Nootropics are compounds and substances that can increase cognitive performance across a range of tasks and in a variety of modalities. Also called ‘smart drugs’, they tend to be popular particularly among students and busy business executives who need to do a lot of work in sometimes short amounts of time.
But the mistake some people make is in thinking that nootropics improve the brain wholesale. It is far more useful to think of the brain as being divided into multiple smaller sections, and each of these sections as being responsible for a different kind of ability.
Thus you shouldn’t look to nootropics to make you smarter across the board, or you will inevitably be disappointed. Instead, you should look into the use of nootropics for providing specific benefits within particular domains and aim to improve specific functions of your brain.
One effective place to start is with focus and attention, so read on and we’ll look at how you can use nootropics in order to boost these aspects of your mental performance in order to improve productivity, learning and more.
Note: That said, even when using nootropics for specific ends, you will find that they all carry risks and that they aren’t all that well understood. This is an interesting area to research but it is not advised that anyone use potentially dangerous medications such as Adderall or Modafinil for off-label purposes. Keep reading and at the end we’ll look at some of the healthier alternatives for enhancing cognition.
Improving focus and memory are closely linked, seeing as we tend to remember things better when we focus on them fully. However, the two are still somewhat distinct, so it makes sense to look at them independently.
Focus is encouraged particularly by a number of neurotransmitters that increase alertness and that help us to direct our attention. One example is dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that we often refer to as the ‘reward hormone’ – because it is released when we do something that we think is positive. In fact though, dopamine is actually a little more complex than that and is really more about motivation and attention. Dopamine in short tells us what’s important and this aids with focus, so raising it will increase our ability to concentrate and thus the amount of information we take in.
Dopaminergics are substances that increase the amount of dopamine. One example is tyrosine which is a precursor to dopamine – meaning that it gets converted into it once it’s available in the body. Theanine is a precursor to serotonin, but also stimulates dopamine levels and is found in green tea. Caffeine also actually increases dopamine levels, while working in other ways to promote arousal as well (by reducing a build-up of adenosine). Modafinil, a medication originally designed to be used for treating narcolepsy, also appears to raise dopamine levels – though the precise mechanisms of action aren’t fully understood and it carries some risks due to a lack of research surrounding it. Adderall is also a supplement that can increase focus and was original intended for use by ADHD sufferers. Adderall is an amphetamine and comes with numerous side effects similar to Ritalin.
Note that with use of any dopaminergic comes the risk of hampering creativity according to some research (1).
Racetams are another type of nootropic designed to boost focus, this time by promoting acetylcholine use – the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain. Supplements such as Piracetam work by promoting the function of acetylcholine receptors, but again the mechanism of action isn’t fully understood, making their use a risky undertaking. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors such as huperzine A work by reducing acetylcholinesterase, itself an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine.
A substance designed to keep you awake is a eugeroic. Caffeine is again the best known among these, which works by reducing the build-up of adenosine which appears to make us feel groggy and tired over time. This is also the original aim of modafinil which promotes wakefulness through various means, including the reduction of GABA (2), which is a sleep-promoting neurotransmitter.
There are numerous supplements that can be used to boost memory and these tend to be very popular among students. CILTeP is a combination of forskolin and artichoke extract aimed at increasing cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate) and thereby aiding in ‘long term potentiation’ (the strengthening of neural connections). Unfortunately, research fails to support the effectiveness of CILTeP conclusively (3, 4).
Vasopressin has been recommended by some (including author Tim Ferriss) for its ability to increase the retention of information. Vasopressin is an amino peptide produced in the pituitary gland which plays a role in short term memory – it is believed that the blackouts we experience when drinking alcohol are partly the result of reduced vasopressin. Unfortunately vasopressin is also an antidiuretic, so it’s no advised (even by Ferriss) as something to use on a very regular basis.
Improving Energy and Brain Function
Perhaps the one safe and reliable way in which nootropics can be used, is simply to boost energy levels and thus to improve brain function in that way. A good example of this is creatine, a supplement that helps our cells to make more ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate, their main energy source) and which is popular among athletes. Interestingly, recent research also demonstrates that creatine can help to boost cognitive performance in a range of tasks (5). Alpha lipoic acid, or ALA, also works in a similar way by creating more energy through the Krebs cycle (the breakdown of carbohydrates to create ATP).
MCT (Medium Chained Triglycerides) meanwhile can promote production of ketones in the body. Ketones provide an alternative energy source to carbohydrates that are preferred by the brain for some tasks. This is also a particularly quick way to get a boost of energy – much faster than the amount of time it would take for your body to get energy from carbohydrates.
Vasodilators are foods that increase the diameter of blood vessels, thus aiding with the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the brain and helping boost performance that way. These are ‘cognitive metabolic enhancers’ and are perhaps the safest and most effective way to boost your brain function through supplements currently.
Many vitamins and minerals can also have similar effects in promoting brain health in the long and short term by producing more energy (vitamin B6, B12), by aiding with the physical composition of the brain (amino acids, saturated fats) and by improving communication between neurons (essential fatty acids such as omega 3 fatty acid). While eating fruit and veg might not give you that immediate cognitive boost that seems so alluring in the film limitless, they nevertheless give you a boost that is safer and more effective in the long term.
Dopaminergics, eugeroics and racetams at this point should be considered interesting areas of research, but not seriously considered for boosting your own mental performance. Caffeine is the safest stimulant you can use to enhance learning and even that should be used sparingly. Focus instead on using the right diet and nutrients to facilitate long-term brain health and/or consider using cognitive metabolic enhancers when you really need that extra bit of performance.