Nootropic Effects of Psychedelic and Addictive Substances

In my previous article on the subject of nootropics, I was writing about the brain enhancing effects of some medicines and natural compounds. However, a large number of nootropics have received little recognition from official science and remain rather poorly studied. There is a good reason for this too—these compounds tend to be addictive or hallucinogenic. This article aims to cover what is known about the effects of these substances.


It is rather curious that nicotine, a well-known addictive component of tobacco smoke, was confirmed to have nootropic effects. Research on this property of nicotine was triggered by observations that ex-smokers tend to complain about a lack of concentration and a general decline in various aspects of cognitive abilities. It turned out that nicotine does improve episodic and working memory, as well as attention. Nicotine doses delivered via patches had positive effects (improved performance in cognitive tests) in adults with mild cognitive disorders, as well as in healthy nonsmokers.

Cannabis/marijuana and cognitive processes

People in artistic professions often claim that smoking pot helps creativity. There is scientific evidence to substantiate these claims. Cannabinoids seem to temporarily increase communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain thus creating a state of hyperconnectivity and allowing a loose flow of associations. This may explain the heightened creativity individuals experience when using marijuana. Reports of positive benefits include improved mood, lower levels of anxiety, stress, and depression, improved focus and fewer distractions, improved reaction times, more creative thoughts, greater verbal fluency, and better calculative complexity. These effects are largely dose-dependent, and taking higher amounts may lead to the opposite effects including sluggishness, lack of focus, nervousness, and impaired memory formation and recall.

However, the negative long-term effects of cannabis on brain structure and function have been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. In fact, cognitive decline associated with the use of cannabis is a serious medical problem, and lots of scientific research aims to gain insights into this problem and the potential approaches to reverse decline.

Grey area: Psychedelic drugs (LSD, mushrooms) in microdosing

Type “psychedelics” and “microdosing” in Google search, and you will be flooded with thousands of articles claiming that compounds like LSD and psilocybin (active component of magic mushroom) have almost miraculous effect on human cognitive abilities. It appears that many inventors, researchers, and innovators use psychedelic compounds in very small doses, occasionally or regularly, to reach a state of enhanced consciousness, get into flow, and work more productively.

But here is a problem: not a single proper scientific publication supports these claims. There is a good reason for this: due to their well-known hallucinogenic properties and serious potential side effects, psychedelics like LSD are banned in most countries around the world. In fact, LSD was banned in the US and UK back in the 1960s. This means that the only peer-reviewed published research that directly informs on the measurable effects of psychedelics as a nootropic is over 50 years old. The most commonly cited work (Harman et al. (1966) “Psychedelic Agents in Creative Problem-Solving: A Pilot Study.” Psychedelic Reports 19, 211-27.) was published in 1966. Although the findings reported in this publication are interesting, the quality of the work in terms of general organization, the use of suitable control subjects, and statistical power is hardly satisfactory.

The hallucinogenic properties of psychedelics are well documented. However, microdosing of these compounds for the enhancement of cognitive abilities has not been investigated scientifically. This leaves lots of space for imagination and conspiracy theories. There are repeated calls from the research community to lift the ban on research into psychedelics, but so far they generally seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

There are numerous pieces of evidence that psychedelics can be used to treat various psychiatric disorders in psychedelic-assisted therapy. Some recent studies indicate that administration of psylobicin in moderate doses is not associated with any significant short-term or long-term risk. When it comes to cognitive enhancement, none of the available peer-reviewed scientific publications confirm or rule out such a phenomenon. One interesting recent publication claims that exposure to microdoses of psilocybin creates a state of hyperconnectivity in the brain. The findings from functional MRI experiments show:

“that the structure of the brain’s functional patterns undergoes a dramatic change post-psilocybin, characterized by the appearance of many transient structures of low stability and of a small number of persistent ones that are not observed in the case of placebo. This means that the psychedelic state is associated with a less constrained and more intercommunicative mode of brain function, which is consistent with descriptions of the nature of consciousness in the psychedelic state.”

In other words, the study indirectly points to the possibility of cognitive enhancement and creative stimulation under the influence of psychedelics. Nonetheless, a more definite confirmation of this phenomenon is yet to be published.

A word in defense of official science

People of a more adventurous nature may blame the scientific and medical industry for slowness in recognizing the benefits of smart drugs. But let’s look at this problem from the perspective of researchers. Most drugs are safe, but from time to time people do experience serious side effects and even life-threatening complications. Nobody wants to be one of the unlucky few. If something goes wrong, you’ll have nobody but yourself to blame. Regulatory bodies can recommend any given substance for any particular use only when they have sufficient evidence that a) confirms its effectiveness and b) shows that its side effects are mild and manageable, and/or its benefits far exceed the potential complications associated with its use (i.e., the risk is worth taking).

Development of novel nootropics is hampered by research, validation, and regulatory challenges. The road from the research laboratory to FDA approval is difficult, long, and costly. Pharmacological enhancement of healthy populations is fraught with ethical and philosophical pushbacks. The therapeutic effects observed in cognitively impaired patients often contradict those in healthy populations. Moreover, even approved drugs have issues with side effects and large individual differences. The long-term effects of nootropics are typically unknown. Most importantly, there is still much to be learned about the cellular and molecular basis for the various aspects of cognition. Once they are better understood, pharmacologists will have much better ideas about the processes in the brain to target and how to do it.

It is easy to get carried away with the potential opportunities that nootropics might offer. But don’t forget classical approaches: proper diet and exercise DO enhance brain functions. Many famous thinkers and creative people benefited from simple regular physical activities. Charles Dickens was spending several hours every day walking, sometimes for as much as 20 or 30 miles. Aristotle and Ludwig Van Beethoven are two other famous people who were known for their habit of wandering around while thinking. Physical activity pumps blood through your body and helps to deliver more oxygen to your brain. Regular exercise and healthy diet also keep your blood vessels healthy ensuring that this vital oxygenation is not reduced as you get older. Your normal lifestyle is responsible for your basic level of cognitive abilities. Smart drugs can be used to spike it up from time to time, but if the basic level is low, the spikes won’t go that high anyway!

To sum it up, although an occasional joint may heighten your creativity, the regular use of cannabis is definitely not a good approach to enhance cognitive abilities. There is an acute lack of research on benefits (or absence of such) of psychedelics in cognitive enhancement. Virtually all online information on the benefits of psychedelics as cognitive enhancers are completely unsubstantiated by scientific evidence. Any positive or negative appraisals represent personal views of the articles’ authors rather than results of research studies. Your lifestyle influences your basic level of cognitive abilities—don’t ignore the generally accepted good strategies.


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Image via Wunderela/Pixabay.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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