What are Nootropic supplements (and do they actually work?)

Written on January 22, 2023 by | Reviewed by William Gallagher, MNeuroSci

The term “nootropics” is used to describe a wide range of natural and synthetic supplements that are reputed to promote cognitive function, memory, creativity, motivation, attention span, alertness and concentration in healthy adults.

They usually contain a mixture of various vitamins (especially vitamin B), minerals (eg. zinc and magnesium), amino acids (eg. L-lysine) and herbs such as Ginkgo biloba extract; however some nootropics are purely synthetic with little or no active ingredients due to either patenting issues or low effectiveness in animals trials.

Nootropic supplements have long been used by students and professionals looking for an edge over their peers at school and work; they still remain controversial due to a lack of scientific evidence supporting their use for this purpose.

A Brief History of Nootropics

The use of nootropics to improve brain function was first recorded by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The difference between our current use of the term nootropic and their original usage is that for them it simply meant “nourishing” or “enhancing”.

It also relates to the early Latin word “cogitare” which means “to think”, whereas today we use it to describe a specific course of cognitive enhancing drugs.

In the 19th-century pharmaceutical companies began marketing alternative treatments for historically recognised diseases and ailments such as gout, rheumatism, nervous debility, phthisis, asthma and tuberculosis.

The first stimulant prescribed by doctors was caffeine from 1847 onwards. They were very unsuccessful in promoting their products mainly because they weren't able to show how these drugs could cure any disease or ailment that had a reported history of treatment with similar drugs or chemical medicines such as opium (morphin).

However, the pharmaceutical industry continued to push their products because they were making huge profits. Pharmaceutical companies saw an opportunity for profit by changing the name of their product from “stimulant” to “nootropic”.

They also tried to change the stigma surrounding these drugs by promoting them as being safer than other competing products such as alcohol and opium. The ability of pharmaceutical companies to market their products has led us into a widespread dependence on prescription drugs that masquerade as illicit ones.

Despite this, evidence for the effectiveness of nootropics is still limited; although many of these supplements have been tested in double-blind trials (which is considered the highest level of scientific proof), this is often not enough to establish what effect a specific nootropic actually has on brain function.

Types of Nootropics

The main differences between the various types of nootropics is their specific ingredients and dosages. The following are the most well established categories:

  • Cognition Boosting Nootropics
  • Focus Nootropics
  • Memory Nootropics
  • Mood enhancers
  • Prescription drugs disguised as Nootropics

Cognition Boosting Nootropics

There are nootropics that are purely synthetic such as piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetam and pramiracetam. Although they have been tested in double-blind trials there is still a lot of dispute about the effectiveness of these Nootropics.

Cognition based nootropics boost your brain's processing speed by increasing your ability to learn new things and recall information from memory. They can also help you adapt to stressful situations more easily by allowing you to think clearly and concentrate on what is going on around you.

These include Racetams, which are a family of potent cognitive enhancers derived from piracetam, they work by increasing the efficiency with which neurons transfer signals between one another; this results in better communication between neurons and higher information transfer.

It has been demonstrated that piracetam can help increase cognition, memory, learning ability and problem solving by increasing the plasticity of the brain. This means that it makes it easier for your brain to change in response to your daily experiences and improves your ability to learn new things.

A study published in 2007 demonstrated that it improved learning ability, reaction time and task switching by improving synaptic transmission (the electrical connections between neurons). People with diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who took the drug L-Phenylalanine (LPA) showed better performance in tasks measuring attention span than people whose condition was not treated.

Although nootropics have been shown to increase the efficiency with which information is transferred between neurons, they don't actually cause structural changes within the brain which could lead to an improvement in cognition; this is a key consideration as today's cognitive enhancing nootropics are marketed as being able to prevent cognitive decline.

A study published in 2012 demonstrated that a synthetic nootropic known as semax can increase the survival of new brain cells by up to 50%.

Focus Nootropics

These include drugs such as Modafinil, Ritalin and Amphetamine. They work by increasing the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine, 2 neurotransmitters which are involved in increasing mental activity.

Modafinil has been shown to improve memory, concentration and mental performance both in healthy individuals with an average IQ and in people with diagnosed ADHD who were treated with methylphenidate; it is currently used in the treatment of narcolepsy (a sleep disorder), shift work sleep disorder and excessive daytime sleepiness associated with obstructive sleep apnea/hypopnea syndrome (OSAS).

