Monday, July 26, 2010

Substance review: Piracetam

One of the most popular substances purported to have a nootropic effect is Piracetam. UCB Laboratories in Belgium invented Piracetam in 1964 as a derivative of GABA, the neural system responsible for inhibiting neurotransmission the speed of the chemical reactions that trigger thought. Unlike the GABA pathways, the research team found no apparent evidence of it sedating the brain. The substance had such an impact on lead researcher Corneliu Giurgea that he coined the term "nootropic" itself in 1972 after observing the individual cases of enhanced mental functions.

The exact mechanism of Piracetam is unknown and it is not recognised as being a stimulant or a sedative. Various theories about its mechanism tend to focus on increasing neurotransmission through increasing permeability of the blood brain barrier, increasing the rate at which ion transfers occur and manipulating the receptors of various neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine. It has a similar structure to levetiracetam, which is used in epilepsy and while different it may have an effect on the part of the brain that connects the hemispheres, called the corpus collosum.

Before we continue to purported effects I want to reiterate that properly conducted trials on this substance are rare and that the content based here is opinion based on incomplete information.

Physical effects:
Although there is anecdotal evidence of Piracetam causing insomnia, nausia and gastrointestinal discomfort, various studies of piracetams applications outside of memory have not shown side-effects. This short term epileptic trial and this stroke trial from Belgium on high dosages of Piracetam reported no significant physical differences from a placebo. Piracetam at the time of posting is presumably safe.

Cognitive effects:
Despite its history and usage over the last 40 or so years there is a limited range of mostly positive trials. In the 70s a trial on post-concussive effects of piracetam was conducted and found significant benefits. A German study showed quick cognitive recovery after bypass surgery and another large Ukrainian trial showed children's cognitive recovery improving after piracetam dosages. A large trial on dislexic patients found an increase in processing ability and for those with existing poor memory as did a few other trials around the mid 80s, but effective trials on the broader population are missing.

Piracetam is a promising sports nootropic. The nootropic seems particular useful for contact sports and any sports where a head clash might occur. Research indicates its restorative effects would reduce the amount of time required to restore brain function, which is could be of substantial benefit to fight sports. A sports cognition boost in general is also promising. The anecdotal evidence and numerous animal studies point to benefits in learning and focus. Combine that with no obvious side-effects from several large studies and the risk/reward profile seems ideal.

Further reading:

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