Nootropics (also known as “smart drugs”) have risen in popularity over the past decade. One product you may have recently heard more about is piracetam. Like other nootropics, the makers of piracetam claim that it can help improve cognition function by boosting memory, neuroplasticity and more.
Most of the available research that has been conducted so far has focused on piracetam’s effects in the treatment of age-related conditions, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Some clinical studies have found evidence that piracetam is helpful for not only managing memory loss, but also agitation, dyslexia, brain injury, vertigo, anxiety and more. (1)
Is piracetam legal, and more importantly … is it safe? Piracetam is now available over the counter (without a prescription) in certain countries throughout Europe, Asia and South America but has not yet been approved as a supplement by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So should you try piracetam? While users generally report tolerating the drug well, piracetam can cause a number of side effects and can also interact with many other medications. Piracetam may turn out to have certain cognitive benefits to offer, but there are safer alternatives available that have been more thoroughly tested.
What Is Piracetam?
Piracetam is a medication/supplement in the racetam drug class that is derived from the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Racetam drugs are synthetic compounds that are used to boost brain function; however, they have mostly been shown to only have mild effects. Piracetam was one of the first drugs of its kind to be developed, originally formulated by the company UCB Pharma located in Belgium.
How does piracetam work in the brain? It has a number of physiological effects because it’s capable of modulating neurotransmitter systems, including cholinergic and glutamatergic pathways.
Studies suggest that piracetam can have beneficial effects for cognitive/mental health, due to its neuroprotective and anticonvulsant properties, ability to boost circulation and capability of improving neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience). (2)
Depending on the country it’s being sold in, piracetam, which is the drug’s generic name, is available under brand names including: Dinagen, Myocalm, Nootropil and Qropi.
When it comes to “biohacking” and improving overall sense of well-being, what is the use of piracetam? More research is still needed to confirm that piracetam is safe and effective, but the studies that have been conducted so far suggest that uses for piracetam can include: (3)
- Enhancing cellular membrane fluidity, which is necessary for proper function, viability, growth and reproduction of cells
- Protecting against neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
- Preventing memory loss
- Reducing anxiety and depression
- Helping to manage epilepsy, including the type called cortical reflex myoclonus
- Improving recovery from stroke and brain injury
- Hindering vasospasm (constriction of blood vessels) and boosting circulation
- Preventing blood clots and deep vein thrombosis, partly by reducing erythrocyte adhesion to vascular endothelium (cells inside blood vessels)
- Managing vertigo
- Supporting recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse (including heroine)
- Helping to treat dyslexia
- Managing sickle cell anemia
- Treating tardive dyskinesia, a condition that causes repetitive, involuntary movements due to prolonged use of certain psychiatric drugs
5 Possible Benefits
Research to date suggests that some of the most noteworthy piracetam benefits include the following:
1. Managing Cognitive Decline
A meta-analysis that reviewed findings from human studies found that piracetam is capable of improving cognition among people experiencing cognitive decline, especially the elderly/older adults, however these benefits don’t seem to extend to healthy people with normal brain function. (4) Some of piracetam’s mechanisms include increasing glucose and oxygen consumption in the brains of people with cognitive improvement.
In order for notable reductions in the rate of cognitive decline (also called age-associated memory impairment) to be experienced, such as a reduction in symptoms like agitation, paranoia and memory loss, high doses are usually necessary. Typically, the drug is taken over the course of six to 12 weeks, which can sometimes cause unwanted side effects. Researchers believe that some patients with cognitive decline may need long-term administration in order to slow the rate of disease progression. (5)
Not every study has found that piracetam causes significant improvements in cognition. Some studies have found it has zero effects or only limited and minimal/mild effects compared to placebo. (6)
2. Preventing Blood Clots
Research shows that piracetam may be useful following cardiovascular trauma because it helps to stop blood clots from forming, similar to aspirin. It’s also been shown to have protective effects in patients undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery. (7) Additionally, piracetam affects blood flow by boosting circulation and helping to prevent blood vessels from constricting.
Because it can help prevent blood clots from developing, the drug is being investigated as a way to lower the risk for strokes. It has been shown in some, but not all, studies to help with stroke recovery, including language function. (8) However, because of inconclusive research findings, it’s still not recommended that patients recovering from acute ischemic stroke take piracetam routinely. (9)
3. Protecting Against Oxidative Stress
There’s evidence that piracetam can increase membrane fluidity in the brain and reduce rigidity associated with oxidative and lipid stress. Piracetam seems to help normalize fluidity and mitochondrial function, both of which suffer when the brain is impacted by free radicals, inflammation, injury and aging. Researchers have also associated a loss of normal fluidity in the mitochondria with states of cognitive decline.
4. Supporting Short-Term Memory & Learning Capacity
One study found the use of piracetam over 14 days resulted in significantly better word recall and improvements in short-term working memory.
