Nootropics, also known as cognitive enhancers, are agents which improve the function of the human mind. Generally speaking, cognitive enhancers work by increasing blood flow and oxygenation in the brain, by increasing neurotransmitter levels inside the brain, by stimulating the growth of nerves inside the brain or shielding the brain from the effects of aging.
There are many types of cognitive enhancer, though all of them fall into one of the three main categories:
Discovered in the early 1960′s, Racetams are the family of drugs for which the term ‘nootropic’ was originally coined. Piracetam is the most well known of the racetams and is a commonly used nootropic agent to this day. An interesting fact about racetams is that their mechanism of action remains unknown to this day. Modern theories suggest that racetams have may an effect upon neurotransmitter production, boosting levels of neurotransmitters in the brain and therefore the cognitive abilities of the subject.
Piracetam is commonly used to treat degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, as well as genetic conditions such as Down Syndrome and Dyslexia.
Racetams are generally regarded as being ‘pharmacologically safe’ drugs, which is why their use is popular amongst children, adults and the elderly.
There are many stimulant drugs which can be classified as cognitive enhancers. Caffeine is perhaps the most widespread of these stimulant drugs. Other well-known stimulants include Amphetamine, Cocaine, and Methamphetamine. These are all controlled substances not legally available to the public, however amphetamines have been used by the military to promote wakefulness in pilots and the use of amphetamines by college students is far from unheard of.
Amphetamines increase levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. This generally results in increased feelings of well being and alertness at low doses, though increased doses can cause anxiety, heart palpitations and in very high doses, even death.
Dopaminergic affect the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for or has an effect on alertness, attention and anti oxidation. Commonly used dopaminergics include cocaine and amphetamine. Other dopaminergics include:
- Amineptine – Stabilizes and improves levels of dopamine
- Selegiline – Stimulates production of dopamine
- Selegiline – Stimulates production of dopamine
- Phenylalanine – Raises levels of dopamine
- Tyrosine – Raises levels of dopamine
Cholinergic affect the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which facilitates memory functions. Commonly used cholinergic include:
- Vitamin B5
It may be surprising to see nicotine, a major ingredient in cigarettes listed as being a memory enhancement drug. It should be noted that the addictive nature of nicotine, along with the carcinogenic properties of cigarettes, in general, outweigh any benefits that may be obtained by using cigarettes as a nootropic device.
Rosemary, Sage and Vitamin B5 are all much safer cholinergic which have the potential to naturally boost memory function.
There are various types of nutrients which are said to have nootropic effects. In particular, foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids are regarded as being particularly effective. Sources of Omega 3 include fish and hemp (in countries where hemp is not banned for its association with marijuana). Omega 3 fatty acids are proven to have a beneficial effect on brain function and any person seeking to boost their brain power should first consider their diet. A diet poor in Omega 3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients is detrimental to brain function.
Herbal nootropics are popular as they are less regulated than drug based nootropics and yet can be very effective.
Arguably the most popular beverage in the history of mankind. Tea has both nootropic and anti oxidant effects which help shield the brain from the effects of aging. Tea leaves contain over 700 different chemicals, many of which are vitamins, amino acids, and flavonoids. Tea lowers blood pressure, prevents dental cavities, prevents heart disease and acts as a germicide. It is widely regarded as having beneficial effects on brain function, promoting alertness and wakefulness in a gentle fashion.
Tea has a wide range of beneficial effects on human health, which include:
- Anti cancer activity
- Increased metabolism
- Potential anti diabetes activity
- Alertness booster
- Immune system booster
- Lower stress hormones
Studies have shown that elderly Japanese who imbibed two or more cups of tea per day had a 50% less chance of developing cognitive impairment when compared to those who did not drink tea. Drinking tea is, therefore, an excellent long term strategy for preserving cognitive function.
Competing with tea in the popular beverage stakes caffeine as found in the Coffee plant is well known for its mild stimulant effects. Technically it is a psychoactive stimulant drug. In nature, its effect is to paralyze and kill insects which try to feed on plants. In small doses, caffeine does not kill humans (though it is possible to overdose on caffeine to mortal effect.)
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and acts as an effective solution to drowsiness. When taken in moderation its effects last from three to four hours. During those three to four hours, a person will feel more alert and have more energy. Caffeine relaxes the anal sphincter and therefore can cause problems for those who experience incontinence of the fecal kind.
Caffeine interacts positively with pain medications, making them more effective and quicker in their task. Studies have shown that the addition of caffeine can make pain relievers up to 40% more effective at relieving pain caused by headaches.
Caffeine is addictive, the symptoms of withdrawal commonly being headaches, moodiness and even nausea. Regular caffeine users invariably develop a tolerance to caffeine which means they will require ever larger doses of the drug to have a positive effect.
Overdoses of caffeine can result in tremors, anxiety attacks, obsessive compulsive symptoms and can even mimic serious mental diseases such as bipolar disorder, or in extreme cases, schizophrenia.
As with all things, caffeine is best taken in moderation.
A perennial native of Asia. It reportedly acts an adaptogen, a chemical which improves the body’s response to stress. It also possesses anti carcinogenic and antioxidant properties. Ginseng can cause insomnia, nausea, and euphoria amongst other, usually mild, side effects. Ginseng can interact with other medications, however, so if one is taking any form of medication, one should consult with one’s doctor before taking Ginseng supplements. Ginseng, as is found in beverages, is usually safe as it is present in such small amounts that no effect is to be had on the body.
St John’s Wort
A perennial plant often used to treat depression, St John’s Wort has decided cognitive enhancement effects. It is effective in both adults and children and may even be effective in treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
It is possible to overdose on St John’s Wort and causes Serotonin Syndrome, which is outlined in the section ‘Dangers of Nootropics’.
Other herbal nootropic substances include:
- Lemon Balm
- Grape Seed Extract
- Passion Flower
- Kava Kava
Dangers of Nootropics
Nootropic agents range from relatively ‘safe’ drugs such as caffeine and tea to dangerous drugs such as amphetamines. Some agents sold as cognitive enhancers, (especially those designated as being herbal supplements or experimental nutrients) are not regulated by any bodies such as the FDA and can, therefore, have harmful effects in the long or short term.
Dangerous side effects of unregulated nootropic use can include:
- Organ failure (particularly kidneys and liver)
- Heart failure
- Seratonin Syndrome – a potentially life threatening reaction which can involve
mental confusion, muscle tremors, shivering, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, agitation and falling into a coma.
Serotonin syndrome can be caused by a wide variety of agents including:
- Psychedelics (LSD, MDMA, MDA)
- Herbs (St John’s Wort, Nutmeg)
It is therefore highly recommended that any nootropic agent is selected with great care.