The History of Nootropics: How Nootropics Evolved

Updated on January 9, 2023
 by — reviewed by Jason Williams, PhD (Contributor: George Collins / Editor: Yoko Hill)

Are you curious about the history of nootropics?

In this article, we'll take a look at the fascinating history of nootropics and how they have evolved over time.

Overview of the History of Nootropics

Nootropics, or cognitive enhancers, have a long and fascinating history. While modern nootropics are relatively new, their use dates back centuries to ancient civilizations. Traditionally, herbs and plant extracts were used to enhance cognitive abilities, although the efficacy of these methods was not well understood. In the early 20th century, research into brain enhancing pharmaceuticals began to gain momentum as scientists and physicians sought to understand the science behind mental enhancement.

nootropics history

By the 1960s and 1970s, the development and popularization of piracetam had begun, along with an increased interest in the potential benefits of cognitive enhancers among scientists and researchers. In the 1990s and 2000s, nootropics grew in popularity among college students, entrepreneurs, and professionals seeking to improve their mental capabilities. This has led to an expansion in availability of nootropic supplements on the market and an increase in research into their effects.

Pre-1960s

The history of nootropics can be traced back to ancient times, when herbs and plant extracts were used to enhance cognitive abilities. In the early 20th century, pharmaceutical researchers began to explore the potential of brain enhancing drugs, and in the 1960s Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea created the first nootropic, piracetam.

From there, interest in nootropics among scientists and researchers grew, resulting in the increasing popularity of these brain-enhancing compounds among college students, entrepreneurs, and professionals.

Ancient Uses of Herbs and Plant Extracts for Cognitive Enhancement

Ancient civilizations have long used herbs and plant extracts for various medicinal purposes, including cognitive enhancement. Traditional medicine and medicinal plants were frequently used in urban settings as alternatives to daily health care and self-medication. Rhodiola rosea L. is one such example. The roots of this plant were used as a traditional medicine for its positive mental health effects on fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression. Vikings even used the herb to enhance their physical strength and endurance.

In addition, more than forty herbal remedies with cholinesterase inhibitory, anti-inflammatory, or antioxidant activities have been identified with potential nootropic properties. Additionally, Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine have long advocated the use of natural medicines for the treatment of dementia. This historical evidence suggests that herbs and plant extracts have been used for centuries for cognitive enhancement.

Early 20th Century Research on Brain Enhancing Pharmaceuticals

The early twentieth century saw an increase in research on drugs that could enhance brain function. Psychotomimetic drugs, such as mescaline, were developed in the 1920s and 1930s to understand the effects of psychosis in healthy individuals. This allowed scientists to begin uniting the history of drug use for enhancement and treatment purposes. The notion that existing drugs might be able to enhance cognition in healthy individuals dates back to the 1920s, but the effects were often ambiguous and inconclusive.

In the 1960s, Giurgea created and advocated for the acceptance of a distinct category of cognitive enhancing drugs, which he coined “nootropics”. This gave rise to what is now known as “smart drugs”, “neuroenhancers”, or even “Viagra for the brain”. The goal of this paper is to address cognitive enhancement by resorting to substances, especially those within the category of nootropics.

1960s - 1980s

In the 1960s and 70s, nootropics development followed the same trajectory as outlined in the previous decades. The USSR continued their research into nootropics, while Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, the man credited with inventing nootropics, began to imagine the development of more advanced nootropic molecules. In 1972, he first coined the term “nootropic” and defined it as “a drug or supplement that enhances cognition, memory, and executive functions.” This definition opened up new possibilities for cognitive enhancement and spurred further research into its potential applications. With the increased interest in nootropics among scientists and researchers, the 1980s saw a renewed effort to explore their potential benefits.

Development and Popularization of Piracetam

In the early 1960s, a Romanian chemist and psychologist named Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea synthesized a drug called piracetam. Initially developed to treat motion sickness, piracetam was quick to demonstrate cognitive enhancing abilities and quickly gained popularity among scientists and researchers. Soon after, Dr. Giurgea coined the term “nootropic” (from the Greek ‘nous’ meaning ‘mind’ and ‘trepein’ meaning ‘turning/bending’) which became the name for these substances that were claimed to enhance cognitive functioning.

Piracetam was soon being prescribed to treat myoclonus, a neurological disorder characterized by muscle spasms and twitches, as well as other cognitive conditions such as senile dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Though there was still limited scientific knowledge on the long-term effects of piracetam, its increasing popularity among those who sought improved mental performance sparked a trend that would later be known as smart drugs or nootropics.

