The term “nootropics” seems to be an up-and-coming topic in the health world. It is a group of medicines, herbs and other elements that hold the promise of naturally boosting your brain’s potential to think more clearly, learn more effectively, be more creative, have a better memory, and fight brain fog.
At first read, who wouldn’t want to boost their brain power, naturally? However, the seemingly supernatural assurances nootropics offer may also raise a lot of skepticism.
What are nootropics? Do they safely and effectively allow us to reach our full cognitive potential?
In this article, we review foundational and up-to-date research to answer these questions.
But first, let’s start at square one and understand the history and use of nootropics over time.
Nootropics Before the Name: The Use of Nootropics in History
Nootropics aren’t a just a passing fad; they have they been around for thousands of years, and now several have dozens of years of research to back their effectiveness.
Some of the most popular natural nootropics, including Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) and Ginkgo biloba, have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Other brain-enhancing herbs and plants have been used in health systems far and wide – from Asia to South America.
For decades, the western biomedical systems often dismissed these herbs used for brain health as there was limited research that showed clinical proof of their effectiveness. Today, we know that medicinal herbs have a mode of action that can be studied just like any pill that fits within the western medicine system.
When the western health system started to look for alternative ideas for solving major health issues affecting people all over the world, they turned to age-old traditional medicine and began to identify how it affected our health, including our brain health.
Then and Now: Nootropics for Therapy and “Cosmetic Neurology”
Of course, the name “nootropics” is quite new. More research into how newly-identified components (natural, derived, and synthetic), and their effect on our brain gave rise to a much wider category of brain-enhancing drugs.
The term nootropic was proposed by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea in his 1973 paper, “The ‘nootropic’ approach to the pharmacology of the integrative activity of the brain.” Later, the term and concept was further explored by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea and Dr. Maurice Salama in 1977.
In the decade after these publications, dozens of researchers began to explore the pharmacology and clinical effectiveness herbs and active ingredients that had been known to have brain-enhancing effects in well-documented traditional systems of medicine, especially in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda.
In the 80s and early 90s, the primary interest in the use of these drugs was to explore innovative treatments for brain and cognitive disorders, and several are used as part of standard treatments today.
When we welcomed the new millennium, new frontiers for the applications of nootropics began to emerge.
With the establishment of therapeutic effects of nootropics with no psychoactive effects, researchers began to explore the applications of nootropics for people without cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Instead, the uses of nootropics were explored from a different angle, thinking of people who wanted to access fuller learning, memory, and creative potential.
Beyond the therapeutic benefits which are well established, nootropics are now commonly referred to as “smart drugs” as they are considered in an era of cognitive enhancement and “cosmetic neurology.” (Cosmetic neurology refers to the idea that we can purposefully modify the way out brain works to have more favorable intellectual characteristics).
Now, interesting debates are arising. Nootropics have proven to result in improvement in cognitive abilities of healthy people, and dozens are available without the need for a prescription. Thus, some question whether the use of nootropics should be regulated, or even prohibited in certain fields (especially competitive sports) because for providing an unfair advantage.
It is important to note that, while the debate is interesting to follow, most researchers disagree that most non-prescription nootropics should or will be regulated for the general population. However, the American Medical Association will continue to promote further research on nootropic drugs to determine unknown effects.
What are Nootropics? Nootropics Defined
Giurgea and Salama, in their original 1977 article, named six features of natural or synthetic elements that could be considered nootropics:
- Enhances the ability to learn
- Resistance to agents that impair brain health
- Facilitates information transfer between right and left-brain hemispheres
- Enhanced resistance to brain “aggression.”
- Increased tonic, cortico-subcortical “control.”
- Absence of usual pharmacological effects of neuro-psychotropic drugs (like analgesics, anesthetics, antipsychotics, and antidepressants).
A few years later, Giurgea defined nootropics as follows:
A nootropic drug is characterized by a direct functional activation of the higher integrative brain mechanisms that enhances cortical vigilance, a telencephalic functional selectivity, and a particular efficiency in restoring deficient higher nervous activity.
However, nootropics aren’t only drugs. There are substances found in food and in herbs that also meet the criteria of nootropics. Thus, a more all-encompassing definition of nootropics is: “a substance that improves human cognitive abilities.”
Pharmacology of Nootropics: How They Work
The field of pharmacology studies the action of drugs and their effects on our body. Pharmacology includes many disciplines, including biomedical science, neuroscience, molecular biology, and immunology to understand how drugs impact our health and wellbeing on multiple levels.
Note that the term “drugs,” in the case of nootropics, has a wider definition; not only does it refer to synthetic elements made in the lab and those derived from natural ingredients. It also refers to food components with nootropic effects or whole herbs with identified active nootropic substances.
