Do Nootropics Improve Brain Function?

Written on March 20, 2023 by | Reviewed by William Gallagher, MNeuroSci

Nootropics are substances that enhance cognitive function in healthy individuals. They can be herbal or synthetic in origin. Nootropics are either acute stimulants or agents which have a cumulative effect. The most notable examples in each category are the racetams, caffeine, choline, and plant extracts.

In this article, I'll go over the most common nootropics, the effects they have on cognition, and what studies are currently investigating them.

So without further ado, let's just get straight into it, shall we?

How Nootropics Work in The Brain

There are a variety of mechanisms by which nootropics can enhance cognitive function.

Acute nootropics, such as caffeine and racetams, work by increasing the activity of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin.

These neurotransmitters are responsible for various aspects of cognition such as memory, focus, motivation, and arousal.

Racetams are a specific class of drugs used to increase cognitive function even in healthy individuals.

While there still isn't enough research to determine their mechanism of action, current theories suggest that they work by increasing the activity of glutamate and GABA neurotransmitters.

While acute nootropics like caffeine have similar mechanisms on cognition as racetams, they act faster since they don't need to pass through the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

This is one reason why you should not take too much caffeine! If you do so, it can result in adverse effects such as anxiety, heart palpitations, etc.

Caffeine also blocks a particular enzyme called adenosine, which is responsible for inducing sleep.

In contrast, agents with a cumulative effect, such as choline and plant extracts, work by affecting the structure and function of the brain over time.

Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, so it's no surprise that it is one of the most popular nootropics.

It not only increases cognitive performance but also helps in the development and maintenance of healthy neural tissues.

Why Acetylcholine Is Important For Optimal Brain Function

Acetylcholine (ACh) is the primary neurotransmitter responsible for cognitive ability.

It's involved in memory, learning, and the function of both the peripheral nervous system (all non-brain and non-spinal cord nerve cells) and the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).

How ACh is synthesized largely determines its capacity to influence cognition.

If there is enough choline present in the body, then this neurotransmitter can be synthesized from it. If not, then dietary sources of choline are needed instead.

These include foods like:

  • Beef liver
  • Eggs
  • Milk, etc.

However, when taken as a supplement in large doses - which is often done in the case of nootropics - choline can also cross the blood-brain barrier.

Once it does, it can be converted into ACh, and voila! You have yourself a cognitive powerhouse.

Popular choline sources include: Alpha-GPC, CDP-choline, and choline bitartrate.

How Nootropics And Plant Extracts Can Improve Brain Function


Plant extracts are one of the oldest forms of nootropics.

They are derived from natural sources and typically contain a variety of compounds that work synergistically to improve brain function.

One such example is Bacopa monnieri, a plant extract that has been used for centuries in Ayurveda medicine for its cognitive-enhancing effects.

Bacopa monnieri not only improves memory but also reduces anxiety and stress levels.

This is likely due to the fact that it increases levels of serotonin and dopamine - two neurotransmitters that are associated with positive mood.

Other plant extracts like Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng have similar effects on cognitive function.

While the mechanism of action for these extracts is still not fully understood, they are thought to work by increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain.

This in turn helps improve cognitive function and protect the brain from age-related damage.

The use of nootropics was once strictly confined to the realm of professional or competitive athletes.

However, in recent years, their effects on general cognition have been studied more intensively for a wider range of purposes.

In fact, some countries like Russia and Korea actively promote supplementation with certain cognitive enhancers as a means to increase productivity from workers.

While this may sound appealing at first glance, it's important to understand that nootropic supplements are not regulated by any government agency in most countries.

This makes them largely unreliable when it comes to dosage and purity.

In contrast, prescription drugs need to go through stringent clinical trials before being approved for public use.

This is why it's always best to stick to natural supplements when looking for cognitive enhancers.

Not only are they safer long-term, but they also tend to be more effective in the long run.

My favorite natural nootropics are:

  • L-theanine
  • Caffeine
  • Creatine
  • Bacopa monnieri
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Panax ginseng

All of the nootropics listed above have been clinically tested and extensively studied for their effects on brain function.

This makes them a great alternative to synthetic nootropics, many of which have not undergone even basic testing in regards to safety.

If you're looking for the best possible results from your cognitive-enhancing regimen, then it's advisable to avoid synthetic nootropics altogether (unless you know what you're doing).