Dopamine is most commonly known for its role in regulating cognition, reward, and behavior.
Understanding how to regulate healthy levels of dopamine both through lifestyle changes and nootropics can help improve your memory, motor control, and focus.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter; which are chemical messengers that the body uses to communicate between cells in the nervous system (1). The release of dopamine keeps us motivated to seek out pleasure and reward.
Dopamine is essential for our pleasure and reward system. When the body performs positive behavior patterns, the release of dopamine acts as a reward for these behaviors and motivates us to continue seeking that feeling – hence its nickname as the ‘motivation molecule.’
Achievements such as winning a soccer game, achieving a goal, and getting a work promotion, all result in a dopamine response. This rush and the subsequent feeling of euphoria keeps the body and mind motivated to continue pursuing these feelings.
The dopamine response mechanism also mediates physical comfort and emotional connection. Being ‘in love’ provokes the release of several neurotransmitters, and of course, dopamine is one of them.
It’s not all status, emotional, and money-related. Dopamine also ensures that we continue to pursue basic survival practices such as eating, drinking, sexual intercourse, and caring for offspring.
On the flip side, the rush of dopamine can also be abused. In those suffering from drug and gambling addictions (or any addiction for that matter), the dopamine response has taught the brain that seeking these harmful behaviors is more important than other healthier activities. Drug addicts are often so motivated to get their ‘fix’ that they will engage in seriously risky behaviors they would typically otherwise avoid.
But even if you don’t have a severe addiction, dopamine could be hijacking behaviors in your everyday life. Dysfunctions in the dopamine system are responsible for the reason you can’t stop scrolling on a smartphone or why you can’t stop eating palatable food.
Dopamine depletion can result in loss of motivation, lethargy, and forgetfulness (2). More serious depletion can create a sense of hopelessness, depression, inability to experience happiness, and withdrawal from social and emotional connections with loved ones.
Dopamine is so essential for brain function that laboratory rats deprived of dopamine will die of starvation despite an abundance of food availability (3).
Dopamine And Cognitive Function
So, apart from keeping you motivated to work hard, how is dopamine related to cognitive function?
Dopamine secretions in the prefrontal cortex improve memory; even small fluctuations in dopamine can significantly affect memory. This also ties to the reward center, because if dopamine is present when you make a memory, you are more likely to retain that information (4). An obvious example is in the classroom if you are learning something you enjoy, you are more likely to remember it and stay motivated to study harder.
Dopamine also helps with attention and focus. When dopamine concentration is too low in the prefrontal cortex, this can lead to ADHD-characterized by an impaired ability to sustain prolonged attention. Those with ADHD have difficulty focusing on a single task for long and also exhibit impulsive behavior. Treatments for ADHD, such as Ritalin, are psychostimulant drugs which act on dopaminergic transmission (5).
Animal studies have shown that selective lesions of the dopaminergic neurons in rats or primates cause cognitive deficits (6). Human cognition studies have supported the role of dopamine in modulating cognitive processes (7).
The most extreme example of dopamine deficiency is exhibited in those with Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine is produced in two primary regions of the brain, the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area (8). The former has roles in both reward and movement. The substantia nigra also houses the cells that die when someone has Parkinson’s.
Early stages of Parkinson’s also highlights dopamine’s role in cognitive function. Research shows that the early stages of the disease may impair all cognitive domains; memory, language, attention, visuospatial and visuoconstructive abilities and executive functions (this umbrella term includes emotional control, flexible thinking, and self-monitoring to name a few) (9).
Dopamine deficiency also potentially plays a role in the abnormal neurochemistry of people who have psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (10, 11).
How Nootropics Increase Dopamine And Cognitive Function
Before you start to think about taking nootropics as a means to increase dopamine, there are several simple lifestyle interventions you can begin with.
Remember, naturally increasing dopamine levels can improve mood and cognitive function too.
Exercise has been shown to increase dopamine levels among several other endorphins and endocannabinoids. Rodent studies have shown that sustained wheel running can cause dopaminat exercise can be addictive (12).
Can going for a jog increase your cognitive function?
Many studies have shown that exercise has a positive impact on cognitive function. For example, prolonged aerobic exercise increases brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a protein that drives neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells).
A meta-analysis on Aerobic Exercise and Neurocognitive performance found that aerobic exercise increases attention and processing speed, as well as executive function, and memory (13). This isn’t the same for non-aerobic exercise, and so it’s worth putting down the weights and heading outside for a run, bike or swim for the purposes of using exercise as a cognitive enhancer. Exercise comes with numerous other health benefits too, such as improved cardiovascular health (14).
