What was once something of the grail of neuroscience and neurochemistry privy only to Soviet neuroscientists and cosmonauts, nootropics have become a topic of increasing interest in the mainstream in the last few years. Beginning with author Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields in 2001 which would eventually be adapted in the 2011 Hollywood blockbuster film starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. Followed up by French action director Luc Besson’s Lucy, the mythical “smart drugs” NZT-48 and CPH4 led thousands upon thousands down the rabbit hole to further research on the fascinating subject of nootropic compounds. As of Fall, Limitless is now a television series and nootropics have been part of a sub-plot of the television series The Flash and MTV may have a docudrama about nootropics users in the works as well. With all the hubbub about nootropics the amount of information available online grows daily. As a result, the diligent researcher should take care to get the full story about these compounds rather than just accepting myths from Hollywood, claims of fly-by-night marketers or propaganda from scaremongering yellow journalists.
In our current age of “information economy”, knowledge is not just power, it’s a marketable commodity. Unfortunately in the age of internet sharing hard facts and good research are sometimes lost amidst a sea of talking heads. The supplement industry has been under a great deal of scrutiny in the past few years and it’s more important than ever that accurate and truthful information be shared with supplement consumers not only to protect their health and safety but also to safeguard the continuing legality of their informed use of supplements, nootropic or otherwise.
They say that a lie can make it half way around the world while the truth is still lacing it’s boots up. A simple google search for sunifiram horror story will offer a perfect illustration of this principle in action. Most of the results (8 out of 10) are about possible dangers of excitotoxicity and brain cancer. Interesting to note, most of these threads are either started by or reference one user and his particular horror stories to this day. However in April of 2015 Reddit user sunifiramvictim made a shocking confession and apology:
Remember me? I am the anti-nootropic troll who trolled r/nootropics, longecity, brainmeta, several bodybuilding forums, and so on by posting horror stories about nootropics and other supplements.
Ever heard of the parathion horror story, tianeptine horror story, phenibut horror story, nefiracetam shrank my balls, piracetam gave me brain lesions, sunifiram gave me brain lesions, pramiracetam extreme excitotoxicity, saw palmetto destroyed my life, roids shrank my balls, alcohol withdrawal horror, yohimbine hypertensive crisis, selegiline extreme cheese effect, and so on, and so on …
I created dozens and dozens “troll” topics over the course of 5 years. Why you ask? Because I was anti-nootropics, anti-drugs, I wanted to demonize drugs as much as possible. In my country even basic supplements are seen as evil and shouldn’t be used unless you have an extreme disease, to tell you, you can’t even get vitamins without getting a prescription for it.
Therefore I was angry when I was seeing so many people using drugs like sugar pills, I wanted drugs to be banned everywhere, hence why I created horror story topics to ternish reputation of new drugs, especially nootropics. I tried to find nootropics with certain side effects, and then made a topic saying I got this effect but I exacerbated it to scare people. People were scared and some became reluctant of using these drugs, I got plenty of private messages of people telling me they threw their bag of X because of my topics.
But that’s not the end, I also sent several fake adverse event reports to drug agencies in order to have them banned. Not sure how successful it got. Now I’ve stopped my irrational hatred against nootropics, it sounded so stupid from me to do that. I’ve discovered several nootropics because I had increasing health issues and the doctors wouldn’t help me, so I had to resort to nootropics, which were in fact far from being that devilish and they helped me appease my symptoms. So here are my apologies, I know many people will keep on hating on me for all I did, but now I want to move on and make this clear for everyone. Please accept my apologies.
In a scene from Orson Welles’ veiled documentary of yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst a journalist in Cuba telegraphs Charles Foster Kane, Welles’ Hearst stand-in:
“Girls delightful in Cuba. Stop. Could send you prose poems about scenery, but don’t feel right spending your money. Stop. There is no war in Cuba, signed Wheeler. Any answer?
Kane replies: Yes. “Dear Wheeler: you provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war.”
