Nootropics: A Limitless Cognitive Enhancer for Your Brain or Just Another Health Gimmick?


Let's start with a disclaimer: I am a formally trained physician assistant and nationally board certified to practice medicine. I am expected to interview patients, perform physical exams, run laboratory tests, and make a diagnosis and treat my patients accordingly. I am 100% western medicine 100% of the time. I have faith in my training, faith in my research and faith in my career field. With that said, the age of information has ushered in alternative approaches to a host of chronic conditions, including obesity, fatigue, pain disorders, and insomnia. Have witnessed a failure of conventional medicine to treat these "diseases of civilization", I remain open-minded to the exploration of supplemental approaches. I say this having witnessed the remission of chronic conditions with intensive lifestyle modifications to include dietary modifications, meditation, and yes - use of supplements.  

The latest buzzword among supplement fans and so-called bio-hackers of the 21-century  is NOOTROPICS (noh-ə-TROP-iks). Often marketed as "smart drugs" (in not so many words) and "cognitive enhancers" they are said to improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals. Think Bradly Cooper 2011's movie Limitless, where his character stumbles upon an illicit substance which allows him to access the mythological 90% unused portion of his brain. Although seemingly a modern concept, nootropics are actually decades-old (centuries old if you consider any stimulant, including caffeine a nootropic). In fact, the word nootropic was coined by a Romanian psychologist and chemist, Corneliu E. Giurgea back in 1972. The word translates to "mind-bend" or "mind-turn" depending on your translation. 

What Nootropics ARE/AREN'T

The secret to successful supplement launch is in the vagueness of its supposed effects. If one applies the basic definition of nootropics, we can begin to see how widely this term can be applied to a host of compounds. Take caffeine as an example. I drink it every day starting at 6:30 am till usually around 3:00 pm. Why? For one, I love it (Black Rifle Coffe - Support Vets and BUY SOME!). I love the flavor, the smell, and the warmth but I also drink it for its kick to my cognition and its ability to fire me up for my lunchtime workouts (you too can workout anywhere this these pieces of equipment).

Nootropics are naturally occurring compounds that claim to help enhance the cognitive abilities of the brain including logical reasoning, motivation and mental energy, memory formation, recall, learning, creative thinking, concentration, and mood. These are known to have a positive effect on memory and some are even used for medical conditions such as Dementia and Alzheimer's. They can also help students to absorb and memorize more information. These smart drugs can improve attention and focus too, but with fewer side-effects than over-consumption of caffeine. (If you've never experienced the jittery nausea and stomach cramping from drinking two pots of coffee during an all-night study block, then you haven't truly experienced college).

There are several different types of Nootropics. These include: 

1.Choline & Acetylcholine Intermediates.
2.Synthetic B-Vitamin Derived.
4. Racetams
5.Natural peptide-based smart drugs.

To understand their function, it is essential to know about the different neural pathways that exist within the brain. Neural pathways are composed of neurotransmitters and the receptors. Neurons are the basic building structures of the central nervous system. Nerve signals are sent from one neuron to another through the action of neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters can either be excitatory or inhibitory. The excitatory neurotransmitters are the ones that broadcast a message to other neurons while the inhibitory neurotransmitters are the ones that keep the messages from being sent or received. Based on these received messages, the neurotransmitters then bind to the receptor sites on nerve synapses. There is a myriad of different neural pathways in the brain. Nootropics interact with the central nervous system by boosting the efficiency of these neural pathways leading to improved cognitive functions.

Here are some of the common nootropics and their claims (all should be used under medical supervision only):

Claim:  improved learning ability, reduced anxiety, advanced logical thinking and an overall increased cognitive performance.

Claim: improved cognition, increased attention span. Neutral effects on mood or anxiety level.

This is one of the strongest available and should be used with under medical supervision. This drug is used to improve the alertness. It is considered to be a potent wakefulness agent. It can help get rid of sleepiness and persistent fatigue. It also has significant cognitive effects such as increased focus and improved mental energy.

4. Adrafinil.
Claim: very similar to Modafinil, as it converts to that compound in your liver. 

Claim: provides relief from stress and anxiety and allegedly positively enhances mood.

Claim: a substance that is made in the body from L-Tryptophan, which then converts to serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is responsible for regulating mood neurotransmitters. It prevents you from over-excitement.

7.Huperzine A.
Claim: it helps raise the Acetylcholine levels in the brain. This is an important neurotransmitter and can help with not only memory but other cognitive functions and processes.

Although there are reports of positive benefits from these, you should still approach with caution and consider that any evidence to their efficacy is contaminated with confirmation bias and placebo effect. As with anything new, it is recommended you consult your doctor before using any of these chemicals because of their interactions with serotonin especially. Everyone and their brother is on some kind of serotonin modulator and excessive amounts in your system can cause serotonin syndrome.

Nootropics are available pretty much anywhere. My recommendation for those who have never tried them is Onnit's Alpha Brain and New Mood. Onnit does a lot of legwork in the field of researching their claims. I still hold a bit of healthy skepticism about their claims as all Onnit studies are self funded but are of good method. Take that for what it is worth.