A quick fix that can elevate the average Joe to Albert Einstein-levels of intelligence is a staple of sci-fi (see: Limitless, Flowers for Algernon). However, proponents of nootropics — controversial “smart drugs” that can take the form of pills or supplements — claim such abilities are already within our grasp.
According to a report from Research and Markets, the nootropics industry was worth $1.3 billion in 2015, and by 2024, it will grow to $6 billion. Early adopters include Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and students at ivy league universities, who say the various “stacks” of pill and supplements give them a competitive edge.
Geoff Woo is CEO of HVMN, a company that sells nootropic products. He told Futurism that each specific nootropic is designed to enhance or support certain aspects of cognition, such as reaction time, working memory, and mental stamina, and that they do so in various ways. For example, some up-regulate factors that control neuron growth while others may increase the availability of substrates necessary for brain function.
While Woo and others say available nootropics can have the desired effect, the scientific community is largely skeptical of their efficacy and safety.
In 2016, physicians at a meeting of the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a policy discouraging physicians from prescribing drugs for the purpose of improved cognition, citing the potential for misuse and adverse consequences. They also noted the limited amount of information available on the dozens of nootropics that claim to improve cognitive performance.
While it’s true that trials of many of today’s most commonly used non-prescriptions nootropics either don’t support claims about the drug or aren’t robust enough to generate any definitive conclusions, is it beyond the realm of possibility that a pill could boost our cognitive abilities? Could it be that we just have to develop one?
Based on the growing interest in nootropics, it’s clear that the demand for such a drug exists. However, as Oxford researchers Ruairidh Battleday and Anna-Katherine Brem told Business Insider, researchers have trouble attracting the funding needed for the robust studies that could lead to a nootropic breakthrough because the drugs don’t actually address any health issues.
However, research conducted by a team lead by Todd Lencz, professor of psychiatry and molecular medicine at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, could inadvertently help solve that problem.
In the hunt for genetic information that could lead to the development of drugs to treat cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, Lencz’s international team of 65 scientists gleaned new insights into the molecular biology of the brain that influences cognitive ability. The results of their study have been published in Cell Reports.
As Lencz told Futurism, drugs that either block or enhance the activity of specific ion channels identified by his team could hypothetically affect cognitive performance. He believes this research could change lives, but perhaps not the lives people looking for a cognitive boost before their next board meeting or midterm.
“It is important to emphasize that our target is enhancing cognitive ability in patients with neurocognitive disorders. If our research is successful over the long-term, we might be able to help millions of such patients in the decades to come,” said Lencz. “However, it is unlikely that these approaches will have a noticeable effect on the daily lives of healthy people, at least in the foreseeable future.”
Still, Lencz’s study is built on sound peer-reviewed science using a large sample size of healthy individuals and intended or not, it could have implications in the field of nootropics. Not only could this research, and that of others focused on cognitive disorders, help develop treatments for serious medical conditions, it could also provide the foundation for the pill that one day lets us max out our cognitive potential.