Piracetam has also been tested among children with dyslexia. While study results have been somewhat mixed and hard to replicate, certain studies have found that it led to improvements in reading rate, verbal learning and comprehension when taken daily for up to eight weeks. (10)
5. Mood Enhancement
When it comes to mood improvement, more research about piracetam’s effects is needed. A lot of anecdotal evidence exists, stating it may help support mood stabilization and mental health, concentration, verbal intelligence, energy, motivation and more — but so far, the scientific proof has been limited. Recent research also shows it can possibly work as an antidepressant, improve the brain’s “reward properties” and reduce the negative effects of drug/alcohol withdrawal on the central nervous system.
Still, there’s concern that while piracetam might work temporarily to improve your mood, it may require high doses that lead to dependency and withdrawal effects when the drug is stopped. (11)
In the United States, piracetam is not available as a dietary supplement; however, it can be purchased easily online. At this time, piracetam dosage recommendations are as follows:
- Adults over 16 years old: Take between 1.6 and 4.8 grams per day orally. High doses up to 9.6 grams per day have been used in some studies, although the largest effective dose that is recommended is typically 1,600 milligrams, taken three times per day for a total of 4,800 milligram. In some studies, high doses have been found to be necessary in order to provide any benefits. It’s also been found that there is a lot of variability among piracetam users, meaning people respond differently to the same dose for reasons that are not entirely known. (12)
- In most cases, piracetam is not currently recommended for children under 16 years old. This is especially true when not consulting a healthcare provider. Always consult your healthcare provider before trying new supplements. In some studies, piracetam has been given to children to treat conditions including breath-holding spells and dyslexia. Doses between 40 and 100 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight have been safely tested in children (most often doses in the lower end of the range are still recommended, between 40 to 50 mg/kg of body weight).
Piracetam can be taken any time of day and does not need to be taken with food. It is water-soluble, meaning it will be digested even on an empty stomach.
Risks, Side Effects and Dangers
Researchers consider piracetam generally well-tolerated, although various side effects have still been reported. (13) What are the side effects of piracetam to be aware of?
Potential side effects can include:
- Digestive issues, including diarrhea
- Drowsiness and fatigue
- Increased restlessness, hyperactivity and nervousness
- Worsened depression
- Muscle spasms
- Skin rash
- Impaired ability to drive
- Withdrawal effects and possibly increased dependency
It’s also possible for piracetam to interact with a number of drugs. Mild to moderate drug interactions have been reported when piracetam is used with:
- Thyroid medications including levothyroxine, liothyronine and thyroid desiccated hormone
Some studies have found that piracetam can be dangerous when used by people with certain health conditions, including: hepatic impairment, renal impairment, blood dyscrasias and hemorrhagic diathesis. Because there isn’t enough evidence to show it’s safe, it shouldn’t be used by the elderly or during pregnancy/lactation.
Rather than experimenting with a drug that is still under investigation and not necessarily effective for mostly healthy adults, try these nootropic alternatives to piracetam instead:
- Omega-3 fish oils — Studies show omega-3s can support cognitive function by helping reduce inflammation, preserve memory and protect against depression and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to, or instead of supplementing, you can obtain omega-3s from wild-caught fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel and herring.
- Medicinal mushrooms, such as chaga, cordyceps and reishi — These “functional fungi” have been shown in studies to help support cognitive function and fight cognitive impairment in older adults due to their antioxidant properties and ability to increase resilience during times of stress, including by balancing hormones like cortisol.
- Adaptogen herbs, such as ashwagandha, astralagus and rhodiola — These herbs are effective at improving stress response, lowering blood corticosterone levels (a stress hormone), fighting fatigue, supporting the adrenals and creating positive alterations in the neurotransmitter system of the brain.
- Green tea extract — When used appropriately, green tea and other sources of natural caffeine can have mood-enhancing effects, fight inflammation and oxidative stress and increase alertness and productivity.
- Ginseng — Ginseng is another herb that can improve calmness, some aspects of working memory and performance and provide protection against fatigue and stress.
- Gingko biloba — Gingko has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, platelet-forming and circulation-boosting effects.
- Piracetam is a nootropic (or “smart drug”) that is used to improve cognition function and mental health. It’s technically a medication/supplement in the racetam drug class that is derived from the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
- More research is still needed to confirm piracetam’s benefits and safety. Research done so far shows uses for piracetam may include: neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s or dementia, memory loss, anxiety and depression, deep vein thrombosis, epilepsy and more.
- Overall, studies show that older people experiencing cognitive impairment report increased cognitive benefits when compared to younger, healthy people.
- When it comes to potential dangers, a number of side effects are possible, including: digestive upset, drowsiness, anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms and skin rash. Most adults tolerate the drug well, however. Still, healthier and safer alternatives can include omega-3 fish oils, medicinal mushrooms, adaptogen herbs, green tea extract, ginseng and gingko biloba.