In the above instance you can see where one internet user armed with some half cocked, but believable lies and backed by the echo chamber of the internet could give all the fodder needed to muckracking modern yellow journalists and misguided, finger wagging legislators looking for the next “drug craze” to ban.
Growing interest in both mainstream media sources like Forbes as well as in the media and popular culture has led to the amount of writing available on the subject to grow daily. Unfortunately many are building their knowledge on unsound foundations as many myths and misconceptions in regards to what nootropics are and are not and what they do and do not do abound.
One of the greatest causes for error in understanding of the benefits and dangers of nootropics boils down to a simple misunderstanding in regards to exactly what nootropics are. Just any old cognitive enhancer isn’t necessarily a nootropic substance. Many people use the terms “smart drug,” “cognitive enhancer,” and “nootropic” synonymously but it’s the confusion of safe and studied chemical compounds like piracetam or alpha GPC with dangerous, addictive and potentially neurotoxic substances like ADHD prescription methylphenidate. Amphetamines and other stimulant medications for ADHD that are sometimes used by students and entrepreneurs alike to power through massive work loads often come bearing a potentially heavy price tag. Often the long term risks don’t quite match up to the short term benefits. Decreased neural plasticity, addiction, mood disorders and more can be the side effects of some of the so-called “smart drugs.”
Modafanil is another item of interest to many cognitive enhancers. It’s been championed by self-styled “human guine pig” Dave Asprey but, like amphetamines, may have long term deleterious effects that run counter to the aims of someone interesting in the maximum of not only cognitive enhancement but short and long term neuroprotection.
Facebook ads claiming a new “genius pill” or a “super brain pill” that either is about to be banned or was just finally approved by the FDA have been popping up on social media sidebars and ads. In the end, underestimating the possible dangers in irresponsibly using nootropics or using them without fully understanding their effects is just as dangerous in the long term as blatant lies by the media.
To get to the truth, we have to not only cut through the hype of unscrupulous “pop-up vendors” who claim to offer a Limitless-style super brain pill capable of turning anyone into an instant Einstein as well as the sensationalist headlines of uninformed news media. It’s best to start simply with what exactly nootropics are (and are not), what they do (and don’t do) in order to expose some instances of the type of misinformation and misconceptions about nootropics.
The answer to the question “What are nootropics” is answered succinctly and once and for all by the inventor of piracetam and aniracetam and the man who not only coined the term nootropic but set forth the original stringent criteria for what is a nootropic. Nootropics, he posited, should be neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing but should not have any significant peripheral effects including altered blood pressure or heart beat. As a result, many classic cognitive enhancers such as picamilon for instance are cut out of the running as “true nootropics.”
“Generations of students have depended on nothing more potent than gallons of black coffee to enable them to burn the midnight oil when studying. But now a far more sinister stimulant is sweeping campuses,” the Daily Mail ironicaly proclaims. We must assume the author is unaware of the fact that piracetam has an LD-50 (level of lethal dose) higher than that of caffeine or even salt or water. That’s right, piracetam is as safe as salt. Take that with a grain and not a whole bottle though.
Films like Limitless and Lucy have piqued the public’s interest, but unfortunately they’ve done so through sensationalizing the subject. Even The Guardian took 2014’s Lucy to task on for perpetuating (as did the Limitless film before it and the Limitless tv series after it) the “10% of your brain” myth.
There is no magic bullet to success and in the end supplements are just that, supplements. In other words they’re meant to supplement, augment and add to a healthy diet and exercise and good study habits and sleep hygiene which are all crucial to maximizing intellectual and creative potential. For those expecting to become Lucy or get an instant “Limitless” effect that will allow them to master Russian or Chinese in a weekend with no effort, great disappointment is around the corner. For those who are already giving their all and have things in order these may shore up any deficiencies and add a subtle performance edge and equally important, help preserve the integrity of our most vital ally, our neural net.
Make sure to research throroughly before adding any supplement to your regimen and always consult with your primary care practitioner before any major change to diet, exercise or supplementation routine especially if you are taking any over the counter or prescribed medications or are currently under a physician’s care for any pre-existing condition.
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