By Dr. Shawn Watson, CEO, and co-founder of Senescence Life Sciences
The use and definition of nootropics – or more commonly known as “smart drugs” – has been much debated since its conception in the 1970s. Coined by Dr. Cornelui Giugea, who was testing a synthetic drug called piracetam, nootropic actually means to “bend the mind”. Not only did he foresee these compounds as mental enhancers but he also hoped they would have protective properties for our brains.
Today, ‘nootropic’ is an extremely broad term used to describe a product or drug that can contain an array of compounds, chemicals and active ingredients, both natural and synthetic. Many nootropics on the market can even contain unclassified, exotic or pharmaceutical-grade ingredients. Prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil, typically used for the management of ADHD and narcolepsy, are among some of the nootropics people are regularly using to enhance their mental stamina and energy.
Moreover, in practice, the idea of long-term protection has disappeared as companies instead focus almost exclusively on stimulant based products with temporary boosting effects. When we stop taking these products and the effects begin to wear off we either experience a ‘crash’ in our energy levels, or else are forced to consume more of the product in order to delay the crash and prolong the temporary boost. Not only can this be detrimental to your health as a consumer, it also costs you more money.
Popular among students, stressed-out entrepreneurs and executives searching for ways to stay ahead of the game, the nootropic category is a bit of a science fiction marvel, whose uptake has recently exploded in popularity. Despite the widespread use of nootropics, however, scientists and physicians still have yet to reach a consensus as to whether or not healthy individuals should be regularly consuming them over the long-term.
Like many other vitamins and supplements in this category, nootropics bypass many of the regulations requiring companies to prove safety and efficacy. This is a major reason why we have yet to see any long-term clinical trials looking at nootropics. Moreover, while the definition includes products designed to protect the brain, in reality, the clear majority of companies are simply selling stimulants that have no protective properties.
While stimulants themselves can be a great benefit in certain situations (I remember taking a few energy drinks for those all-night study sessions back in university), I question continuous, long-term use. As a neuroscientist, there are many products in this category that immediately make me hesitate – particularly those products that claim to alter our neurotransmitter levels, such as GABA and Acetylcholine, which are extremely important compounds that are tightly regulated within the brain.
It goes without saying that our brains are incredibly complex, and we have certain chemical equilibriums unique to us all that develop during our childhood and early adult years. Neurotransmitter levels are one of these key equilibriums. When you start to play with this system during its development, or even as an adult, the effects can be lasting and sometimes even dangerous. Too much stimulation can cause something called ‘excitotoxic injury’, which literally means your brain cells work themselves to death, and I accidentally killed many cells this way in the lab while I was studying them.
Even low dose neurotransmitter-based stimulation is a concern, as our cells may try to compensate for the added level of stimulation in an attempt to return to their natural state. One of the ways our brain cells do this is through the internalization of receptors, which serves to ‘dull’ excessive signals and/or stimulation. Effects like this are well documented and are one of the biological underpinnings as to why opioids (painkillers) lose their effectiveness over time. This effect is lasting and would likely continue for a period, even after someone has stopped taking the stimulant.
Clinically, we also know that excessive manipulation of neurotransmitter systems can have other negative consequences, including serotonin syndrome, depression, anxiety and stimulant psychosis. Some compounds can also cause dependency and withdrawal symptoms.
Of even more concern is the number of young adults looking to these stimulants to help them in school – some at the behest of their parents. Neuronal activity and neurotransmitter control is key to brain development and a process called ‘synaptic pruning’ that occurs as our brains develop. Many people don’t realize it but our brains don’t reach maturity until our early twenties, which means that any alteration to our brains’ natural chemical equilibrium before they reach maturity could have developmental consequences.
Of course, not all stimulants are bad and I don’t want to scare people away from having a coffee tomorrow morning (I’m drinking a latte right now). However, there’s an important difference between a concentrated caffeine pill and a cup of coffee – one is man-made, and the other is more natural. Deaths related to caffeine pill overdoses, unfortunately, can happen, and trips to the emergency room from excessive energy drink consumption have risen from fewer than 2,000 in 2005 to over 20,000 in 2011.
In my mind, these numbers suggest a worrisome trend, as people try to ‘hack’ their biology without understanding the potential consequences.
All of this is part of the reason why we at Senescence Life Sciences decided to launch a nutraceutical product line, in addition to our pharmaceutical research. We felt that there was a need for quality, natural products designed by neuroscientists that would not only provide a natural, lasting boost in mental energy but also nutrients that have been clinically proven to protect the brain from damage and toxin build up.
Our approach follows a simple premise – in the long run, is it better to continually put nitro into a car engine for a temporary boost in power? Or to instead make sure the engine is always properly maintained, cleaned and running at peak performance? When applied to your brain, the answer seems obvious.
Instead of looking for ways to ‘hack’ our brains for a temporary performance boost, we should instead find ways to make sure our brains are always running at their best and within the confines of their natural chemical balance. This not only ensures healthier, safer and more natural brain aging but also allows our brains to perform at a higher level for longer.
How Much Caffeine Before I End Up in the E.R. www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/how-much-caffeine-before-i-end-up-in-the-er/267129/. Accessed July 2017.
Parents of teenager, 18, killed by caffeine overdose days before graduation call for ban on 'lethal' dietary supplement. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2867551/Dead-teens-parents-seek-ban-caffeine-powder.html. Accessed July 2017.
Synaptic pruning. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synaptic_pruning. Accessed July 2017.
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