What Are Nootropics And How Can They Improve Your Brain's Performance?
Nootropic supplements are dietary supplements that people consume for the purpose of enhancing brain function, cognitive ability, and intellectual performance. Most nootropic supplements are derived from natural or nutraceutical sources. They are biological molecules found in nature, either as plant phytochemicals, or as substances already existing within the human body.
While the term ‘nootropic’ is a modern term, historically, the use of nootropics dates back thousands of years. Bacopa monnieri, an important herb in India’s Ayurvedic medical system, has been consumed for over three thousand years.
Bacopa was initially described around the 6th century BCE in texts such as the Charaka Samhita, Athar-Ved, and Susrutu Samhita as a medhya rasayana–class herb taken to sharpen intellect and attenuate mental deficits. The herb was allegedly used by ancient Vedic scholars to memorize lengthy sacred hymns and scriptures. In modern times, Bacopa has been given to Indian school children to enhance concentration and learning.
The use of Gingko biloba in Traditional Chinese Medicine also has a long history. Ancient Chinese writings mention the medicinal use of Gingko as a cognitive enhancer during the Han dynasty between 206 BCE and 220 BCE.
The Father of Nootropic Supplements
Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea (1923-1995) is referred to by many as the ‘father of nootropics.’ Giurgea was a Romanian psychologist and chemist who specialized in brain pharmacology and cognitive performance research.
Dr. Giurgea had a distinguished career, serving as a professor and research fellow at a number of universities in Europe and the U.S. He ultimately worked as a scientific counselor and researcher for the Belgian pharmaceutical company, Union Chimique Belge (UCB).
Giurgea dedicated his life to furthering the conscious evolution of humanity. He felt that humans could and should work to further their own cognitive potential through whatever means at their disposal, including the use of nootropic supplements and drugs. In his own words;
“Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.”
It was Giurgea who, in 1972, coined the term ‘nootropic.’ It derives from the Greek roots ‘nous’, meaning ‘mind’, and ‘tropi’, meaning ‘change; or ‘mind change.’
In 1964, eight years earlier, Giurgea made his first big breakthrough with nootropics. He was able to synthesize a molecular compound that was shown to boost memory, learning, creativity, verbal fluency, and brain circulation. He called his compound, ‘piracetam.’ Since his initial discovery of piracetam, a sub-group of similar synthetic substances has been developed, which includes;
- Piracetam (general cognitive enhancer)
- Aniracetam (AMPA receptor modulator, mood and cognitive enhancer)
- Phenylpiracetam (stimulant, anti-amnesic, neuroprotective)
- Oxiracetam (mild stimulant, memory enhancer)
- Pramiracetam (stimulant, memory and cognitive enhancer)
- Fasoracetam (GABAergic)
- Coluracetam (cholinergic function enhancer)
There are a few additional racetam-related compounds that are still being evaluated for their potential nootropic effects. It is these racetam compounds that currently fall into a gray area with respect to their classification as nutraceutical supplements or pharmaceutical drugs. In spite of their synthetic origins, these substances are currently available for sale in the U.S. as nootropic supplements.
According to Giurgea, a nootropic had to have five characteristics;
- it should enhance learning and memory
- it should enhance the brain’s resistance to stressful conditions
- it should protect the brain from chemical or physiological assaults (neuroprotective)
- it should increase the brain’s cellular communication
- it should lack the usual pharmacological characteristics of other psychotropic drugs (meaning they shouldn’t impair motor function or possess sedative qualities), and they must have very few (if any) side effects and extremely low toxicity
Dr. Giurgea’s original concept of what defines a nootropic has evolved significantly since the 1960’s. Today, a substance is considered a nootropic if it benefits brain function or health in any way. There are now over eighty natural substances marketed as nootropic supplements which fall under this broader definition. The list includes such common ingredients as B vitamins, caffeine, and l-theanine.
The Market for Nootropic Supplements
The stakes are high for nootropic supplement companies and their customers, with the U.S. nootropic supplement market valued in 2015 at over $640 million. Nootropics have gained wide acceptance with older people for memory enhancement, and amongst young people as mood enhancers and cognitive boosters.
