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Limitless? Are “Smart Drugs” The Real Deal?

Exploring Nootropics: The 8 Racetams


“Humanity will not wait millions of years until Mother Nature will hand it a functionally better brain…[Humankind] will directly, openly, and consciously take part in evolution.”

-Dr. Corneliu Giurgea

[References to this Article]

As the movie “Limitless” opened our minds to the dazzling idea of “smart drugs”, we continue to find ourselves mesmerized by increasing our brain power through pills for the brain.

While the fantasy in movies is fun to entertain, it’s reasonable to ask whether smart drugs can be cognitive enhancing or just an urban legend.

The word “nootropic” is used in and around the health supplement space as a household word.

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Whereas the popular and incorrect term is “smart drug,” according to the dictionary, “a nootropic is a substance that enhances cognition and memory and facilitates learning.”

Derived from two Greek words: “nous,” and “tropein” the word nootropic means mind-bending or turning.

The term nootropic is now used to refer to anything supporting cognitive function — including plants and health supplements, while originally nootropic referred to synthetic cognitive-enhancing substances.

Despite nootropics only officially dating back 50 years, we have evidence of the use of plants to influence mood and cognition, such as we see with ginkgo Biloba and coca leaves, going back 10,000 years ago.

Because ginkgo trees are the oldest living trees, at over 250 million years, the plant likely precedes these 10,000 years of recorded history.

As Ali G asks, “SCIENCE! What is it all about? Tek-mology. Is it good or is it whack? I don’t know. Let’s find out more.”

Nootropics “Smart Drug” History

Despite its only recent popularity, the word nootropic was coined by a Romanian chemist and psychologist, Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, several decades ago–about 50 years ago.

The story is his team was trying to create a sleeping pill and instead by accident created a “smart drug” compound he named a nootropic — piracetam.

After almost a decade of research, Giurgea confirmed his “brain-child” molecule (piracetam) delivered such unique brain-enhancing benefits, he needed to classify it with a special category.

Piracetam required this brand new classification, which Giurgea named “the nootropic approach to integrative activity of the mind.”

The 5-Point Nootropic Test

According to Giurgea, several specific conditions needed to be met for a compound to be a nootropic.

  1. Memory Enhancement
  2. Behavior Enhancement under Adverse Conditions
  3. Protective of the Brain from Injury (Either Physical or Chemically Induced)
  4. Cortical/ Subcortical Control Improvement
  5. Low Toxicity and Side-Effects


Nootropics “Smart Drug” Users

  • Ambitious Go-Getters at Work
  • Athletes
  • Brain-Injured Individuals
  • Competitors
  • Gym-Goers
  • Students


Today’s Nootropics “Smart Drugs”

The debate within the nootropics and health supplements industry of what makes a nootropic.

And the answer is whether one wants to adhere to the strict definition as originally defined with all 5-points, or whether one wants to use a looser definition.

Nootropics “Smart Drugs” Categories

  1. Dietary Ingredients (Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Creatine, CoQ10, D-Ribose, Glycine, Inositol, L-Theanine, Lecithin, Magnesium, NAC, Omega-3, PQQ, Pterostilbene)
  2. Plants: Bacopa Monnieri, Black Seed Oil, CBD, Curcumin, Ginkgo Biloba, Gotu Kola, Hibiscus, Mucuna Pruriens, Panax Ginseng, Rhodiola Rosea, Saffron)
  3. Prescription Drugs (Adderall, Armodafinil, Concerta, Dexedrine, Memantine, Modafinil, Ritalin, Vyvanse) (Controversial: See Below)
  4. Unregulated Compounds (Racetams — See Below)


What About Pharmaceutical Drugs?


Using prescription ADHD stimulant medications such as Ritalin and Adderall as cognitive enhancing focus pills is popular among Millennials and others to increase focus and productivity.

As these medications have an enormous potential for abuse and side effects, they would not be acceptable nootropics under the original criteria and definition.

Newer alternatives such as Armodafanil and Modafinil are medication alternatives that offer mood and cognitive enhancing benefits, with fewer side effects and potential for abuse.

These drugs are considered the closest smart-drug to match the Real-life Limitless Smart Pill NZT-48.

While this was a movie and fictional, it’s worth noting these drugs are said to have provided the inspiration for the film.

Caffeine and Other Plants

This brings us to caffeine and whether it is a nootropic?

Caffeine has GRAS (safe) status by the FDA and is considered a nootropic when used in moderation, whereas in larger quantities it does not meet all of Dr. Giurgea’s rules because it can cause side effects, dependency, and withdrawal.

We see similar dose-dependent effects with plants such as kratom, mitragyna speciosa, wherein this plant delivers cognitive-enhancing and energizing nootropic effects in low doses, but like caffeine can produce side effects, withdrawal, and dependency, and would not be accepted as a nootropic.

