Sometimes called smart drugs, brain boosters, or memory-enhancing drugs, the term "nootropics" was coined by scientist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, who developed the compound piracetam as a brain enhancer, according to The Atlantic. The word is derived from the Greek noo, meaning mind, and trope, which means "change" in French. In essence, all nootropics aim to change your mind by enhancing functions like memory or attention.
And yet when enthusiasts share their vision of our neuroenhanced future it can sound dystopian. Zack Lynch, of NeuroInsights, gave me a rationale for smart pills that I found particularly grim. "If you're a 55-year-old in Boston, you have to compete with a 26-year-old from Mumbai now, and those kinds of pressures are only going to grow," he began. Countries other than the US might tend to be a little looser with their regulations and offer approval of new cognitive enhancers first. "And if you're a company that's got 47 offices worldwide, and all of a sudden your Singapore office is using cognitive enablers, and you're saying to Congress: 'I'm moving all my financial operations to Singapore and Taiwan, because it's legal to use those there', you bet that Congress is going to say: 'Well, OK.' It will be a moot question then.
As a student Seltzer used both Adderall and piracetam. Now, after a hiatus of several years, he has recently resumed taking neuroenhancers. In addition to piracetam, he took a stack of supplements that he thought helped his brain to function: fish oils, five antioxidants, a product called ChocoMind and a number of others, all available at the health-food store. He was thinking about adding modafinil, but hadn't yet. For breakfast every morning he concocted a slurry of oatmeal, berries, soy milk, pomegranate juice, flaxseed, almond meal, raw eggs and protein powder. The goal behind the recipe was efficiency: to rely on "one goop you could eat or drink that would have everything you need nutritionally for your brain and body. I wanted to be able to keep it down - that was it." (He told me this in the kitchen of his apartment; he lives with a roommate, who walked in while we were talking, listened perplexedly for a moment, then put a frozen pizza in the oven.)
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics. Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.