability to the thing, but a timeline is difficult.”

In the nearer future, Lynch points to nicotinic receptor agents – molecules that act on the neurotransmitter receptors affected by nicotine – as ones to watch when looking out for potential new cognitive enhancers.

Sarter agrees: a class of agents known as α4β2* nicotinic receptor agonists, he says, seem to act on mechanisms that control attention.

Among the currently known candidates, he believes they come closest “to fulfilling the criteria for true cognition enhancers.”

Some pharmaceutical companies have decided not to invest in smart drugs (Thinkstock)

Sarter is downbeat, however, about the lihood of the pharmaceutical industry actually turning candidate smart drugs into products. Its interest in cognitive enhancers is shrinking, he says, “because these drugs are not working for the big indications, which is the market that drives these developments. Even adult ADHD has not been considered a sufficiently attractive large market.”

A substance called piracetam was once widely touted as a smart drug, as Rose recalled in a commentary piece published in 2002. Piracetam still has its enthusiasts, but its name is now mostly a reminder that candidate drugs come and go. “There have been a lot of clinical trials for a lot of substances that didn’t do anything,” observes Sarter.

Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes.

Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals.

The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.

Open questions

In the meantime, there are unanswered questions about the suite of drugs people already take in the hope of enhancing their cognitive powers – questions about whether they work, how they work, the effects they have on the mind after their initial novelty has worn off, and the effects they may have on our health and wellbeing in the long term.

Would you take drugs if they enhanced your memory, for example? (Thinkstock)

Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants and modafinil.

Part of the problem is that getting rats, or indeed students, to do puzzles in laboratories may not be a reliable guide to the drugs’ effects in the wider world. Drugs have complicated effects on individuals living complicated lives.

Determining that methylphenidate enhances cognition in rats by acting on their prefrontal cortex doesn’t tell you the potential impact that its effects on mood or motivation may have on human cognition.

It may also be necessary to ask not just whether a drug enhances cognition, but in whom.

Researchers at the University of Sussex have found that nicotine improved performance on memory tests in young adults who carried one variant of a particular gene but not in those with a different version.

In addition, there are already hints that the smarter you are, the less smart drugs will do for you. One study found that modafinil improved performance in a group of students whose mean IQ was 106, but not in a group with an average of 115.

Perhaps it’s time, then, that we start asking much smarter questions about smart drugs.

This is an edited version of an article originally published by Mosaic, and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence. For more about the issues around this story, visit Mosaic’s website here.

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Source: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140729-the-truth-about-smart-drugs