Smart Drugs: Helpers for Our Sleepless Age?


It’s 3 PM. Are you crushing your “To Do” list? Or are you making a bee-line to the espresso machine for a double shot of Dark Roast, and maybe that leftover doughnut?

I’ve always thought that mid-afternoon is the real litmus test for well-being. It’s not about how you feel first thing in the morning—we are all foggy at that ungodly hour. And it has even less to do with the Witching Hour, either (midnight or 3 AM to 4 AM, depending on your source), when that chorus of supernatural furies in your head threatens mayhem. The vim and vigor test is actually 3 PM, the hour that eerily forecasts whether you’re going to be sprawled on the couch with the remote by 8 PM, or slow-cooking tomorrow’s lunch AND taking out the garbage.

Lately, instead of my 3 PM double espresso, I’ve been dropping two Nootropics supplements. Nootropics are a category of over-the-counter drugs or supplements, dubbed “smart drugs,” designed to enhance memory, cognitive function and even intelligence. The word “nootropics” derives from Greek, and means “to bend the mind.”

I’m not making any claims on the potency of smart drugs. We all have different physiologies; what works for one person may have no effect on the other. Let me just say, though, that I now “own the zone” each weekday night, as I break out the distortion pedal and launch into Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s Ohio, well into the fourth hour of guitar practice—or at least I like to think I’m in the zone. Call it delusional, but I’m attracted to the idea of capitalizing on untapped cognitive potential, and I’m all ears for a product line that sharpens memory and thought processes.

The brain is clearly an active organ, making it ripe for enhancement. Its cells—neurons—are in a constant state of rapid fire, processing and transmitting electrochemical signals approximately 200 times per second. Consider that our brains have 100 billion neurons firing at lightning-bolt speed at any given moment, and you have some idea of its complexity. How many neuron firings shape a single thought or drive the analysis of a complex idea? Billions.

When these brain synapses are clicking in optimal fashion, life is dandy. But in reality, we’re faced with a slew of daily pitfalls and temptations that sabotage our best efforts at peak performance, as well as general wellness. Modern-day life conspires against us; stress, sugar, and lack of sleep are only the start. This is where these so-called smart drugs enter the picture.

Smart Drugs Optimize the Brain

Smart drugs are designed to tweak brain metabolism and keep its neurons firing in a bulls-eye fashion. Broadly speaking, they work toward general cognitive enhancement. As Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale University Medical School phrases it, “You’re not taking Homer Simpson and making him into Einstein.” In other words, smart drugs are not steroids for the brain. Steroids create more muscle. “With smart drugs,” Arnsten comments, “all you’re doing is taking the brain that you have and putting it in its optimal chemical state.”

One mechanism by which nootropics alter brain activity is through the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which serves as a primary agent in shaping memory. Nootropic proponents assert that if we enhance acetylcholine activity, we can sharpen memory function. But, wait! The age-old combo of a coffee and cigarette can inspire the same action in the brain by enhancing acetylcholine.

Are Smart Drugs Needed?

So why fuss over a range of smart drug product choices and high price points, when we could drink lots of black tea and sneak in a cigarette once in a while? Herbalists like to wave the magic wand of “synergistic effect” here—they point to the simultaneous action of not just one path to sharpening memory function, but to many approaches used together at once. My particular brand of smart drug, as one example, contains nine ingredients, chief among them are ginkgo; L-Theanine; ginseng; and Alpha GPC. Other companies sell single substances that are also designed for enhancing memory, such as piracetam and aniracetam—part of the -racetram family of substances. For more about these ingredients, see any one of a number of knowledgeable people at our Health and Beauty Aids Department.

Similar to most claims regarding health and wellness supplements, reports behind nootropics’ actual effects are mixed. It comes down to maintaining a delicate balance in cognitive processes. Here, Arnsten continues, “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.”

So while smart drugs can provide a competitive edge in a global culture that values processing over daydreaming, looking to nootropics as a panacea to navigate the digital forest of information overload reduces humans to automatons. Do we really need to find better ways for our brains to manage more data at ever-higher speeds?

In other words, there are costs to narrowing your attention. Maybe the peripheral piece that you’re overlooking while under the influence of Superman’s brain-enhancing drug forced you to miss more important creative associations. Look at it this way: piracetam may work wonders for an air traffic controller at O’Hare Airport, but not so much for Neil Young while he composed “Ohio,” a process that gives “under the influence” a whole new meaning for our sleepless age.

Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.