What Are Cognitive Enhancers?

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson will go over cognitive enhancers, or substances meant to increase mental focus, concentration, and cognitive performance. We'll talk about two different types of cognitive enhancers: nootropics and smart drugs.

Cognitive Enhancers

Have you ever had a lot of homework to finish in one night? Or had an exam the next day that you needed to stay up late studying for? You felt your eyes getting heavy, thinking about resting for a few minutes. Maybe you wished you had a little boost?

Coffee can help us focus
coffee; stimulant; cognitive enhancer

This little boost might come in the form of what are called cognitive enhancers. This is a term that refers to a group of substances that are used to enhance mental performance. These are substances that help us maintain our concentration or improve our performance on mental tasks. Let's talk about the different types, how they work, and some of their side effects.


Cognitive enhancers include a number of different kinds of substances that can increase mental performance. Specifically, nootropics are substances that are not prescribed by a doctor but are things like vitamins and herbs. (We'll talk about non-nootropic cognitive enhancers next).

First, let's talk about some common nootropics you've probably tried. Do you start your morning with a cup of coffee? Caffeine is one of the most widely used cognitive enhancers. Some people find their mental focus is improved after consuming caffeine and they can focus for longer periods of time.

Green tea, which can provide a boost of energy and mental focus, is another nootropic. And what about that big can of energy drink in your dorm room fridge? That's a cognitive enhancer we would also consider a nootropic.

These substances we just mentioned work as stimulants, which is a class of substances that increase our attention and also raise our heart rate. Ever drink too much coffee? Rapid heart beat is often a side effect of too much of a stimulant.

However, some nootropics don't work like stimulants. For example, B-vitamins can help improve cognitive function not by increasing our concentration for a period (like a big cup of coffee) but by helping maintain neurons (what we call our brain cells).

Smart Drugs

Not all cognitive enhancers can be considered nootropics but all nootropics are cognitive enhancers. Confused? Let's talk about some examples of cognitive enhancers that are NOT nootropics.

These kinds of cognitive enhancers are known as smart drugs and they are different than nootropics in a few ways. First, smart drugs are generally prescribed by a doctor for a medical condition that impeded concentration and mental function.

Ritalin and Adderall are two well-known smart drugs that are used to help improve cognitive functioning in persons with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These drugs are also amphetamines, which are a class of drugs that work to stimulate the central nervous system and improve focus.

Colloquially, these have also been called 'study drugs' for their prevalence among college students who use them to stay up late studying and completing homework. This is known as 'off-label' use, meaning that the pharmaceutical company does not endorse or approve of using the drug for this purpose. This is for good reason. Taking amphetamines like Adderall without a prescription can be dangerous.

Benefits and Side-Effects

Can a drug really improve your mental function? Will you ace your classes if you take Ritalin? The evidence on this is mixed and, especially in large quantities, some of these substances can have can have harmful effects. This is especially true for the smart drugs we talked about. Using Adderall off-label, for example, can lead to increased depression and anxiety, nausea, decreased appetite, high blood pressure, and irregular heart beat.

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