Brain-Boosting Supplements

What are ‘nootropics’?

‘Nootropics’, also known as ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’,  encompass  a variety of substances taken with the intention of enhancing cognitive brain function, memory, motivation, learning and/or analytical thinking power. They can be made up of a combination of food substances or extracted and purified components of medicinal plants. This article will focus on the latter, considering some of the variety available and their effects on the brain.


The term ‘nootropics’ was first coined in 1972 by psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea who suggested that by changing the availability of neurochemicals (i.e. altering levels of neurotransmitters, enzymes and hormones) certain substances can improve the supply of oxygen to the brain or stimulate nerve growth leading to cognitive enhancement. Today smart drugs are commonly used with the intention of increasing productivity, particularly in the context of academia.  

What specific kinds exist and what do they do?

It should be noted that the following are not clearly defined, objective categories as there are many supplements which may be placed under each classification, thus these should be conceptualised as one means of grouping and comparing substances and how they function.

Choline: 

Choline is a water soluble dietary nutrition usually grouped with B-complex vitamins which can be found in eggs, dairy products, meat and seafood. It must be consumed through diet in order for the body to remain healthy as it is used to build and repair cell membranes, as well as being a chemical precursor to the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The interest in dietary Choline and brain function came about after the discovery of the role this neurotransmitter plays in a range of cognitive systems. Research suggests that memory, intelligence and mood are at least in part mediated by acetylcholine metabolism. Though Chlorine supplements were originally designed to combat liver disorders, bipolar disease and Alzheimer’s disease, supplements have been reported to significantly increase poor memory capacity and cognitive sluggishness in healthy individuals by increasing the synthesis and release of acetylcholine. 

Reversible acetylcholinesterase inhibitors:  

Reversible acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors have a number of therapeutic uses such as for glaucoma, Lewy Body Dementia and Alzheimer’s. AChE is an enzyme found in the synapses of neurons that increases the length of the neurotransmitter pulse. These supplements function by mimicking the effect of neurotransmitters, allowing AChE already in the brain to remain longer in the synaptic cleft enabling a better chance of interpreting signals. There is evidence to suggest that these inhibitors have the ability to enhance cognition and memory in healthy individuals. 

The two most commonly used are Galantamine, an alkaloid created synthetically or extracted from the flowers of Galanthus Caucasius, and Huperzine, a natural over-the-counter and dietary supplement which contains Huperzine-A, an alkaloid that easily crosses the blood brain barrier and acts as an AChE. Both are reported to enhance memory, however Galantamine is said to impact more specifically on attention and learning as well as being popularly used as a sleep aid and to increase the odds of lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. Whereas Huperzine is documented as effective for keeping the brain in good mental health and improving the rate at which brain cells are produced.

Racetams: 

Racetams are sometimes cited as an example of nootropics with a large therapeutic window and hardly any side-effects. Their nootropics effect is reported to be the same as those of legal amphetamines, such as dexamphetamine and methylphenidate, manufactured for the treatment of disorders such as narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, whereas amphetamines increase the amount of neurotransmitters in the neural synapses and stimulate receptors, Racetams bond to receptors changing their shape enabling them to be more effective at utilising existing neurotransmitters. In contrast with stimulants’ noticeable temporary effects, followed by a reduction in cognitive abilities on the decrease or elimination of dosage, Racetams are reported to have a longer lasting impact without this “rebound” effect. 

There are a number of different chemicals which belong to this group of nootropics all of which produce differing effects. Oxiracetam has been reported to increase spatial reasoning and logic, but provide little memory enhancement; Aniracetam a positive effect upon memory and creativity; Pramiracetam is said to enhance general cognitive ability and memory, as well as having a focusing and motivate effect, and; Piracetam, the most commonly used and best researched, is purported to improve neuronal efficiency and oxygen utilisation, enhancing general cognition, memory and linguistic skill. 

Conclusive evidence?

From this overview it’s clear that there are an unprecedented amount of neuroactive products on the market today and much more in development. While it might be tempting to assume that these can make you a more effective person, it is worth noting that the long-term consequences of the use of stimulants originally intended to treat certain medically diagnosed problems are yet to be properly assessed. There’s much anecdotal evidence, including, notably, from online companies with a vested interest in marketing their products. In reality their effectiveness is variable between individuals and, importantly, yet to be officially verified. 

Whilst quite a number of well-constructed studies reveal significant mental improvement in healthy people for short spaces of time, none of the currently available studies are suitably long-term. In order to provide conclusive evidence of their impact results must demonstrate real-life significant differences across participants. Moreover, many claims are based on subjective anecdotal reports. Experiential accounts of ‘faster cognition’, for example, simply cannot be directly attributed to specific supplements, or even events caused by the Placebo effect. Indeed, it should be noted that the desired “effects” on the human body may in fact be achievable without the use of such supplements. Consequently, 

In conclusion then, though smart drugs are widely recommended by certain researchers for human enhancement, there are also many reports which make assertions to the contrary. Furthermore, as with all pharmaceutical drugs, there are concerns over potential adverse effects, both immediate and long-term, particularly because they are often taken on a long-term basis currently with little available data. As with all pharmaceutical drugs each nootropic has side-effects, thus, anyone interested in experimenting should explore carefully, paying strict attention to recommended dosages. Nevertheless, despite existing caution not to take such supplements every day, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that nootropics can indeed be used effectively as short-term aid for specific occasions, such as final exams. However, supplements should never be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. It is therefore always worth remembering that healthy eating, good sleep, and regular exercise have also be indisputably proven to significantly enhance cognition.