Sleep is vital to optimizing cognitive function. Sleep deprivation impairs attention, working memory, long-term memory, and decision-making (15). Sure, an extra cup of coffee may help you get through the day if you’re sleep deprived, but this is only a short-term solution. Having a regular sleep routine with adequate hours of head-to-pillow time (at a minimum seven hours) allows your brain to consolidate memories it has acquired throughout the day. It’s best to aim for eight to nine hours per night.
Exposure to blue light can negatively influence your circadian rhythm (16). Exposure to blue light at night suppresses the secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and can throw your circadian rhythm off balance, hence why it’s often recommended that screen usage is limited 2 hours before bedtime, or at the very least use the red light setting on your electronic devices.
On the flip side, blue light exposure in the day appears to have a positive effect on cognitive performance. Several randomized controlled trials have shown that blue light can improve attention, working memory, verbal memory, and mood (17). One reason why it may improve cognitive function during the day and decrease it at night is because blue light causes neurochemical responses in your brain which mimic exposure to sunlight.
Nootropics And Dopamine
So, if you are sleeping well, wake-up feeling rested and getting your heart rate up a couple of times a week, what else can you do to increase dopamine?
Enter dopamine boosting nootropics…
Caffeine is probably the most utilized nootropic. Caffeine is found in coffee, energy drinks, yerba mate, other teas, and even chocolate. It’s well known that caffeine consumption can have stimulatory effects and increase concentration.
Caffeine increases dopamine levels in the brain by slowing down its reabsorption. It does this by blocking adenosine receptors A1 and A2A. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and acts as a nervous system depressant (18). In simple terms, adenosine makes you sleep, and caffeine decreases adenosine, therefore promoting wakefulness.
There is evidence that the blockage of A1 receptors is reduced with chronic exposure to caffeine – aka drinking five cups of coffee every day of the week probably doesn’t mean five times the amount of dopamine (19). However, lingering results could be modulated through the A2A receptor.
The benefits of consistent caffeine consumption don’t stop there. In moderation, regular use is associated with a decreased risk of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, and strokes (20).
Nicotine binds to neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and increases dopamine release. Increased dopamine release in the Nucleus Accumbens Core is responsible for the rewarding and pleasurable effects of nicotine, presumably responsible for the addictive mechanism, whereas increased dopamine release in the prefrontal cortex is thought to be responsible for mediating the cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine (21).
Nicotine as a nootropic refers to a nicotine supplement or gum, not smoking cigarettes. The harmful effects of tobacco have been proven time and time again, studies have even shown that smokers have less grey matter in their prefrontal-cortex than non-smokers (22). Furthermore, nicotine is addictive, and too much exposure desensitizes the receptors, hence if it is to be used as a nootropic, then small doses are essential.
Studies have shown that nicotine can improve motor response and memory in both smokers and non-smokers; however, the improvements measured are small (23). It’s also important to note that when smokers are deprived of nicotine, their cognitive ability declines.
Tyrosine is a precursor for dopamine, alongside the other essential neurotransmitters norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Tyrosine itself is a non-essential amino acid and can be synthesized from phenylalanine (24). This means that the body doesn’t need to intake tyrosine directly; instead, its levels can be increased by uptake of phenylalanine rich foods such as milk, eggs, and meat. Vegan options include nuts, soy products, lima beans, avocados, and bananas.
Alternatively, tyrosine levels can be boosted with supplements.
Tyrosine is particularly helpful in maintaining cognitive function when you are under stress, and as a bonus works synergistically with stimulants such as Ritalin (25, 26). Ritalin works by blocking the uptake of dopamine; however, there need to be adequate dopamine supplies for this to work.
One double-blinded, randomized controlled trial illustrated this by making soccer players perform a performance test under a warm environment to simulate stress (27). The results – tyrosine ingestion is associated with improved vigilance and mental effort when exposed to individualized soccer-specific exercise in a warm environment. This suggests that increasing the availability of tyrosine may improve cognitive function during exposure to exercise-heat stress.
As we know, dopamine is beneficial for cognitive function; hence, uptake of tyrosine can improve memory and concentration (28, 29). But the benefits don’t stop there; tyrosine has also been shown to have antidepressant effects and improve libido (30).
Intake of this critical mineral has decreased over time, which can be blamed on soil depletion and food processing. Physical and emotional stress alongside some drugs can deplete magnesium stores in the body. It’s no wonder that on average half of Americans are deficient in magnesium (31).
