Nootropics have been attracting increasing consumer interest as people seek to perform better at work and school, but one academic has voiced concerns.
Sarah Benson, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Swinburne University’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology, has been researching nootropics — cognitive enhancers meant to improve concentration, alertness and memory.
Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia, she said: “The mechanisms of action and implications are different for different substances. Typically, enhancers work by increasing blood flow to the brain, but may also alter neurochemicals or stimulate nerve growth.
“When used correctly, these products tend not to have negative side effects. However, people may ‘stack’ cognitive enhancers — that is, combine several nootropics that are taken together. These combinations are usually not researched, and the effects on health are not known.”
'Natural' does not mean 'safe'
Claims that certain nootropic supplements are ‘natural’ are common as they tend to be attractive to buyers, though this does not necessarily mean they are safe to consume.
Nootropics can come in the form of natural substances, like caffeine, Bacopa monnieri, curcumin, ginkgo biloba, and Siberian ginseng, which are often used to develop nootropic supplements and drugs.
Benson said that while there was “compelling evidence” from clinical trials showing that certain nutraceuticals were indeed able to enhance cognitive function, it was imperative to note that their efficacy could differ depending on the standardisation and compositions of the ingredients used.
Additionally, the nootropics that have been clinically tested may not be identical to that of a purchased product.
The vast difference in the level of regulation nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals are subject to is also a factor. While ‘natural’ nootropics may have subtler effects than nootropic drugs, the former are also not as heavily regulated as the latter, leaving more room for error in usage.
The level of usage among different demographics is also worth considering. Presently, nootropic use in Australia is relatively low, with about 5% to 10% of the population taking such products.
However, usage among students in the country is much higher than 10%. Benson had previously said that students typically perceived this to be common practice among their peers, making them more open to taking nootropics themselves.
She had also said the use of nootropics in Australia would increase, following the country’s habit of being two years behind trends in the US, where nootropic use has already become popular.
Nuance, ethics, and caution
Despite the positive effects many nootropic users have seen, Benson advised against the overestimation of their potential.
She told NutraIngredients-Asia: “They cannot directly increase intelligence, but rather, enhance aspects of cognition resulting in more effective brain functioning — for example, improved ability to concentrate for a long period of time, or increased motivation to complete a boring task.
“The use of cognitive enhancers may also result in side effects such as headaches, restlessness, chest pains, and increased blood pressure, while the use of some enhancers may result in tolerance, meaning that the body adapts to the substances, and more is needed to produce results.
She also cautioned users and potential users not to indiscriminately assume all nootropic products had been researched and tested sufficiently prior to being sold.
“The nutraceutical industry is worth billions of dollars and has enormous consumer interest. While the efficacy of some products are backed by science, many products lack the empirical evidence suggesting that they do in fact work.”
At the same time, Benson acknowledged that there was a “correct way” to go about researching and using nootropics that could lead to positive progress in the sector, but added that it had to be tempered with extreme caution and not be rushed.
“Advancements in medicine and technology have provided growing opportunities to improve brain function. If used positively, we could dramatically develop humans to enhance productivity, creativity, and even find a way to successfully reduce cognitive impairments to the ageing brain.
“However, there are ethical issues that need to be considered. For example, individuals must choose whether or not to use cognitive enhancers. As such, is it fair for non-users to work and study alongside users, and will this result in the coercion to use?
“Will parents encourage their children to use enhancers, and how will this affect their developing brain and the pressure on them to achieve?
“Ethical issues such as these, as well as practical issues concerning safety, must be considered to ensure that the future of cognitive enhancers is beneficial.”