Nootropics as Dietary Supplements and “Stacks”

We see the release of more studies on dietary supplements — both plants and nutrients — confirming their support of brain health, cognition, creativity, focus, memory, mood, and productivity.

The word “stack” is a popular slang term, meaning the taking of multiple dietary supplements to increase their synergistic effects.

We see “stacks” for specific benefits such as brain health, cognition, creativity, focus, memory, mood, and productivity.

While dietary supplements are not within the original nootropic classification and while offering more subtle effects, they are in reality more classical nootropics because of low side-effects, and lack of dependency and withdrawal.

Legal Status

Contrary to popular opinion, Piracetam, the most popular and widely used racetam, is neither scheduled nor banned in the United States.

As it is a prescription drug, Nootropil, in some countries, including Australia and The UK, it’s not a regulated substance in the USA as a drug nor as a dietary supplement.

Instead, it is sold as a “research compound” and we cannot label it as a supplement for human consumption.

While pressure is ongoing, and certain compounds are the unallowed performance enhancer list in sports, one should always check their respective country’s laws and banned substance lists.

The latest update in the USA, is the FDA ordering specific suppliers and marketers to stop selling Piracetam as a “dietary supplement”.

This is because it is a synthetic compound not falling within The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (“DSHEA”).

Nootropics such as Huperzine-A, Sulbutiamine, and Vinpocetine which are derived from plants also fall under this classification.

DSHEA defines dietary supplements as not drugs but “food.”

The following racetams including piracetam cannot be classified as food.


A group of synthetic nootropics, racetams have similar structures and effects.

Sharing the same basic chemical structure, except time, science and technology, these cognitive enhancers enable scientists to adjust their base structure to create a range of effects.

All racetams improve overall anxiety, brain health, focus, learning, memory, and mood.

Here are the members of the racetam family with the variance coming in their dosage, function, and strength.

The 8 Racetams


As the original, with mild potency and effects, many view Piracetam as the starter nootropic which offers a tiny cognitive edge. Piracetam is supported by clinical evidence showing powerful protection against cognitive decline and mitochondrial support.

(Dosage and Use: 1,200 to 4,800 mg per day in divided doses. Noopept has come along since piracetam offering a compound which many say is exponentially stronger.)


Many view Oxiracetam as the one for students to improve studying and learning. Its effects are stronger than Piracetam, as it performs similarly to Alpha-GPC in potency.

(Dosage and Use: 1,200 to 4,800 mg per day in divided doses.)


Users claim Aniracetam increases “holistic” and creative thinking. Researchers believe it acts on AMPA receptors increasing the release of norepinephrine or noradrenaline and acetylcholine while also affecting dopamine and serotonin.

(Dosage and Use: 1,000 to 1,500 mg per day in divided doses. Fat-soluble and needing to be taken with fatty-acids.)


As the strongest racetam, Pramiracetam is a problematically understudied compound. It might offer memory, nitric oxide, and neuroprotective benefits.

(Dosage and Use: 1200 mg in divided doses from very few studies. We can make no recommendation regarding the safety, supporting long-term use.)


As the apparent top antidepressant racetam, Phenylpiracetam is listed on many banned substance lists. It may offer epilepsy, cognition, and anti-anxiety actions as it exerts effects on GABA.

(Dosage and Use: 300 to 600 mg in divided doses, with tolerance build-up occurring. This might explain the short-lived mood benefits in studies. Cycling for tolerance management is likely advisable.)


With far too many unknowns and only one human study, the use of Coluracetam is not advisable. It appears to act in the same way as ketamine as an NMDA-antagonist for treatment-resistant depression.

(Dosage and Use: Unknown. Follow us for updates.)


Fasoracetam is a new racetam. It’s under study for ADHD, autism, and anxiety. It might also be beneficial for memory and depression.

(Dosage and Use: 100 to 400 mg twice daily.)

Conclusions on “Smart Drugs”, Nootropics, and Racetams

So what are nootropics and do smart drugs work?

Are these cognitive enhancing memory pills worth a test?

Humans are increasingly looking to nootropics as their focus pills, their pills for memory, as their good for the brain pill.

People will continue to ask, “what is the best supplement for memory?”

In going after pills for the brain, many will want to go the plant route while keeping their nootropics natural.

Racetams appear to be very promising compounds.

A high-quality choline source that can cross the Blood-Brain-Barrier is needed when taking a racetam.

The choices include Alpha-GPC or CDP-Choline and/ or krill or vegan algae oil.

Some will also use lecithin and/ or uridine.

A high-quality multivitamin or methylated B-complex appears to be useful in a “Racetam Stack.”

Which racetam have I tried?

I have only tried Noopept, not one of the 8 racetams.

However, it left me quite impressed with a considerable mood and cognition-boost and no side effects.

Noopept has been described as an exponentially stronger Piracetam.

So yes, on a personal experience note, I would also have to agree with researchers in believing these compounds have much to offer us.

What is your favorite nootropic?

Your Friend in Health

Mark Stein

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