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Larry Schwartz – Can a Pill Make You Smarter? The Brave New World of Smart Drugs

In the 2011 movie Limitless, our loser-turned-hero Bradley Cooper takes a pill, writes a novel in a few days, becomes an investment tycoon, and performs other tricks of mental derring-do. And of course at the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), he gets the girl. If only such a pill really existed.

Well, it may. Sort of. Welcome to the world of nootropics, or smart drugs. Nootropics (derived from Greek words that mean to bend the mind) are categories of drugs, supplements and other additives and stimulants that enhance memory, cognitive function and even intelligence. For thousands of years, humankind has sought ways to improve the mind, and many believe that modern science is on the cusp of achieving that goal, albeit with many caveats.

The brain, as you might expect, is a complicated and metabolically ravenous organ. There’s a lot going on up there, and when all processes are clicking as they should, the body and mind are generally alert and optimally functioning. When the brain metabolism is off, though, both mind and body suffer. That’s where smart drugs come in. The goal behind them is to tweak the brain metabolism and keep the neurons firing in a focused way. For instance, there is a neurotransmitter in the brain called acetylcholine [3], which is the main agent in memory formation. Nootropic proponents theorize that if we enhance the acetycholine, we can enhance memory function. The abilities to reason, to plan, to focus and to avoid acting on impulse are some of the higher functions of the brain that nootropics target.

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