The term Nootropic was introduced in the early 1970s. Often referred to as cognitive enhancers or smart drugs, nootropics are compounds that are used to improve cognitive functions, such as attention, learning, concentration, memory, motivation, and problem solving. While all substances classified as nootropics demonstrate some form of mental enhancement, they all do so in unique ways, through different pathways and mechanisms in the body.[1,2]
The following list briefly covers the most common ingredients that appear in nootropic supplements. If you are interested in learning more, each ingredient has its own page providing further details.
Racetams are cognitive enhancers commonly used to treat a wide variety of neurological and neurodegenerative disorders.
This specific family of drugs branched off from the original "godfather" of nootropics, piracetam, which was discovered in the 1960's. Since then, the racetam family has expanded exponentially.
Nootropics were officially identified as a new class of drugs in 1972 when they were described as compounds that share the same essential characteristics as piracetam. Later, the definition of what constitutes a nootropic was changed. No longer was the compound necessarily required to resemble piracetam.[1,73]
Some of the popular members of the racetam family include:
It has been documented that phenylpiracetam has a broader range of application, and is more powerful overall, than piracetam.[75,76]
Nootropics are compounds that are used to improve cognitive functions. They're also known as "smart drugs."
- Alzheimer's disease
- Down syndrome
They have also been shown to exhibit positive effects in regards to memory and learning [77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84]
Noopept is an amino acid analogue that is very similar to piracetam, but is taken in far lower doses, and has shown to yield less side effects.
It increases the ability learn and remember information, and works by bettering your AMPA and NMDA Glutamatergic receptors, nerve growth factor (NGF), Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), and acetylcholine levels.
You can read more about it on our Noopept "mega-post" on the blog.
Bacopa monnieri is a perennial plant that has a rich history in Ayurvedic medicine, where it is categorized as an herb that "assists the mind, and enhances awareness," according to several sources.
In Ayurveda, the traditional Hindu medicinal system based on the idea of balance in bodily systems using herbs, diet, and yogic breathing, it is commonly known as Brahmi, is used to treat depression, insomnia, epilepsy, and schizophrenia. Various studies support the cognitive enhancing effects demonstrated by Bacopa, especially memory and attention.[9,10,11]
Choline is an essential nutrient required for healthy brain function. It can be synthesized by the body in small amounts, and up until recently, scientists believed that the body could compensate for choline deficits through other nutrients.
It is now accepted that choline is essential and needs to be consumed through diet or supplementation.[12,13] A number of studies have also verified choline's cognitive benefits. [14,15]
DMAE, which is sometimes referred to as deanol, is a precursor to choline. It allows the brain to optimize the production of acetylcholine, a primary neurotransmitter involved in cognitive functions, such as learning and memory.[16,17,18] One study found DMAE useful in helping learning disabled children. A handful of other studies on rodents have shown that it has beneficial effects on memory.[20,21]
Much of the research surrounding the ginkgo biloba herb is based on a standardized extract derived from the ginkgo leaf.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the best selling herbal supplements is in Europe and the United States. Traditionally, it has been used to improve memory and treat blood disorders. These benefits have been confirmed, to some degree, in modern studies.
Some scientific literature claims that ginkgo biloba may have the potential to enhance mental function in younger people. There is even more evidence that it can provide some amount of relief to individuals suffering from Alzheimer's.[24,25,26]
Ginseng is a highly sought after and extremely expensive medicinal herb. The root is the part most commonly used. Ginseng must be cultivated for at least five years before being harvested. Because of this, top quality roots can sell for upwards of $10,000.
There are three different plants referred to as ginseng:
|Types of Ginseng||Latin Name||Location|
|Asian or Korean ginseng||Panax ginseng||Korea, Russia, northern China|
|American ginseng||Panax quinquefolius||United States|
|Siberian ginseng*||Eleutherococcus senticosus||N/A|
*Siberian ginseng is not actually related to ginseng at all, it is commonly known as eleuthero.
When panax ginseng is heat dried, it is considered red ginseng. When it is dried naturally, it is called white ginseng. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) both versions of panax have unique benefits.[27,28,29,30] American and panax ginseng are rich in a saponin called ginsenoside, which has been used effectively to protect against neuronal damage that impairs learning and memory.[31,32] A double blind, placebo-controlled study found that red panax ginseng was effective at improving cognitive function.
Huperzine A is a potent compound that belongs to the same class of chemicals as caffeine and cocaine, known as alkaloids. It is sold over the counter as a brain booster because of its potential for enhancing mental function. Studies have suggested that it may improve memory, and it is commonly used to treat Alzheimer's disease and other similar conditions.[34,35,36]
Idebenone, a synthetic analogue of CoQ10, is a powerful antioxidant that may protect against nerve damage in the central nervous system (CNS). This compound has been studied for its neuroprotective properties and has been considered effective against age-related cognitive disorders.[37-41]
Inositol, unofficially known as vitamin B8, is a naturally occuring isomer of glucose. High concentrations of inositol are found in heart and brain tissue. It plays important roles in a number of regulatory mechanisms in the body, especially in relation to muscle and nerve tissue. It's also key to proper functioning of cell membranes.
