The rise of “smart drugs”—known as nootropics— actually started much earlier than may be expected. The first synthetic nootropic drug was developed in the 1960s by Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea to treat people suffering from motion sickness. This gave rise to piracetam, which was then demonstrated to benefit mental performance, information processing, and memory consolidation. While these smart drugs became popular during the 70s, the history of nootropics goes back even further.1
The Early History of Nootropics
When most people talk about nootropics, they are referring to synthetic drugs that can help improve brain function. Additionally, these nootropics are typically marked by a relative absence of side effects in comparison to other drugs. 2
However, it’s important to note that nootropics also refer to the extracts of certain plants that can help enhance learning acquisition, improve disruptive mental conditions, and enhance resistance against brain injuries. As such, ancient humans may have used plants such as Gingko biloba and coca leaves without knowing that they were natural nootropics. Evidence for use of nootropics during ancient times dates back as far as 10,000 years ago.
It’s unclear how our ancestors were able to discover the potential of plants to influence mood and cognition. One thing is for sure, though: Our ancient ancestors realized that there are plants that promote cognitive changes.
Most nootropic herbs were chewed or brewed in early civilizations. For instance, the ancient Chinese book The Classic of Tea written by Lu Yu during the Tang Dynasty period noted that tea can bring about both physical and metaphysical harmony.
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The book also notes that there is a spiritual element to drinking tea as it has the ability to reduce stress and improve cognition. The ancient Chinese were also the first to discover the effects of Gingko biloba as a memory enhancer. In fact, this plant was cultivated in China for its medicinal purposes.3
Aside from the ancient Chinese, the history of nootropics also has roots in ancient India. Old segments of Sanskrit literature noted the use of Ayurvedic nootropics, also called Medhya Rasayanas. Herbs such as Bacopa monnieri, ashwagandha, and Celastrus paniculatas were identified early on as plants that can help promote intelligence. In ancient India, Bacopa monnieri was first used to sharpen the mind and was rumored to be used by ancient scholars in order to memorize long scriptures.
The Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment between the 16th and 17th centuries was also an age of exploration. This paved the way for nootropic ingredients to be introduced to many European nations.
For example, the introduction of coffee to Europe was an important moment in the history of nootropics. Coffee caused a stir because the caffeine (still unknown during this time) led to an improved state of mind and better cognitive function in many people. In fact, the effects of coffee on many people resulted in this ever-popular drink being dubbed “Satan’s drink” until the Pope gave it a try and changed his mind about the evil inside the coffee beans: He blessed it to make coffee-drinking “safe” for the public.
19th Century Nootropics
The history of nootropics continues with the late 19th century, which was also an age of innovation and early research. During this time, early pharmaceuticals were developed further. For example, John Pemberton’s Coca-Cola was initially sold as coca wine as a substitute for morphine addiction. However, upon the discovery that cocaine is highly addictive and dangerous, the company removed it from the drink. What remains is sugar and a natural nootropic: caffeine.4
The Birth of Modern Nootropics
Technically speaking, 1960 marked the true birth of nootropics. The name comes from the word “noos,” meaning mind, and “tropein,” meaning to bend or toward. The first nootropic drug, piracetam, was invented in a Belgian lab in 1964 by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea.
It was the first brain-enhancing drug ever created in the laboratory that had been tested for safety.5 Piracetam also became the precursor of many other smart drugs such as vinpocetine and huperzine-A.
Over the course of the 20th century, the study of nootropics continued to grow. Aside from nootropics such as aniracetam, oxiracetam, nefiracetam, pikamilon, and phenibut, there was also a popular emergence in the interest of natural nootropics known as adaptogens that assist the body in adapting to different types of stress. Examples of nootropics that have adaptogenic effects include Rhodiola rosea, Panax ginseng, and Eleuthero.6
The Boom of the Industry
The birth of modern nootropics resulted in extensive studies on this new type of drug. Fast forward to today, and nootropics have become widely-accepted just like other types of supplements. There is also growing financial support for the research and manufacture of nootropics.
The popularity of nootropics has garnered a lot of interest in both scientific communities and popular culture. Several books and movies have also featured nootropics, thus feeding even more to the ever-rising nootropic culture. The history of nootropics has grown from humble beginnings to a major industry.
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