One factor driving this interest is the intense nootropic research which has been conducted over the past few decades. Much of the research has been focused on potential applications to chronic illnesses such as dementia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Parkinsons, and milder forms of age-related cognitive disorders. There has also been research into possible applications for depression, stress, and similar psycho-emotional disorders.
As a product, and oftentimes a by-product of this research, scientists have identified many cognitive-enhancing characteristics, in both synthetic and natural nootropic substances. This fact has led to an increasing interest in young people who are in search of ways to increase their physical and mental productivity, and to improve mood.
A survey of Cambridge University students in England found that 10% of the student body took nootropics to improve their ability to concentrate during exams .
How Nootropic Supplements Work
There are essentially nine reasons why people take nootropics;
- to improve memory
- to increase concentration and focus
- to improve learning ability
- to enhance creativity
- to produce a tranquil mental clarity
- to increase motivation and stamina for physical work
- to combat stress
- to facilitate brain cellular regeneration
- to help prevent neuro-pathologies
Generally speaking, nootropics work in six different ways.
- Energy – Compared to the rest of the body’s organs, the brain is the largest consumer of energy, consuming 20% of our total supply. Nootropics support energy metabolism by promoting mitochondrial efficiency.
- Neurotransmitters – Nootropics increase neurotransmitter production, which in turn promotes neuron-to-neuron communication, a requirement for all cognitive function, including memory and learning.
- Brain Circulation – Nootropics act as vasodilators, widening arteries and veins to allow more blood flow to the brain, which in turn increases brain nutrients. Impaired brain circulation is known to decrease cognitive function.
- Brain Waves – Different brain wave frequencies correspond to different conscious states; from gamma, the highest, down to delta, the lowest. Some nootropics can help raise brain wave frequencies to produce desired cognitive effects.
- Neuroprotection – Some nootropics have antioxidant qualities, helping to protect against damage caused by toxic compounds, like free radicals. Some also have adaptogenic properties, helping to ward off stress and fatigue.
- Neurogenesis – A few nootropics are believed to have the ability to help promote the process of developing new neuronal tissues, which support brain cell repair, maintenance and plasticity, by supplying some of the necessary raw nutritional building blocks.
Stacking Nootropic Supplements
Nootropics can be taken as individual ingredients, or they can be combined in a formula with other ingredients. Stacking nootropics allows for ingredient ‘role playing’ and synergy.
The long list of nootropic ingredients found above demonstrates that each of these substances has its own unique characteristics compared to the others. Therefore, by combining them together into a single supplement, it is possible to choose specific ingredients to achieve specialized objectives.
For example, one ingredient may promote neurogenesis, a second ingredient may have neuroprotective qualities, while a third boosts energy.
Another reason to stack ingredients is to create synergy. Researchers and supplement product formulators have long realized the benefits which can be derived from combining compatible ingredients, where the value of the stacked combination is worth more than the sum of its individual parts.
Through the synergy behind a multitude of nootropic ingredients, we’ve created metaBRAIN. metaBRAIN is a box of three nootropic combinations, all formulated for different applications. This box includes metaFOCUS, metaMEMORY, and metaDRIVE -- each with their own subset of features and synergy between the formulations. You can learn more about metaBRAIN here.
- Mitra-Ganguli, Tora et al. “A Randomized, Double-Blind Study Assessing Changes in Cognitive Function in Indian School Children Receiving a Combination of Bacopa monnieri and Micronutrient Supplementation vs. Placebo.” Frontiers in pharmacology vol. 8 678. 17 Nov. 2017, doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00678
- Urban, Kimberly R, and Wen-Jun Gao. “Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain.” Frontiers in systems neuroscience vol. 8 38. 13 May. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00038
- d'Angelo, L-S Camilla et al. “Lifestyle use of drugs by healthy people for enhancing cognition, creativity, motivation and pleasure.” British journal of pharmacology vol. 174,19 (2017): 3257-3267. doi:10.1111/bph.13813