Nootropics may help to improve brain function in one or many different ways, including:
- Increasing circulation to the brain
- Providing chemical messengers to the brain
- Improving neuron function
- Preventing oxidative damage on the brain by free radicals
- Providing usable energy directly to the brain
It is important to note that the pharmacology of nootropics has perplexed accepted paradigms of drug-cell reactions. While we won’t go into that much detail here, the clinical effects of nootropics on behavior imply acting upon neurological receptors.
While some types of nootropics impact the transmission of brain signals on some levels, they don’t result from how we understand other drugs to impact brain receptors. In other words, they act in ways that challenge our current understanding of how drugs impact our brain.
Wider studies, especially those about how nootropics can improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, have identified how nootropics interact. They’ve identified that they can interact, not only with receptors, but also with enzymes and other targets, like ion channels, nerve growth factors, re-uptake transporters, antioxidants, and others.
Uses of Nootropics
Since, then, the concept of nootropics has not changed significantly. Essentially, nootropics are substances that enhance the brain’s potential without side effects of other psychoactive drugs.
Nootropics were originally explored for their potential therapeutic effects on people who have cognitive and neurological disorders and deficits, including speech disorders, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, dementia, and others.
However, because they don’t have the negative effects traditional drugs tend to have, they can also be effectively used to enhance and optimize the brain function of otherwise healthy people. Some of the positive effects on healthy people include, but are not limited to, improved:
Logically, all of these elements, lead to improved intelligence through enhancing natural brain capacity to take in and process information.
Types of Nootropics and What They Do
One group of researchers divide nootropics components into 12 categories. Note that this table identifies the “active ingredient,” so it is possible that an herb or other substance naturally contain several nootropic components. Each is categorized below by mode of action (pharmacology) and include examples.
|Mode of Action
|Dietary sources and supplements
|Increase glucose levels in the brain to influence memory, learning, concentration, and decision-making. The brain cannot function normally without these substances
|Vitamins, omega-3, iron, antioxidants, amino acids, caffeine
|Modulate acetylcholinergic systems and AMPA receptors. Important to note that may pose health risks in some populations
|Pramiracetam, oxiracetam, aniracetam, nebracetam
|Productivity enhancers that improve concentration while in the blood. Note that several stimulants are not considered nootropics, but rather neuro-psychotropic drugs.
|Caffeine, methylphenidate, eugeroics
|Affect the neurotransmitter dopamine or components of the nervous system that use dopamine
|L-Phenylalanine, L-Tyrosine, L-DOPA, biopterin, PLP
|May act as precursors, cofactors or enhancers of neurotransmitters
|Choline, meclofenoxate, acetylcarnitine, vitamin B5, rosemary, sage, and galantamine
|Affect the serotonin neurotransmitters.
|5-HTP. Tryptophan, resveratrol, curcumin, piperine, harmal, and Rhodiola Rosea
|Anti-Depression, adaptogenic (antistress) and mood stabilization agents
|Counteract and prevent depression and poor mood.
|Lemon balm, passion flower, St. John’s Wort, Siberian Ginseng, Sutherlandia frutescens
|Blood flow and metabolic function enhancers
|Promote efficient energy use, remove waste, and intake new materials by improving blood flow
|Blessed thistle, Coenzyme Q-10, creatine, lipoic acid, pyritinol, picamilon, ginkgo biloba, vinpocetine
|Nerve growth stimulators and brain cell protecting agents
|Promote brain communication
|Idebenone, melatonin, glutathione, Lion’s Mane Mushroom
|Not necessarily connected to another specific chemical interaction
|Vasopressin, pregnenolone, orexin
|May only help people who lack certain neurotransmitters and other elements specific to brain need
|The mode of action isn’t fully understood, but they have shown effectiveness
|Bacopa monniera, Brahmi Rasayana, forexide, curcumin, royal jelly
Additionally, the same group of researchers has categorized natural and herbal cognitive enhancers that can be accessed through food and supplements derived from herbs. These include:
|Category of natural and herbal cognitive enhancers
|Mode of action
|Examples (if applicable)
|Amino acids and proteins
|Produce enzymes that transport molecules, make structural material and neurotransmitters. Naturally found in high-protein foods
|L-cysteine, L-carnitine, L-phenylalanine, L-glutamine, L-tryptophan, L-tyrosine0
|Protect against oxidative damage in the brain. Some improve nutrient uptake in the cells and improve memory. Naturally found in fruits and vegetables.
|Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA), anthocyanins, flavonoids, tannins, phenolic acids, stilbenoids, polyphenols, isoflavones
|Increases the production of acetylcholine, which helps to build up energy for use in the brain. May enhance memory and mood.
|Essential for proper brain functioning
|Come mainly from eating carbohydrates, though whole wheat carbohydrates are preferred.
