What You Should Know About Piracetam

Said to enhance memory and cognition, this drug is not approved by the FDA

Piracetam is a nootropic, a type of drug that may enhance memory and boost cognitive function. Derived from the amino acid gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), piracetam was developed in the 1960s and is touted to prevent and treat age-related cognitive decline, seizures, and learning disabilities.

While approved as a treatment for seizure disorders and dispensed via prescription in Europe under the name Nootropil, piracetam is not an approved drug in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also prohibited the sale of piracetam as a dietary supplement.

Manufacturers, however, have found a loophole. Nootropics like piracetam are not controlled, which would require a prescription or age verification to purchase. They are also not scheduled, meaning ranked according to risk of abuse. Therefore, piracetam can be legally sold so long as it is neither labeled a dietary supplement or over-the-counter medication, nor marketed to cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent a disease.

Packet of Pirament pills
MT2013 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Health Benefits


Piracetam (chemical name 2-oxo-1-pyrrolidine acetamide) is in a class of drugs called racetams, which include aniracetam, fasoracetam, and phenylpiracetam. These drugs work on receptors in the brain known as αlpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid (AMPA) receptors, a key element in brain circuitry.

Stimulating AMPA receptors is believed to improve signal transmissions between neurons improving cognition and nerve system functioning. Because of this, you may hear piracetam referred to as a "smart drug.”

Piracetam has been investigated for the past six decades as a potential treatment for several conditions including stroke, seizures, dementia, and alcoholism. It is derived from the neurotransmitter GABA, which is involved in mood regulation and movement disorders.

To date, however, most of the research is limited to animal studies and few human clinical trials have been published. Here's a closer look at the most promising potential health benefits of piracetam.

Central Nervous System Disorders

Several studies suggest piracetam offers promise in the treatment of central nervous system disorders including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and tardive dyskinesia.

A 2012 study found piracetam may improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, such as difficulty walking and impaired motor functioning. However, this research is limited to studies in rats and there are no published human trials of piracetam for this disease.

Cognitive Impairment

Piracetam has been studied for its potential in improving cognitive function in patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular cognitive impairment. A 2002 report published in Dementia & Geriatric Cognitive Disorders found that piracetam was superior to a placebo in the treatment of older adults with cognitive impairment.

Just how piracetam impacts memory is unclear. Some research points to its impact on beta-amyloid, a factor in Alzheimer’s disease. Other studies suggest piracetam works to reduce the inflammation that may lead to cognitive decline.

However, the literature is limited to animal studies and human trials are needed before piracetam can be recommended for the treatment of cognitive decline. 

Possible Side Effects

Piracetam may trigger a number of side effects, such as:

  • Sleep disruption
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiety

It's important to keep in mind that supplements are largely unregulated and haven't been tested for safety.

Do not mix piracetam with alcohol, as it may increase the rate of intoxication.

Warnings

The FDA denied an application to establish piracetam as a dietary supplement in 2004, citing insufficient evidence that piracetam "will reasonably be expected to be safe." Despite its denial, the nootropic found its way to the market.

Further complicating the matter, the patent for piracetam expired many years ago. Companies are not likely to spend the money to gain FDA approval when their competitors can turn around and sell the product for less.

Piracetam and other products marketed as cognitive enhancers are problematic because they are unproven and taking them "may be ineffective, unsafe, and could prevent a person from seeking an appropriate diagnosis and treatment," according to the FDA.

In 2019, the FDA sent warning letters to several companies that sell piracetam due to unsubstantiated health claims on their websites.  Making such claims establishes a product as a new drug, which requires FDA approval.

Dosage and Preparation

Piracetam is sold in the United States as capsules and powder, but there is no standard recognized dose because it cannot be marketed as a dietary supplement. Instead, piracetam is only available to be purchased for "research purposes only" and manufacturers are not allowed to put a recommended dosing schedule on packages.

In Europe, where it is available as a prescription, it is sold in 800-milligram (mg) and 1,200-mg tablets, with a recommended dose between 2.4 grams and 4.8 grams daily.

What to Look For 

Piracetam-containing products are still widely available for purchase online, but their safety is questionable because of a lack of regulation.

An analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2020 tested five brands of supplements containing piracetam available in the U.S. and found levels of the drug varied widely from the amount stated on the label.

As a result, a person taking a product as directed could ingest in excess of 11 grams in a day, which is more than double the maximum dose approved in Europe. The study authors noted this potentially exposes consumers to “supratherapeutic dosages” that may pose unknown health risks and side effects.

Seeking brands that obtain independent third-party certification from a trusted company like U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab is the best way to ensure that the contents of any supplement actually match what's on the label.

Alternatives

While the potential brain-boosting benefits of piracetam have been touted for years, there is limited clinical evidence to support its use. However, there are a number of natural remedies that have been shown to be effective.

For instance, fish oil, a source of omega-3 fatty acids, has been found to enhance cognitive function, preserve memory, and protect against depression and Alzheimer's disease. Found naturally oily fish (including salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, and herring), fish oil is also sold in supplement form.

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