Increasing Interest in Cognitive Enhancement Among Scientists and Researchers

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, scientists and researchers began to take an increased interest in the potential of cognitive enhancement through pharmaceuticals. The development of dihydroergotoxine, a drug which increased neuronal metabolism, and piracetam, synthesized by Romanian chemist and psychologist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, spurred research into cognitive enhancement through nootropic drugs. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the idea of cognitive enhancement through nootropics began to gain traction amongst scientists and researchers.

This paved the way for further research into the potential benefits of nootropics, such as their ability to improve ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ cognition, as well as their effects on emotion recognition and task-related motivation. Soon after, in the early 1970s, a group of scientists and researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a vision for creating an enhanced soldier through hypodermic jet injection guns. This increased interest in cognitive enhancement amongst scientists and researchers would eventually lead to the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), which are direct communication pathways between the brain and machines.

1990s - Present Day

Since the 1990s, nootropics have seen an increase in popularity among college students, entrepreneurs, and professionals. The expansion of availability and variety of nootropic supplements on the market has created an influx of options for those looking to explore the potential benefits of cognitive enhancement. The increased use and research into these substances has led to a better understanding of their effects on the brain.

To date, there is still much debate surrounding the long-term safety and efficacy of nootropics, but the hope is that future research will continue to shed light on this topic.

Growing Popularity of Nootropics Among College Students, Entrepreneurs, and Professionals

Nootropics have been gaining increasing attention over the last two decades, as more and more college students, entrepreneurs, and professionals have become interested in using these supplements to enhance their cognitive abilities. Reports in the popular press suggest that smart drugs or cognitive enhancers are becoming increasingly popular among university students, while a large number of professionals are also turning to nootropics to improve their focus and productivity.

Rising demand for brain boosters and smart drugs is anticipated to fuel market growth, with the number of nootropic supplements on the market increasing significantly. Although currently-available nootropics offer only modest improvements in terms of cognitive performance, more effective compounds are likely to be developed in the future.

Expansion in Availability and Variety of Nootropic Supplements Available on the Market

The growth of the nootropic market in the late 1990s and 2000s brought with it an increased availability of nootropic supplements. Along with the emergence of online retail stores, individuals began to have access to a wide variety of nootropic supplements, ranging from herbal extracts to synthetic compounds.

It is expected that the market for nootropics will expand at a CAGR of 15.0% from 2023 to 2028, indicating a bright future for nootropics and their potential to help individuals enhance their cognitive abilities.

Increased Use and Research into Potential Benefits of Nootropics

Reports in the popular press suggest that smart drugs, such as methylphenidate, modafinil and piracetam, are increasingly being used by people of all ages to improve memory, focus and cognitive functions. Natural nootropics such as herbs and plant extracts also act as vasodilators against the small arteries, aiding in promoting brain function with a simultaneous improvement in brain health.

Furthermore, the drug modafinil was developed to treat narcolepsy (excessive sleeping) but is widely used off-label as a smart drug to promote cognitive functioning. Consequently, research into the potential benefits of nootropics has seen an increase in recent years and studies have been conducted on their effects on cerebral blood flow and neurotransmission. Moving forward with research into this area may provide further understanding of the potential benefits of nootropics.

Summary of Major Milestones in the History of Nootropics

The history of nootropics has seen a number of major milestones over the years that have contributed to the development of this field. From ancient uses of herbs and plant extracts for cognitive enhancement, to the development and popularization of Piracetam in the 1960s, and the emergence of the term "nootropic" in the 1970s, this history is filled with important developments. The 1990s saw a growing popularity of nootropics among college students, entrepreneurs, and professionals, as well as an expansion in the availability and variety of nootropic supplements on the market.

In recent decades, there has been an increase in both use and research into potential benefits of nootropics. In summary, major milestones in the history of nootropics include ancient uses of herbs and plant extracts for cognitive enhancement, the development and popularization of Piracetam in the 1960s, emergence of the term “nootropic” in the 1970s, growing popularity among college students, entrepreneurs, and professionals in the 1990s, expansion in availability and variety on the market, and increased use and research into potential benefits.

Considerations for Moving Forward with Future Research

As cognitive enhancers are becoming increasingly popular, researchers are now turning their attention to the potential risks associated with their use. Long-term safety is an important consideration when evaluating cognitive enhancers, as some may have detrimental effects on the brain and body when used for prolonged periods of time.

Furthermore, the use of these substances for non-medical purposes needs to be carefully monitored and regulated to ensure that they are not misused or abused. It is also important to consider the ethical implications of using cognitive enhancers, as it may lead to unfair advantages in academic or professional settings.

Finally, more research is needed into the long-term effects of cognitive enhancers, as well as their potential to cause addiction or other forms of harm. Moving forward, it is essential that we approach this emerging field with caution and a sense of responsibility.

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