Research & Education

Nootropics - The “Smart” Compounds

Nootropics have received a lot of attention in recent years and it’s no wonder why, considering we’re living in an era where data and information are more abundant than ever. For the first time in human history, quite literally at our fingertips we have access to more information than stacks and stacks of cumbersome encyclopedias provide. While some see this unlimited access to information as empowering, others question whether it might be having detrimental effects on our ability to learn, memorize, and recall, as well as our attention span, creativity, and motivation. With increasing attention being brought to these issues, not to mention the alarming ubiquity of cognitive decline, there’s a renewed focus on compounds and nutrients that support cognitive function and brain health. These substances are generically termed nootropics.

Nootropics encompass a range of substances that include pharmaceutical drugs and naturally occurring compounds. All nootropics are identified by their ability to directly interact with receptors in the brain to increase mental functions such as memory, motivation, concentration, and attention. Different nootropics target different pathways, for example, the dopaminergic or cholinergic pathway. They may also act as vasodilators to increase the delivery of nutrients, energy, and oxygen through more efficient circulation. Finally, nootropics may stimulate neural activity, reduce inflammation, and offer neuroprotection. Overall, nootropics are intended to make the brain healthier, facilitate cognitive performance, and/or modulate mood.

The wide range of health benefits nootropics offer makes them ideal adjuncts to therapies for a variety of neurodegenerative conditions and issues related to behavior and cognitive function, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, they are also used by otherwise healthy individuals to optimize focus cognitive function.

Several herbs and nutraceutical compounds enhance cognitive function and brain health and can therefore be considered nootropics. Common herbal nootropics include Bacopa monnieri, Ginkgo biloba, Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng), ashwagandha, and Rhodiola rosea. Common nutraceuticals with nootropic properties include caffeine, L-theanine (found in green tea), phosphatidylserine, and glycerylphosphorylcholine (GPC). Various mushroom extracts are also nootropic, such as Hericium erinaceus (lion’s mane), chaga, and cordyceps mushrooms.

How effective are nootropics? In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 63 healthy adults aged 18 to 35 years were given a nootropic supplement or placebo for 6 weeks after which they undertook a battery of neuropsychological tests that were also completed at the beginning of the testing period. The nootropic supplement contained L-tyrosine, L-theanine, oat (straw) extract, vitamin B6, phosphatidylserine, cat’s claw extract, GPC, bacopa extract, Huperzia serrata, Huperzine A, L-leucine, vinpocetine, and pterostilbene. Results showed significant improvement from baseline in tasks of delayed verbal recall and executive functioning for the nootropic group compared to placebo.

In another randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial using the same nootropic supplement for 8 weeks, 20 healthy adults aged 18 to 35 years were studied to determine the effects of the nootropic supplement on event-related potential (ERP) and electroencephalogram (EEG) cognitive measures. Statistical analysis revealed a significant decrease in P3a and P3b (components of the ERP and EEG analyses) latency in the nootropic group compared to placebo. These results indicated increased attention and classification speed and a positive effect on executive function, processing speed and performance in a number of cognitive tasks.

Numerous studies evaluating individual nootropic botanicals and nutraceuticals have found they are positively correlated with improvements in various cognitive measures. For example, a neuropharmacological review of Bacopa monnieri (BM) states, “several randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have substantiated BM's nootropic utility in humans. There is also evidence for potential attenuation of dementia, Parkinson's disease, and epilepsy.” The review further elaborates on the effects of BM, suggesting that BM acts via multiple mechanisms, including “anti-oxidant neuroprotection (via redox and enzyme induction), acetylcholinesterase inhibition and/or choline acetyltransferase activation, β-amyloid reduction, increased cerebral blood flow, and neurotransmitter modulation (acetylcholine [ACh], 5-hydroxytryptamine [5-HT], dopamine [DA]).”

Similarly, a review focusing on ashwagandha states, the nootropic “effects of Ashwagandha leaf extracts are multidimensional ranging from differentiation of neuroblastoma and glioma cells, reversal of Alzheimer and Parkinson's pathologies, protection against environmental neurotoxins and enhancement of memory.”

The clear ability of nootropics to enhance cognitive function and brain health makes them a useful group of substances for nearly every age group. As we continue to exist in an era where cognitive ability is valued and deficits in this area are a great concern, nootropics can be useful tools for functional medicine and nutrition professionals.