It is marketed as Provigil a Schedule IV drug due to its potential for abuse.

Ritalin is also used for the treatment of patients who suffer from narcolepsy and ADD. Amphetamines work by causing a release of dopamine from nerve cells which results in increased energy, attention span and alertness.

They are also used to treat people with sleeping disorders and ADHD due to their ability to cause a release of norepinephrine (which is involved in the stress response) from nerve cells. This consequently improves mental performance and increases energy levels.

People with diagnosed ADHD and narcolepsy who took more than the recommended dose of Adderall showed improvements in memory, attention, reaction time and self-control.

Amphetamines have also been shown to improve the efficiency with which your brain processes information – you can think more clearly at higher speeds; however this may lead to an increase in mental fatigue if taken for too long.

That being said, Amphetamines are extremely addictive and not something that is recommended for people who don't suffer from ADHD or Narcolepsy.

Memory Nootropics

There are many memory-enhancing nootropics available today, some made in Switzerland and others made elsewhere (usually the US and Russia).

They work by increasing neuroplasticity at the synapses where neurons communicate, allowing them to grow stronger over time so that they are better able to communicate with one another.

Memory enhancing nootropics are usually taken for short periods of time and in small doses – often half the recommended therapeutic dosage.

The most commonly used memory enhancing nootropics are:

  • Adrafinil
  • Phenylpiracetam
  • Tianeptine and vinpocetine

However many more have been brought to the market or have been tested (usually with positive results).

Tianeptine is a drug used to treat depression and neuropathic pain; however, it has also been shown to increase memory consolidation (increases the capacity of your brain to store information) by promoting structural changes in synapses.

It has also been shown to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals where it has shown an increase in learning ability, sustained attention and improved memory functions over time.

This is usually taken orally over 1-2 weeks but can be taken daily for 3 weeks at a therapeutic dose of 50mg -200mg if needed.

Vinpocetine is a drug derived from the periwinkle plant, it increases blood flow to the brain by enhancing the oxygen supply to neurons in order to improve brain function. It also works by eliminating accumulations of ammonium ions and calcium ions which build up at synapses over time and reduce the ability of neurons to communicate with each other.

It has been shown in studies to improve cognitive abilities such as memory, attention span, perception and concentration whilst reducing mental fatigue and improving mental performance in healthy individuals who took dosages of 30mg-100mg per day for 1-2 months (it should not be mixed with other drugs or used when pregnant).

Adrafinil is a stimulant that increases wakefulness, alertness and energy levels; it also promotes mental acuity, concentration and improves memory formation. It has been shown in studies on healthy individuals that Adrafinil is more effective than Modafinil at improving mental performance; however it doesn't have as strong an effect on memory consolidation. It takes 35-60 minutes for its effects to kick in.

Mood Enhancers

Mood enhancing nootropics primarily work by increasing concentrations of neurotransmitters known as serotonin and dopamine; they also increase levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine which help regulate moods.

These neurotransmitters are found within many different areas in the brain including the:

  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Hippocampus
  • Hypothalamus and amygdala

So when these neurotransmitters are released they function as messengers that carry signals from one neuron to the next.

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter as it can modulate a wide range of behavioral, physiological and cognitive processes including moods, emotions, sleep, learning ability and memory to name a few.

There are many different types of drugs that can increase serotonin levels in your brain; these include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (example- Prozac)
  • Serotonin precursors like 5-HTP
  • Drugs that affect your hormonal balance (example- estrogen blockers like Tamoxifen)
  • Nootropics such as Huperzine A which inhibits an enzyme in the brain called acetylcholinesterase which increases available amounts of acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter involved in memory) by preventing its breakdown.

Huperzine A has been demonstrated to improve mental performance; however it has also been shown to cause nausea, vomiting, headaches and a decrease in appetite.

Memory enhancing nootropics can also work by improving the communication between your cells; this causes your brain to become more efficient at processing information and increases your ability to store information.

For example, amphetamines increase the release of dopamine and norepinephrine (which are mood-enhancing neurotransmitters) from nerve cells which allows for more effective communication between neurons, which makes it easier for you to learn new things and improve your memory.