Inositol is present in food in three forms:
- Inositol hexaphosphate (phytic acid)
- A combination of inositol with phospholipids
Inositol is sometimes recommended for Alzheimer's disease, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression, and bipolar disorder.[42-45] Additionally, some studies on animals demonstrate possible memory related cognitive benefits.[46,47]
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH)
NADH is considered to be a vitamin B3 co-enzyme. Research suggests that it might be effective at preserving, and even enhancing, cognitive function. It also appears to play major roles in longevity and several age-associated diseases, including neurodegenerative disease. Additionally, there is some evidence supporting its potentially protective effects against a broad range of cognitive disorders, including stroke and Alzheimer's disease.[51,52,53] Deficiency in NADH has been linked directly to the disease pellagra. There is also some proof that it may be helpful in treating chronic fatigue syndrome.
Phenibut is classified as a neuropsychotropic drug that offers nootropic effects. In Russia, it is widely used to relieve tension, anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress, stuttering, and fear. It has also been used to improve sleep in some patients.
The nootropic effects of phenibut have further been backed by animal studies, especially in regards to memory and learning.[57,58]
Phosphatidylserine belongs to the class of chemical compounds known as phospholipids. It's an essential component in all cells, specifically, the cell membrane (the "skin" of the cell). Research suggests that phosphatidylserine may be helpful in treating declining mental function and depression in the elderly.[59-63]
Also known as nicotinoyl-GABA, or pikamilon, picamilon has been shown to restore GABA receptors in rat brains.
Picamilon appears to have a high bioavailability, and it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier. One study on rats demonstrated potential benefits on short-term memory and learning. It is speculated that some of the benefits attributed to picamilon might be linked with its ability to increase blood supply to the brain.
Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ)
PQQ, also known as methoxatin, was first recognized as an enzyme co-factor in methylotropic bacteria. There are some reported benefits from PQQ supplementation related to immune, antioxidant, and cognitive functions. PQQ has also been shown to increase nerve growth factor and protect against neurodegeneration.[70-72]
Schisandra is a fruiting vine native to eastern Asia. The small red berries produced by this infamous medicinal herb contain a lignan called schizandrin.[85,86] which has been fairly well studied for its possible mental health benefits. It's speculated that schizandrin's cognitive-enhancing potential could be due to its powerful antioxidant and neuroprotective properties.[87-92]
Vinpocetine is an alkaloid that provides very promising neuroprotective effects. It has been regarded as a full-fledged nootropic because of its ability to improve both short and long-term memory, and increases alertness. It is suspected that vinpocetine acts as a cognitive enhancer through a number of mechanisms. One of the most prominent is its ability to enhance blood flow to the brain.[94-98] One study even described it as "Viagra for the brain."
Adequate amounts of key vitamins and minerals are critical for supporting proper brain function, specifically cognition. Additionally, nutritional deficits may greatly impair mental performance. Vitamin K, in particular, has been gaining attention for it's potential role in brain health and cognition.[100,101]
Fish oil is rich in essential fatty acids (EFAs). Scientific literature acknowledges the fact that EFAs play an important role in brain health. The body cannot produce essential fatty acids on its own, they must be consumed through diet and/or supplementation.[102,103]
Adrafinil is considered a "pro-drug" to modafinil, which is only available by prescription. In other words, adrafinil is metabolized (converted by the body) into modafinil.
Both of these compounds are metabolized into modafinilic acid. Adrafinil is relatively understudied, but because both convert into the same active component, studies done on modafinil are commonly cited for adrafinil.[3,4]
These studies provide evidence supporting the pro-cognitive effects of modafinil and describe it as a psychostimulant. One study was able to demonstrate that modafinil, combined with cognitive training, greatly enhanced learning capability in healthy volunteers. Another study established that modafinil has definite cognitive-enhancing properties in young, healthy individuals. Despite being classified as a legal substance, in 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned athletes from using adrafinil.
There is a wealth of evidence demonstrating ALCAR's positive effects on brain function and cognition. Many of these benefits have been associated with its neuroprotective, antioxidant qualities and its ability to enhance the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).[104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110]
Some nootropics, when taken at doses higher than the tolerable upper intake level (UL), can cause minor side effects, such as diarrhea, headache, nausea, and digestive discomfort. Even when there is no UL, there's still a chance that you may experience adverse effects.
You should know that not all nootropics have been studied adequately in regards to their long term safety. In order to minimize the chances of experiencing side effects, you should always use supplements responsibly, making sure you read the label and use the product as instructed. Also, talk to your health care provider before starting any new type of supplementation or fitness regimen.
Many of the studies done regarding the efficacy of nootropics were done with specific clinical applications in mind. While some studies were conducted using healthy volunteers, a bulk of them were on subjects that were suffering with cognitive disorders of various types and degrees. This makes it unclear as to how nootropics might affect the general population.
Building your supplement regimen around a sound diet is of the utmost importance. Studies validate the impact that diet has on cognitive function. Whole food sources should always be your go-to choice when available and substituting supplements for whole food is not advisable.
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