What are Nootropics?

Definition of Nootropics as Cognitive Enhancers

Nootropics are substances, compounds, supplements, or drugs that can improve humans’ cognitive abilities and mental performance. It is derived from the Greek words “nous,” meaning mind, and “trepein,” meaning to turn or bend.

These smart drugs positively impact different aspects of the brain, such as neurotransmitters, blood flow, neuron communication, and neural plasticity, through various pharmacological mechanisms. Nootropics enhance different aspects of cognition, including concentration, learning, memory, creativity, motivation, productivity, and overall brainpower.

Simply put, nootropics are cognitive enhancers that help individuals achieve peak mental performance. They amplify and sharpen human intelligence, abilities, and faculties.

History and Origins of Nootropic Supplements

The concept of Nootropics was first introduced in 1972 by Romanian scientist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea. He synthesized piracetam, which became the first official nootropic compound.

In the 1960s, Giurgea coined the term nootropic, derived from Greek words that meant “mind-bending.” He established criteria such as memory enhancement, brain protection, and cognitive boosting effects that characterize nootropics.

Piracetam and choline supplements were some of the earliest recognized nootropics. Since then, many synthetic and natural brain-boosting compounds have been identified and developed.

Even though the use of herbs and traditional medicines to sharpen mental faculties has been practiced for thousands of years, systematic nootropic research expanded in the 1960s and onwards. The global nootropics market has grown rapidly since the 1990s and is valued at over $1 billion.

The usage of nootropics continues to rise among students seeking study aids, professionals aiming to boost productivity, older people aiming to retain cognition, and biohackers optimizing performance. The variety and popularity of nootropics are expanding annually.

Common Types of Nootropics

To enhance cognitive abilities, people use various types and classes of nootropics. These include major categories that are known to increase cognitive performance.

  • Racetams – Racetams are a class of synthetic nootropic compounds known for their ability to enhance cognition. They include popular supplements like piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetam, and pramiracetam. Racetams work primarily by modulating acetylcholine and glutamate receptors in the brain. This can improve communication between neurons and lead to increased focus, memory formation, learning capacity, and attention span. Studies show racetams may also stimulate neuroplasticity and cerebral blood flow. The most reported effects of taking racetams are improved memory recall, information retention, and ability to learn new concepts. Racetams like piracetam and aniracetam are considered very safe, with few side effects at appropriate doses. They have little to no toxicity or addiction potential. Many students, professionals, and biohackers use racetams as mental performance enhancers.

  • Choline – Choline is an essential nutrient that acts as a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions. As a nootropic, supplemental choline sources like citicoline and alpha-GPC can raise acetylcholine levels in the brain. This enhances the formation and retention of memories, improves focus and attention, aids neuroplasticity, and provides neuroprotection. Choline supplements are most commonly taken in “stacks” with racetams like piracetam or aniracetam, as racetams use up choline resources in the body. Individuals reporting improved cognition, reduced brain fog, and increased willpower and motivation after taking a choline source. Choline is considered very safe at standard doses. Side effects are generally minimal but can include gastrointestinal distress, sweating, and a fishy body odor.

  • Amino Acids – Certain amino acids play a key role in cognitive function and can act as effective nootropic supplements. L-tyrosine, for example, is converted into catecholamine neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine which regulate motivation, focus, and mood. L-theanine, found in green tea, can cross the blood-brain barrier and increase alpha brain wave activity linked to relaxed focus. Acetyl-L-carnitine provides neuroprotective effects and may improve memory. L-lysine helps regulate serotonin levels in the brain. Amino acid supplements like these are used to heighten mental energy, concentration, stress response, and overall executive function. They can be taken on their own or readily stack with other nootropics. Amino acid supplements are well-tolerated and generally free of side effects, though some like L-tyrosine may interact with thyroid medications or cause nausea in high doses.

  • B Vitamins – B vitamins like B6, B9 (folate), and B12 play an important role in cognitive health and function. Deficiencies in these essential B vitamins can lead to neurological dysfunction. Supplementing B vitamins can improve mood, memory, focus, energy levels, and information processing by positively impacting neurotransmitter synthesis and neuron health. B vitamins reduce homocysteine levels, a marker of cognitive decline. They also ensure nerves can efficiently transmit messages. Popular nootropic B vitamin stacks include pairing B6, B9 and B12, or combining B vitamins with choline sources. While generally safe at standard doses, extremely high levels of B6 and B9 can cause nerve damage. Those over age 50 are encouraged to supplement B12 which is poorly absorbed with age. The brain and nervous system benefits make B vitamins useful daily nootropics.

  • Stimulants – Certain stimulant compounds can provide nootropic benefits when used judiciously. Caffeine is one of the most widely used cognitive enhancers due to its ability to block adenosine receptors and increase alertness, focus, and concentration. When stacked with L-theanine, side effects like jitters can be mitigated. Modafinil enhances wakefulness and is used off-label to boost productivity and learning. Some also use prescription stimulants like methylphenidate and amphetamine salts for off-label nootropic effects, though these carry higher risks. While stimulants can improve cognition in the short-term, prolonged use can deplete neurotransmitters and worsen cognitive function overall. Cycling stimulants and avoiding daily dependence is key to extracting nootropic benefits. Used strategically, stimulants can enhance working memory, motivation, and mental endurance.

  • Herbal Nootropics – There are many herbal supplements that can provide nootropic benefits by influencing brain chemistry and function. Bacopa monnieri is an Ayurvedic herb shown to improve memory and learning ability after prolonged use. Ginkgo biloba enhances blood flow and may boost concentration, executive function, and working memory. Rhodiola rosea adapts the body to stress and can improve mood and mental endurance. Lion’s mane mushroom contains nerve growth factors to stimulate neuron growth and protect cognitive health. Green tea provides L-theanine and antioxidants for alert calmness. Herbal nootropic supplements like these tend to be slower-acting but are quite safe and can often be stacked with synthetic nootropics. As with any supplement, it’s important to buy high quality standardized herbal extracts to get optimal nootropic results.

  • Synthetic Nootropics – Synthetic nootropics are human-made compounds designed to enhance cognitive function. These include substances like piracetam, aniracetam, noopept, phenylpiracetam, and modafinil. Synthetic nootropics work by directly influencing neurotransmitters, enzymes, ion channels, nerve growth factors and other brain processes tied to cognition. They can improve memory formation, learning ability, focus, concentration, mood and more. The effects of synthetics tend to be more potent and fast-acting compared to natural nootropic substances. However, they also carry a higher risk of side effects. It is important to start with lower doses, avoid daily use, and monitor any unusual reactions when taking synthetic nootropics. Used judiciously, these compounds can powerfully amplify mental performance.