More and more people are looking for safe, effective ways to boost memory, mood, and brain function. Many nootropic supplements claim to improve brain function, but many of them sound too good to be true. Do nootropics actually work? Let’s find out.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropic is a broad term for a class of molecules thought to affect cognition and brain function in healthy people. Nootropics may be drugs, herbs, racetams, choline compounds, vitamins, fatty acids, and other compounds that affect brain function.
Because nootropics are found in so many different substances, it can be hard to define them accurately.
The term “nootropic” was invented by chemist Corneliu Girgea, who was the first person to synthesize Piracetam. Girgea defined nootropics as compounds that:
- Enhance learning and memory
- Improve the resiliency of behaviors and memories against disruption
- Protect the brain from injury
- Increase the efficacy of the brain’s control mechanisms
- Work with few side effects and low toxicity
Because there are so many different substances called nootropics, or that may have cognitive effects, it is impossible to say whether they all “work”. Instead, we can look at some of the more promising research with some specific nootropic compounds.
Nootropic Research and Studies
While nootropics remain a new field of study, and much of the research is still inconclusive, here are some of the most promising nootropics to date:
Racetams are a class of drugs that affect the central nervous system by stimulating glutamate receptors. Many racetams are anti-convulsants, like levetiracetam, brivaracetam, and seletracetam. Other racetams are nootropics, such as:
Piracetam is the first and best-studied nootropic drug. Studies have shown that it improves memory and cognition in everything from fish and rats to human beings, but most studies of piracetam have been of its efficacy in treating cognitive disorders, including dementia, epilepsy, stroke, and other brain disorders.
As a clinical drug in the treatment of various brain disorders, results are promising. As a cognitive enhancer for healthy adults, piracetam needs more research and better study design so that results are more easily compared.
Most people report mood-enhancement from piracetam, although some experience depression as a side effect.
Most studies of oxiracetam to date have been in vascular dementia and stroke, where it has been shown to reduce cognitive impairment and protect the brain after trauma. It has also been shown to improve motor function as well as cognitive function after injury.
Most studies of omberacetam, sold under the brand name Noopept, have been in mice and rats, where it has been shown to improve cognitive function and reduce pain in rats with diabetes.
Cholinergics are compounds of the essential nutrient choline, and are the most widely used nootropics. Some of the best-studied cholinergics are:
Citicoline. Citicoline has a wide range of beneficial effects, including protecting the eyes from degenerative diseases like glaucoma, protecting our hearing, and treating vascular cognitive impairment.
Choline has a wide range of neuroprotective effects that help people recover from strokes and neurological diseases, and is currently being studied as a way to help people recover from the cognitive effects of Covid-19.
Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter, involved in reward-motivated behavior, motor control, and hormone regulation. Many drugs that affect our dopamine levels and receptors also have a wide range of other cognitive effects, including improving memory, concentration, and motor function.
Most dopamine-regulating drugs are sold in the US under brand names, used to treat cognitive, mood, and mental disorders.
Since ancient times, humans have been using herbs and plants for their cognitive effects. Some of the best-studied nootropic herbs include:
Bacopa monnieri. Also known as water hyssop or Indian pennywort, is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve memory and cognition. Studies have shown that Bacopa monnieri does improve memory and recall, and more research is needed to determine other cognitive effects.
Panax ginseng. Another herb famous for its beneficial nootropic effects, ginseng has been shown to improve cognitive performance and mood in healthy adults, and is also a promsing treatment for dementia and other mental impairments.
Amino acids are organic compounds that are the building blocks of proteins, and are also involved in biosynthesis and neurotransmitting.
Found in green tea, the amino acid theanine is similar to the neurotransmitter glutamate, so it binds to glutamate receptors, blocking the uptake of glutamine and glutamate. It naturally increases serotonin, dopamine, and glycine levels in the brain.
In humans, L-theanine has been shown to reduce anxiety, and may also have nootropic cognition enhancing effects. However, L-theanine has almost always been studied in tandem with caffeine, since both naturally occur in green tea, and some of the properties attributed to theanine may instead be the effects of caffeine. Let’s look at this a little further.
Nootropic Synergistic Effects
In addition to the effects of these compounds alone, many nootropics have been found to have synergistic effects, where they are more powerful when used with other compounds than when they are used alone.
Also, many nootropic compounds have poor bioavailability, and may be more easily absorbed and used by the body when combined with other ingredients that enhance absorption. Some of the most effective nootropic pairs include:
- Stimulants. It’s no surprise that stimulants have cognition-boosting effects, which is why so many people rely on their morning cup of coffee. Low doses of central nervous system stimulants, including caffeine, improve mental alertness and concentration. Many of the beneficial cognitive effects of the theanine in green tea are enhanced by the presence of caffeine.
- Piracetam+choline. Animal studies have shown a wide range of cognitive benefits when piracetam is combined with choline. Together, they improve memory and learning. Similarly, piracetam+lecithin appears to benefit people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease more than either compound alone.
- Alpha-GPC + racetams. The cholinergic alpha-GPC has some nootropic benefits, but those benefits are greatly enhanced when combined with racetams, helping to enhance memory and increase focus.
Do Nootropics Actually Work?
At this point, most known nootropics have been studied extensively, even if most studies have been in rats and mice.
Most human studies have focused on using nootropics to treat a wide range of cognitive diseases and disorders, helping protect the brain from dementia and Alzheimer’s, improving recovery from stroke or injury, or treat various conditions ranging from autism to narcolepsy to glaucoma.
For that reason, the best researched and most effective nootropics have been formulated and are sold as prescription medications to treat those conditions.
There has been less credible research on the cognitive benefits of nootropic compounds in healthy adults. In the existing research, dosages, compounds, and administration have been extremely inconsistent, making large-scale comparison difficult.
However, there is no doubt that many nootropics definitely enhance and improve learning, memory, mental focus, and overall cognition. Racetams, in particular, are highly effective nootropics with few side effects and low toxicity. When combined with natural cholinergics, racetams are especially effective.
Future research will doubtless help us understand and use nootropics more effectively than we do today, but so far many nootropic compounds have been scientifically proven to work.