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What Are Nootropics and Can Teens Abuse Them?

Depiction of a the nerves in a teen girl who has taken a nootropic  

Nootropic drugs are a class of drugs that claim to improve mental function and cognitive ability. Nootropics generally have a stimulating effect on the brain, which can seem to improve focus or performance. Nootropics are prescribed and sold over-the-counter.

In spite of claims that nootropic use is safe and effective, there is a great deal of evidence showing that misuse or abuse of nootropic drugs has negative effects, especially among adolescents and young adults. Nonmedical use of nootropics has been shown to:

  • Increase impulsivity and risky behavior
  • Increase the risk of future substance use disorders
  • Worsen academic performance
  • Worsen mental health disorders.

Furthermore, teen prescription drug abuse is associated with negative outcomes that can have lifelong consequences.

Nootropics are not necessarily dangerous in every case, but it is absolutely imperative that people (and especially teenagers) only take them under the direction and supervision of a medical professional who is familiar with nootropics. Even if the intent is to improve grades and scholastic performance, nootropic misuse and abuse can have negative outcomes with long-lasting repercussions.

What Are Nootropics?

Proponents of nootropics claim that they are cognitive-enhancing drugs or supplements that can increase mental acuity, memory, and thinking. Although some data indicate that some nootropics may be beneficial when used correctly, in many cases, the risks outweigh the potential rewards.

Examples of Nootropics

Prescription nootropics are typically central nervous system (CNS) stimulants and are frequently called “study drugs” or “smart drugs” by teenagers and college students. Young people often take them as an easy way to increase grades and academic performance. However, despite the misconception that they can improve a student’s GPA, there is little evidence to support this claim. Rather, some data suggest that prescription nootropic misuse or abuse can cause short- and long-term harm.

Examples of prescription nootropics include:

  • Provigil (generic name modafinil)
  • Adderall (generic name amphetamine salts)
  • Ritalin (generic name methylphenidate)
  • Axura (generic name memantine)

Over-the-counter (OTC) nootropics are just as risky as prescription nootropics when misused or abused. Many OTC formulations claim to be “natural nootropics,” which is often misleading and inaccurate. Nootropic supplements are often unregulated and not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as legitimate supplements for improved brain function.

The most commonly used nonprescription nootropic is caffeine, which is a stimulant that can help improve mental focus. However, caffeine is also associated with negative side effects that can hinder focus, mental acuity and increase the risk of developmental disorders. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teenagers avoid caffeine in any form.

True brain (sold as TruBrain) is a drink that claims to provide necessary amino acids and other nootropics that provide “genuine focus.” While TruBrain certainly has its proponents, scientifically valid data has failed to identify TruBrain as a genuinely beneficial nootropic.

Other examples of nonprescription nootropics include:

  • L-Theanine
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Creatine
  • Racetams

How Are Nootropics Used?

Prescription nootropics are commonly prescribed to help teens manage ADHD. Other disorders that nootropics may help are depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, although whether nootropics are genuinely beneficial as treatments for most mental health disorders remains a contentious issue. Prescription nootropics should be taken exactly as prescribed. They usually come in pill or capsule form and are taken one or two times per day. Taking prescription drugs in any way other than as prescribed constitutes prescription drug misuse or abuse.

Nonprescription nootropics can be taken in many ways. They often come as pills or capsules, but may also be provided as powders, dried herbs or premade beverages. Instructions for use can vary quite a bit between over-the-counter (OTC) formulations and many packages may suggest that the product is safe for frequent consumption in spite of lacking valid scientific research that supports such claims.

Proponents of OTC nootropics suggest “nootropic cycling” to prevent the development of tolerance and dependence ⁠— which occur when the body becomes accustomed to the presence of a chemical. Nootropic stacking refers to the process of combining nootropic supplements to provide the most effective drug combination.

Nootropics and the Developing Brain

Research on the effect of nootropics on the developing brain is currently underway. Preliminary data suggest that nootropics may have a negative effect on brain development ⁠— with the potential for lifelong consequences. Attempts by teenagers to enhance brain performance may alter normal development, and early results suggest that long-term brain plasticity is impaired when nootropics are regularly used by teenagers.

Overall, the majority of research findings suggest that teenagers should not use nootropics or, if they do, they should use them infrequently and at low doses. Prescription nootropics should only be used as prescribed.

Teenagers who misuse or abuse nonprescription or prescription nootropics risk long-term developmental abnormalities that may have substantial negative effects on brain development and lifelong functionality.

Nootropic Addiction and Potential For Abuse

Research has established that prescription CNS stimulants have a high potential for abuse, physical and/or psychological addiction and dependence. Nonprescription nootropics are also associated with addiction and abuse. Caffeine, for example, is a powerful drug that notoriously causes dependence.

Although research into the short- and long-term consequences of nootropic use among teenagers is in its infancy, mounting data indicates that the risk of regular nootropic use, especially among teenagers, is likely to outweigh the rewards. There is currently no definitive answer to the question of whether nootropics are safe, but teenagers especially may risk lifelong harm by taking them frequently.

Addressing Addictive Behavior and Teen Drug Abuse

Teen addiction can have lifelong health and social consequences. Nootropic abuse during the teenage years remains an area of active research, but early findings suggest that nootropics have negative effects on the developing brain that are likely to persist throughout adulthood.

If you are concerned that your teenager is misusing or abusing nootropics, help is available. Next Generation Village is a rehab facility that is dedicated to providing teens aged 13–17 with the support and education they need to be successful in recovery and manage the challenges associated with being a teenager in healthy, productive ways. Call us today to learn more about our evidence-based rehab programs.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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