Piracetam has been around since the 1960’s and is regarded as a pioneer “smart drug.” It enjoys a popular, international following, its record as a treatment for cognitive disorders is impressive, and scientific exams haven’t flagged any dangerous side effects. But is Piracetam truly the intelligence booster many of us eagerly want?
Despite decades of worldwide drug research the field of cognitive enhancement remains unknown amongst the general public and conspicuously absent in consideration of public health policy. Mention the word ‘nootropic’ to the average person on the street in the developed world and the likely response is a blank look with perhaps a query about tropical fruit. Comparatively small numbers of people are aware of nootropic substances or of their growing usage.
The mildest member of the ‘Racetam’ family, Piracetam is often been billed as a ‘beginners drug’ for nootropics due to its safety. This explains its prevalence amongst college students seeking an extra boost for exams, as well as experimenters looking for an easy opening into this expanding market.
As a detoxifying agent Piracetam is used to treat the damaging effects of alcoholism by enhancing oxygen utilization in the brain, which rapidly degenerates during alcohol consumption. It also impedes the destruction of neurons in the hippocampus during the period immediately following alcohol withdrawal. Piracetam also counteracts the cumulative effects of other toxic substances by preventing the hypoxia that occurs as a result of tobacco smoke and reversing the short term memory loss associated with marijuana usage.
Evidence exists for its use as a metabolism booster. Its hypoxia-preventing qualities can improve athletic performance at high-altitudes and substantially reduce fatigue, and prolong the lives of rats and mice suffering from severe hypoxia.
Piracetam also protects the cardiovascular system by improving blood circulation to the brain, and may thereby alleviate cerebral insufficiency. It is believed to counteract the effects of Atherosclerosis and Raynaud’s disease, again by preventing hypoxia. Due to its enhancement of oxygen functioning in the brain, Piracetam can improve the after-care for strokes, and serve as long-term treatment for clotting, coagulation, and vasospastic disorders such as Deep-Vein Thrombosis.
Perhaps more importantly, it offers a host of positive effects for the nervous system. It’s been effective in treating cognitive disorders of cerebro-vascular and traumatic origins, although its superior at lowering depression and anxiety than it is at improving memory. Clinical studies have demonstrated Piracetam’s benefits in treating neuro-diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia by improving alertness and memory function, while reducing confusion and alleviating paranoia. An examination by the UK’s National Health Service concluded that:
‘the results of this analysis provide compelling evidence for the global efficacy of Piracetam in a diverse group of older people with cognitive impairments.’
This nootropic has even been used to improve the hearing of persons afflicted with sudden deafness and hearing loss, alleviate the learning disorders associated with attention deficit disorder, and to mitigate the effects of some sleep disorders. There are suggestions that for some autistic conditions the drug has been used to great effect in improving motor development, mental development, speech, emotional development, scholastic achievement and EEG, particularly in Down’s syndrome patients. It may also improve most aspects of mental function, including speed and accuracy of reading, short-term memory and verbal memory, in Dyslexia patients and Epileptics.
All of this attests to Piracetam’s reliability as a drug of obvious medical worth. But what effects, if any, does it have upon comparatively healthy minds?
In elderly test groups it has produced quite dramatic results. A study of elderly drivers found that after ingesting Piracetam for 6 weeks, the drivers demonstrated significantly better performance than the placebo-group, in overall reaction capacity, perception and orientation. Of particular interest is the finding that the test-subjects who had scored less than 80% in the pre-test improved without exception in the retest after treatment with Piracetam.
Studies like this are supported by animal trials which show that the treatment of mice is associated with improved mitochondrial function in dissociated brain cells, with significant benefit mainly seen in aged animals.
One such study confirms that:
‘Therapeutically relevant in vitro and in vivo concentrations of piracetam are able to improve mitochondrial dysfunction associated with oxidative stress and/or aging. Mitochondrial stabilization and protection might be an important mechanism to explain many of piracetam’s beneficial effects in elderly patients.’
It seems reasonable to assume cogent positives for adults at large, who use Piracetam as a supplement. On the neuronal level, Piracetam modulates neurotransmission in a range of transmitter systems (including cholinergic and glutamatergic), has neuroprotective and anticonvulsant properties, and improves neuroplasticity. Studies suggest that it improves attention span in normal, healthy humans, and enhances creativity by increasing communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.
There’s also the possibility that healthy adults using Piracetam can increase certain aspects of their intelligence, such as memory. This is achieved by increasing the synthesis of proteins responsible for the formation of new memories, enhancing learning abilities by influencing the cerebral cortex, protecting against memory loss from physical injury and chemical poisoning, rejuvenating aged and damaged neurons, and elevating spatial awareness. One hopeful publication describes the benefits of Piracetam in this way:
‘In animal models and in healthy volunteers, the drug improves the efficiency of the higher telencephalic functions of the brain involved in cognitive processes such as learning and memory. The pharmacology of piracetam is unusual because it protects against various physical and chemical insults applied to the brain. It facilitates learning and memory in healthy animals and in animals whose brain function has been compromised, and it enhances inter-hemispheric transfer of information via the corpus callosum.’
None of this mean, however, that Piracetam is a wonder drug that can provide cognitive improvement for the majority of people. With the exception of the cognitively deficient or aged-impaired, its effects on healthy individuals are largely subjective.
The field of nootropics requires wide-spread support, funding and research in order to work out the precise mechanisms by which these chemicals influence our brains. One day drugs like the racetams may seem like crude precursors to the refined, individually tailored nootropics which will become available.
But until that day, Piracetam may be the closest you’re going to get at enhancing your mind.
Owen Nicholas is a recent graduate from Nottingham University where he majored in History and Political Science; he is involved in numerous charities aiding the elderly and ethnic minorities and teaches English to foreign students.
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