The term "nootropics" first referred to chemicals that met very specific criteria. But now it's used to refer to any natural or
synthetic substance that may have a positive impact on mental skills. In
general, nootropics fall into three general categories: dietary
supplements, synthetic compounds, and prescription drugs.
While health experts generally agree that taking a prescription nootropic for an FDA-approved purpose (such as a stimulant medication if
you have ADHD or donepezil if you have Alzheimer’s) may be helpful, the
use of any type of cognitive enhancer in healthy people is far more
Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the cognitive neurology/neuropsychology division at Johns Hopkins Medicine, says
there's "no strong evidence" that any of the supplements now being sold
for their supposed memory-boosting powers are helpful. "It's not clear
that they work and not clear that they're safe," he says. He’s also
skeptical of the basic premise behind nootropics.
"The circuits that are involved in human cognition are very complicated and not fully understood," he says. "You can't just 'turn up
the dial' that easily." He notes that people who believe their mental
performance has increased thanks to nootropics are largely being
influenced by a placebo effect. "If you're more confident and think
you'll do better, you will do better.
Chris D'Adamo, PhD, director of research and education at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine, has a
different take. Like Gordon, he doesn't think nootropics will give you
superhuman mental abilities, but he does believe they have the potential
to offer some people an edge.
"Most people seeking to optimize cognitive function would be better off focusing on getting enough sleep, eating a nutrient-dense diet, and
managing their stress," he says. But once you have those basics down,
the right nootropics might serve as a bonus, helping you think more
clearly and sharply or reduce your chances of cognitive decline as you
age, he says.