Written by Petar Petrov

If you’ve seen the movie Limitless, you have a rough, be it dramatically distorted idea of what nootropics are — cognitive performance enhancers, a.k.a. “smart drugs” or “brain boosters” or “memory enhancing drugs.” The term comes from the Greek words “noos,” meaning mind, and “tropein,” meaning towards. Nootropics may boost our mental executive functions, which include decision-making, focus, attention span, and memory.

Nootropics are more or less innocent than you might think, depending on which of the two major categories they fall into — prescription and non-prescription, the latter of which is generally divided into synthetic and natural compounds.

Non-Prescription Nootropics


The status of synthetic nootropics as non-prescription drugs may depend on the country you’re in. One of the main categories of over-the-counter synthetic nootropics is racetams, with  piracetam (a derivative of gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA) being the most popular. Racetams’ activity on key neurotransmitters glutamate and acetylcholine may improve memory in people with brain trauma and/or age-related cognitive decline. [1] Piracetam may improve cognitive performance in healthy individuals, particularly older adults. [2,3]

Natural Nootropics

There’s hardly anyone who hasn’t at least tried them — tea and coffee. As you probably know by now, these magic potions improve our overall cognitive functions, or even enable them in the first place in the morning. Caffeine is believed to stimulate the central nervous system by acting as an antagonist of the receptor of adenosine, which is a neurotransmitter that slows down neurons’ activity. [4] Other natural nootropics include tobacco, Gingko biloba, Panax ginseng, guarana, and Rhodiola rosea, or Arctic root, and turmeric. [5,6]

Cannabidiol, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and other cannabinoids have entered the discussion as potential nootropics. CBD may increase blood flow to areas of the brain associated with memory and decision-making. Cannabinoids may mitigate fearful/traumatic memories and reduce anxiety prior to performance. [7] It’s been suggested that the endocannabinoid system is linked to overall mind-body health. Cannabis has also been explored as a modulator of creativity.

These days, when one searches for nootropics, some of the most popular options are medicinal mushrooms such as lion’s mane [8], cordyceps, or chaga [9]. Often, blends of all three, and several other mushrooms are sold, such as those products created by legendary mycologist, Paul Stamets.

Psychedelic mushrooms are also nootropics. Stamets has said that a product containing psilocybin, lion’s mane, and niacin could provide “the next quantum leap in human consciousness.” A 2018 study provided “quantitative support” regarding cognitive-performance enhancements and creativity brought about through microdosing psychedelic mushrooms. [10]


  1. Onaolapo AY, Obelawo AY, Onaolapo OJ. Brain ageing, cognition, and diet: a review of the emerging roles of food-based nootropics in mitigating age-related memory decline. Curr Aging Sci. 2019;12(1):2-14. [Impact Factor: N/A; Times Cited: 1]
  2. He Z, Liao Y, Zheng M, Zeng FD, Guo LJ. Piracetam improves cognitive deficits caused by chronic cerebral hypoperfusion in rats. Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2008;28(4):613-627. [Impact Factor: 3.644; Times Cited: 36]
  3. Bartus RT, Dean RL 3rd, Sherman KA, Friedman E, Beer B. Profound effects of combining choline and piracetam on memory enhancement and cholinergic function in aged rats. Neurobiol Aging. 1981;2(2):105-111. [Impact Factor: 4.347; Times Cited: 140]
  4. Ribeiro JA, Sebastião AM. Caffeine and adenosine. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20 Suppl 1:S3-S15. [Impact Factor: 3.909; Times Cited: 278]
  5. Suliman NA, Mat Taib CN, Mohd Moklas MA, Adenan MI, Hidayat Baharuldin MT, Basir R. Establishing Natural Nootropics: Recent Molecular Enhancement Influenced by Natural Nootropic. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2016;2016:4391375. [Impact Factor: 2.064; Times Cited: 17]
  6. Jones, R. Morris, K. Nutt, D. Cognition Enhancers. Foresight Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs project report.
  7. Maroon J, Bost J. Review of the neurological benefits of phytocannabinoids. Surg Neurol Int. 2018;9:91. [Impact Factor: 0.97; Times Cited: 33]
  8. Mori K, Inatomi S, Ouchi K, Azumi Y, Tuchida T. Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Phytother Res. 2009;23(3):367-372. [Impact Factor: 4.087; Times Cited: 116]
  9. Giridharan VV, Thandavarayan RA, Konishi T. Amelioration of scopolamine induced cognitive dysfunction and oxidative stress by Inonotus obliquus – a medicinal mushroom. Food Funct. 2011;2(6):320-327. [Impact Factor: 4.171; Times Cited: 27]
  10. Prochazkova L, Lippelt DP, Colzato LS, Kuchar M, Sjoerds Z, Hommel B. Exploring the effect of microdosing psychedelics on creativity in an open-label natural setting. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2018;235(12):3401-3413. [Impact Factor: 3.130; Times Cited: 27]

Image Credits: geralt / Pixabay

About the author

Petar Petrov

Petar is a freelance writer and copywriter, covering culture, art, society, and anything in-between that makes for a nice story. And as it so happens, cannabis is a great element to add to each of those conversations.

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