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Smart Drugs and Nootropics... What's the Difference?

Smart Drugs and Nootropics... What's the Difference?

A wave of publicity has brought the topic of cognitive enhancement into everyday conversation. The idea that the key to better functioning brains can be found in some pills is certainly a tantalizing notion. The two big names in cognitive enhancement right now are Nootropics and Smart Drugs. What are the differences and why should you care? In a sea of options and even more opinions, how do you differentiate what works, what is safe, and what you should actually try? We aim to clarify these questions and more.

Cognitive enhancers are broadly defined as consumable agents that promote or enhance some aspect of cognition. This list can be fairly large. Expanding from the caffeine in your morning coffee, to the L-Theanine in your afternoon tea, along with an assortment of natural herbs and vitamins. With thousands of potential cognitive enhancers to sort through and just as many reasons to take them, you're forgiven for being a little confused. So while the terms Nootropic and Smart Drug are frequently lumped together by users and the media alike, there are crucial differences between them. If you are seeking to improve your mental health or cognitive performance through supplementation, then it is imperative to see through misconceptions and make informed decisions about your brain health.

Cognitive enhancement can be viewed as an augmentation of the brain's functional capacities, including areas affecting attention, learning, memory, problem-solving, planning, reasoning, logic, judgment, comprehension, interpretation, creativity....

Smart Drugs are pharmaceuticals prescribed for treating cognitive impairments and have ulterior uses as cognitive enhancers.

Nootropics are any consumable substances that serve to neurochemically enhance different forms of cognition while promoting neuroprotection.


Smart drugs are typically prescription medications that were originally developed with the intention to be treat certain diseases, often times associated with brain trauma or other neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Somewhere along the way, healthy users started to take these smart drugs in an effort to enhance their cognition. Many claim that these drugs boost their performance, provide laser focus, and give them the ability to better manage their workload. The two most common categories of Smart Drugs are stimulants commonly developed for the treatment of ADHD (Adderall, Dexedrine, Ritalin, and Vyvanse), and wakefulness-promoting agents that are often prescribed to patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and sleeping disorders (Modafinil and Nuvigil). Although off-label use of prescription drugs obtain from overseas is illegal, prescription smart drug use has become rampant and continues to grow in popularity in both the United States and EU.

Adderall, in particular, has generated a lot of buzz as of late, becoming increasingly more prevalent on college campuses and in workplaces. The fact that these drugs increase concentration and focus has made them popular study aids, a practice of which has led to the term "academic doping." In fact, one study reports that as many as 30% of students admit to the non-medical use of prescription stimulants during their collegiate careers [1]. Modafinil, a relative newcomer to the smart drug world has also garnered plenty of attention and is making waves across media channels. As much as 90% of Modafinil is used by healthy individuals [2], becoming a norm from Wall Street to the basements of Silicon Valley.  

Prescription Smart Drugs may provide a temporary sense of intense productivity and heightened performance, but it can come at a cost. The misuse of the drugs is associated with an array potential risks and side effects:
  • psychosis [3]
  • myocardial infarction [3] [4]
  • cardiomyopathy [3]
  • insomnia [5]
  • headaches [5]
  • nausea [5]
  • nervousness [5]
  • hypertension[5]
  • addiction [5]
  • little known about long-term risks [3]


Nootropic is an umbrella term used to classify any consumable agent that serves to both enhance forms of cognitive function as well as promote neuroprotection or optimize brain health. Nootropics are generally over-the-counter compounds, such as vitamins, herbs, and other natural or synthetic supplements. A key distinction from Smart Drugs is that Nootropics are not recommended to treat ailments or disease, but are primarily suggested to healthy people that are looking to safely improve health or cognitive performance.

The term Nootropic was coined in 1972 by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, 8 years after his team created the first synthesized Nootropic, 2-(2-oxopyrrolidin-1-yl) acetamide better known as piracetam [6]. Nootropics however have been in use for centuries prior under countless other names. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic herbs contribute to many Nootropic stacks used today. Nootropics are much more than just a way to increase performance or serve as a competitive edge. Their benefits extend beyond performance, impacting areas of cognition like mood, sleep, sex, creativity, memory, and stress and they have also been linked to short term and long term health [7].  


Modern AlkaMe alleviates much of the complexity and uncertainty in finding Nootropics. We've spent the better part of our careers and the first entire year of Modern AlkaMe working towards understanding the effects of Nootropics on healthy individuals. We clear out compounds with safety concerns or insufficient research and tirelessly scrutinize for efficacious ones. We've compounded our research with user testing to create a personalized Nootropic solution like none other. If you are new to Nootropics, our free assessment is the best first step available to help you discover the ideal Nootropics for you. Feedback from experienced Nootropic users is more than welcome, as we are building a new Nootropic platform to help improve your stacks over time.