Research on magnesium and dopamine is limited; however, there is some evidence that low magnesium levels may be a contributing factor to low dopamine levels (32).
CDP choline is a highly bioavailable form of choline. Choline is an essential nutrient because your body needs choline from food or supplements as it cannot make it as fast as it uses it.
Animal studies have shown that CDP choline can increase dopamine release and synthesis rate (33).
One study looked at the effect of CDP-choline in low, medium, and high performing health volunteers (34). The results were surprising. Choline appeared to result in improved processing speed, working memory, verbal learning, verbal memory, and executive function in the low performing volunteers. However, in the high performing volunteers, choline appeared to harm cognitive function.
L-theanine is an amino acid naturally found in green and oolong tea, but it can also be taken as a supplement.
Approximately 50 mg of L-theanine is found in two cups of tea; and even this small amount has a direct effect on the brain as proven in human electroencephalogram studies (35, 36). L-theanine increases the alpha frequency band that is responsible for relaxing the mind without causing drowsiness. The alpha band is also known to play a role in attention.
Studies have shown that taking 200 mg of L-theanine has a calming effect and can help manage stress-related behavior without inducing drowsiness.
Combining L-theanine with caffeine might be more beneficial than caffeine alone. Experienced nootropics users often ‘stack’ compounds together that work synergistically. A stack of L-theanine and caffeine is one of the safest for improving focus, and L-theanine can reduce caffeine ‘jitters’ (37).
Animal neurochemistry studies have suggested that L-theanine increases dopamine levels; behavioral studies in animals have suggested improvement in learning and memory (38, 39).
Mucuna, also known as velvet bean, has well known dopaminergic action (40).
A serving contains approximately 4-7% L-DOPA, which is converted to dopamine and can easily cross the blood-brain barrier.
It’s a well-known Ayurvedic Indian medicine, used as a traditional and modern day treatment for Parkinson’s (41).
The reviews are promising, a quick Google search of the velvet bean powder results in a plethora of positive testimonies, some even calling it ‘natural MDMA.’ The benefits are not just limited to cognition; Mucuna is touted as having all desirable qualities of an antidepressant.
The science backs it up. One study found that Mucuna not only reduced stress but also improved semen quality in infertile males (42).
Curcumin refers to the bright yellow compound in turmeric. Used generously in Indian cuisine, and rarely in the western world until its recent rise in popularity. Its newfound ‘superfood’ status means it can be found in lattes and supplement form. More and more people are utilizing curcumin for its physiological and physical benefits.
Most research on curcumin is in preliminary stages. However, there is some evidence that curcumin can be used as an antidepressant by boosting dopamine (43). The dose of curcumin needed is high; hence consuming curcumin directly instead of loading up on turmeric might be vital to reaping the benefits.
Xiao Yao San is a Chinese herbal formula long used to treat depression; one of its major components is Curcumin. A systematic review found that it appears to be useful for improving symptoms in patients with depression (44).
A 400mg dose of solid lipid curcumin formulation was shown to improve performance on attention and working memory tasks compared to placebo (45). Chronic treatment enhanced working memory and mood, in particular, fatigue induced from chronic stress.
Maca is another food source that has recently risen in popularity. However its nootropic use is not a 21st-century discovery. Traditionally, maca was used in Peru to improve children’s performance in school.
Maca contains significant amounts of amino acids, including tyrosine, which is the precursor to dopamine.
Animal studies have shown that Maca can improve memory, learning, and energy in cognitively impaired rodents (46, 47).
Natural Vs. Synthetic Nootropics
You may have noticed that many nootropic compounds are plant-derived and classified as an herbal supplement. But this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken without any form of caution. Some come with drug interactions or contraindications that need to be checked for before usage.
There are also several synthetic nootropic compounds that can boost dopamine levels. These include racetams such as Piracetam, Noopept, and Modafinil, just to name a few. Racetams are understood to work on the glutamate AMPA receptors. Scientific evidence is mixed, with some studies showing no effect in otherwise healthy individuals (48, 49). Tolerance also builds up quick with racetams, hence cycling through different types might be the best way to utilize these cognitive enhancers.
Dopamine is a crucial neurotransmitter responsible for regulating cognition and behavior. Increasing and normalizing dopamine levels can improve your overall cognitive function.
You can increase your dopamine levels by exercising regularly, sleeping well, avoiding harmful addictive behavior, and also by using some of the nootropics mentioned in this article, such as caffeine.