|Can help modulate learning capabilities and improve memory
|DHEA, vasopressin, pregnenolone
|Transports oxygen to the brain to keep us feeling sharp
|Iron supplements or foods high in iron
|Omega-3 fatty acids
|Promotes proper brain development and learning power
|DHA and ALA
|Important for learning, cognition, memory, and concentration, among others.
|Important in brain cell metabolism and communication
|Vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin b12 (cyanocobalamine/ methylcobalamine), Vitamin B3, Folic acid, Choline
|Amla (Emblica Officinalis), Indian gooseberry
|Brami (Bacopa monniera)
|Protects from free radical damage and stimulates improved learning and cognitive function
|Guggul (Commiphora wightii)
|Protective against certain types of memory deficits
|Caffeine (Kola vera)
|Mixed opinions on the effects of caffeine on the brain, but research shows it helps to improve short-term concentration, increased alertness, and improved performance
|Ginger (Zinziber Officinale)
|Memory and learning enhancement by significantly increasing whole brain acetyl
cholinesterase inhibition activity through active ingredients gingerin, gingerol, shogaol, and zingerone
|Coconut milk powder (cocos nucifera)
|Contain medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that help to slow cognitive decline
|MCTs or coconut oil
|Curcumin (Curcuma longa)
|Neuroprotective and antioxidant effect.
|Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
|Help the brain metabolize glucose.
|Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
|Ginkgo extracts enhance nerve transmission in the brain and improve the production and usage of neurotransmitters within the brain
|Golden Rose / Golden Root (Rhodiola rosea)
|Mediates changes in serotonin and dopamine and reduced fatigue and improves physical and mental performance.
|Gotu Kola (Centella Asiatica)
|Contains calming and intelligence-promoting effects by reducing adrenal corticosterone blood levels during stress.
|Green Tea (Camellia sinensis)
|Contains EGCG, a powerful antioxidant. Theanine converts in the brain into GABA, the neurochemical involved in inhibiting over active mental activities, such as stress, anxiety, worrying, and nervousness.
|Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia)
|Guduchi has been shown to enhance cognition (learning and memory).
|Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
|Balances sugar levels in the blood and increases circulation to the brain. Also, an antioxidant which protects the brain from oxidative damage and improves memory.
|Lycopodium saururus (Huperzia saururus)
|Used as an aphrodisiac and to enhance learning.
|Maca (Lipidium meyenii)
|It has showed beneficial improvement in memory and learning. A
|Magnolia Bark (Magnolia officinalis)
|Magnolia and have been used as traditional Chinese medicines for the treatment of neurosis, anxiety, and stroke.
|Sesame (Sesamum indicum)
|Dietary sesaminol has shown a protective effect against Abeta-induced learning and memory deficits
|Red Spider Lilly (Lycoris radiata)
|Contains galantamine alkaloid as an active ingredient Galantamine is a competitive and reversible cholinesterase inhibitor to increase concentration.
|Shankhpushpi (Evolvulus alsinoides)
|Improved memory while reducing stress.
|Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus sentiocosus)
|Anti-stress effect, and stimulates the brain to release energy more effectively
|Spanish Sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia)
|Anti-cholinesterase activity to improve memory, disorders, mood
|St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
|Helps to elevate mood and restore mental balance
|Improved cerebral blood flow
|Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus)
|Has a wide range of
pharmacological activities such as sedative, CNS depressant,
behavior modifying, anticonvulsant, acetylcholinesterase
inhibitory, memory enhancing, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and others
|Yerba mate (Ilex paraguayensis)
|contain two active principles:
polyphenols (chlorogenic acid) and xanthenes (caffeine,
theophylline and theobromine) that help to stimulate the nervous system
|May increase brain cell growth and diversity
The field of nootropics is, without a doubt an exciting field with many applications.
The knowledge of the effects of certain herbs on our mental and intellectual health, however, is not new. In traditional medical systems like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, nootropic herbs and plants were used to improve functions associated with brain health.
When Giurgea pooled the knowledge on the dozens of components identified to have brain-enhancing effects, especially for people with brain disorders, he defined the concept of nootropics.
Today, nootropics are used by healthy people as well to improve their ability to learn, concentrate, memorize and understand. They are not often referred to as “smart drugs”: medicines, herbs, and components in foods that can help to boost our cognitive abilities without the effects of neuro psychotropic drugs. They work on our brain in several different ways, and even challenge traditional understandings of pharmacology.
The field of nootropics has taken an exciting new direction, and without a doubt, over time it will change the way we see how we see our full cognitive ability.
Sasha is a Nutritional Anthropologist with an M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition. She has been a food, nutrition, and health researcher and writer for six years and also works as an international development consultant.
She is passionate about empowering people to make the best nutrition and health choices in a way that makes cultural and logical sense for each individual and community.
Sasha currently lives in Guatemala with her family and three dogs. In her free time, she cooks, reads, gardens, and goes on adventures with her family around Guatemala and the world.