Memory enhancing nootropics generally work for a period of 2-4 weeks after their daily dosage has been completed; therefore people who take them should be careful not to take them in conjunction with other depressant drugs such as anti-depressants such as SSRIs, tranquilizers etc.

In contrast, Aniracetam works by increasing serotonin production in the brain which improves moods. It also works by activating 5-HT1A receptors, which are responsible for transmitting signals between neurons that impulse towards certain mental processes (for example learning).

Aniracetam is also a potent antioxidant which has been shown to reduce the formation of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) in the brain and protect neurons from damage.

Prescription drugs disguised as Nootropics

There are many prescription drugs (usually established pharmaceutical drugs) that have been disguised as nootropic supplements; these include:

  • Phenylpiracetam - a drug used for the treatment of Alzheimer's and dementia.
  • Modafinil - a drug used to treat excessive sleepiness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy.
  • Armodafinil - another drug used to treat excessive sleepiness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
  • Phenibut - a GABA agonist which increases the amount of GABA available in the brain to help improve mental functions such as moods and emotions.
  • Ritalin - used to treat attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy.
  • Adderall - used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.

Adderall and Ritalin in particular are stimulants that improve cognitive abilities; they work by increasing levels of dopamine in your brain which increases your ability to concentrate, remember new information and improve mental performance.

They can be abused for their euphoric effects as they cause a release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain associated with reward and pleasure mechanisms.

5 Proven Nootropics that actually work

5. L-Theanine

L-Theanine is an amino acid that is present in green tea; it has been shown to improve mood and performance due to the fact that it acts as a serotonin receptor agonist.

This means that L-Theanine can transport serotonin into the brain where it can activate serotonin receptors, thus increasing feelings of relaxation and happiness.

It also works by reducing stress at low doses whilst simultaneously increasing mental performance at higher doses by enhancing the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine in your brain.

This can be easily achieved by drinking 1 cup of green tea per day for a period of 2 weeks and then slowly increasing this dosage until you reach a therapeutic dose of 200mg - 300mg daily; this should not be combined with any psychoactive drugs such as Prescription drugs or other stimulants/depressants (such as alcohol).

4. Caffeine

Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance found in coffee, tea, chocolate and many other foods and beverages.

It enhances mental performance and mood by increasing concentration, alertness and energy levels.

This is due to the fact that it inhibits adenosine receptors, causing an increased amount of dopamine and norepinephrine to be released in your brain.

Caffeine should not be taken in conjunction with other stimulants or depressants such as alcohol or prescription drugs; a therapeutic dose is 100-200mg per day.

3. Nicotine

Nicotine is one of many naturally-occurring nicotine alkaloids found in tobacco leaves; it works by stimulating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (chemicals contained within nerves responsible for relaying electrical impulses).

Nicotine has been shown to improve focus, concentration and memory due to the fact that it increases these neurotransmitters which then bind to acetylcholinergic receptors thus promoting better communication between neurons, making it easier for you to process new information.

Nicotine has also been shown to increase alertness and performance whilst simultaneously reducing anxiety, memory decline and improving mood due to its ability to enhance your ability to learn new things.

2. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12, or Cyanocobalamin, is an essential nutrient that is usually obtained through animal tissue (such as meat, eggs or dairy) or fish; however supplements are available in tablet form.

It is used to treat fatigue, anemia and low blood pressure.

It is also used to improve memory and cognitive functioning due to the fact that it promotes better blood circulation (which allows for easier movement of oxygen to neurons in your brain) thus increasing your ability to process information.

1. L-Tyrosine

L-Tyrosine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the body; it is one of three major building blocks of proteins (along with methionine and phenylalanine).

It has been shown to improve cognitive performance due to its role as a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which acts as a messenger between neurons within the brain; this improves concentration, memory and learning ability whilst simultaneously reducing stress.

It is also an antioxidant that protects neurons from damage, which is particularly important in the aging brain.

In order to improve cognitive performance whilst reducing stress and increasing memory, you should take 400mg of L-Tyrosine per day for a period of 2 weeks (this dose can be increased up to 1600mg if necessary).

This should not be taken in conjunction with any other stimulants, depressants or Armodafinil as this could cause adverse side effects.


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