Nootropics: The New(ish) Frontier in Mental Performance

Nootropics are an interesting class of substances, which have been growing in popularity exponentially since their invention in the 1960’s. The most basic definition of a nootropic is: something that improves memory or other cognitive function. As such, they are popular among students, entrepreneurs, and creatives as a way to improve their workflow and mental efficiency.

I just started testing AlphaBrain from Onnit Labs. As I have only been taking it for a week, I am assigning any enhanced mental clarity to the placebo effect. But my initial take is that my ability to focus seems slightly enhanced. If you think you might benefit from a mental boost, read on.

How Do Nootropics Work?

The brain is an incredibly complex organ. It fires thousands of impulses each second to interpret sensory information, form and recover memories, and balance internal body systems through homeostasis.
One of the main components of brain function is through our neurotransmitters. These are small molecules the brain uses to communicate from one area to another. All are important and all are candidates for optimisation with nootropic interaction.

Of particular importance, however, is the neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine (ACh), which is considered to play a key role in the formation and retrieval of memories [1], and has been shown to enhance the ability of memory formation when improved within healthy limits [4]. ACh plays an important role in arousal, attention, memory and motivation. Thus, there’s been a growing body of interest in the actions of various substances to improve acetylcholine levels [9].

ACh function can be improved by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks acetylcholine down (acetylcholinesterase) like with the nootropic compound “huperzine-A” [2]. With less being broken down, total acetylcholine levels can increase. Another related method is to increase acetylcholine levels directly by improving production pathways with nootropics like “Alpha-GPC” [3].

Are Nootropics Safe?

There are many different kinds of nootropics. In order to fit the classification, the substance must be non-toxic, even after regular, long-term use. They offer a slow, and cumulative improvement in cognitive performance rather than more dramatic and acute changes.

If a substance damages the brain or is toxic, by definition, it’s NOT a nootropic. This important principle in how nootropics are classified is what ensures they can be taken over long periods of time safely. Side effects are possible, but rare. Noopept for example, a popular nootropic compound, showed no mutagenic, or reversible pathological changes despite six months of heavy dosing (100 mg/kg) [10]. For perspective, the normal daily dose of noopept is 10-40 mg/day (less than 1% of the dose tested).

Improved Blood Flow

Other nootropics work by increasing blood flow to the brain. There is a direct link between cerebral blood flow quality and cognitive performance [5]. Neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, have also been linked to poor cerebral blood flow [6]. In my practice I use ginkgo biloba to improve circulation to the hands, feet, and especially the brain.

One of the most popular nootropics aimed at improving cerebral blood flow is an alkaloid known as vinpocetine. This alkaloid has been found to improve concentration, memory, and reduce the occurrence of Alzheimer’s symptoms though its effects on cerebral blood flow [7].

A Few Nootropic Formulas Worth Investigating

People new to nootropics may find the market intimidating. Every manufacturer claims to be the best, and the ingredients list of each can be long and confusing.

There are several manufacturers that have developed terrific track records in the nootropic market. They’ve spent the time and energy to ensure their formulas are as thought out, and intelligent as possible, keeping factors like dosage, bioavailability, and synergy in mind.

Alpha-brain, endorsed by Joe Rogan on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, is one of the most impressive, and most transparent nootropics on the market. A study published in 2015 investigating the effectiveness of Alpha-Brain concluded that “ [Alpha-Brain] significantly improved recent verbal memory and executive function when compared to controls…” [8].

Qualia is another impressive nootropic formula on the market though is much newer and lacks long term clinical trials at the time of writing. Qualia has clearly demonstrated a deep level of understanding of the ingredients used with their formula, however, and provide evidence-based rationality behind their choice and dose of ingredients as listed on their website.

There are many ways nootropics can work in the body, and literally hundreds of known nootropic compounds on the market. As the concept becomes more popular, and more scientists step up to conduct research on the effectiveness of these compounds, you can expect more of these high-quality nootropic formulas entering the market each year.

Hasselmo, M. E. (2006). The role of acetylcholine in learning and memory. Current opinion in neurobiology, 16(6), 710-715.
Liang YQ, Tang XC (2004) Comparative effects of huperzine A, donepezil and rivastigmine on cortical acetylcholine level and acetylcholinesterase activity in rats. Neurosci Lett 361:56–59
Lopez, C. M., Govoni, S., Battaini, F., Bergamaschi, S., Longoni, A., Giaroni, C., & Trabucchi, M. (1991). Effect of a new cognition enhancer, alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, on scopolamine-induced amnesia and brain acetylcholine. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 39(4), 835-840.
Roland, J. J., Mark, K., Vetreno, R. P., & Savage, L. M. (2008). Increasing hippocampal acetylcholine levels enhance behavioral performance in an animal model of diencephalic amnesia. Brain research, 1234, 116-127.
Poels, M. M., Ikram, M. A., Vernooij, M. W., Krestin, G. P., Hofman, A., Messen, W. J., … & Breteler, M. M. (2008). Total cerebral blood flow in relation to cognitive function: the Rotterdam Scan Study. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism, 28(10), 1652-1655.
Roher, A. E., Debbins, J. P., Malek-Ahmadi, M., Chen, K., Pipe, J. G., Maze, S., … & Hunter, J. M. (2012). Cerebral blood flow in Alzheimer’s disease. Vasc Health Risk Manag, 8, 599-611.
Jha, M.K., Rahman, Sheikh, H. (2012). Vinpocetine: A smart drug and sart nutrient: A review. IJPSR. Vol 3. 2. 346-352.
Solomon, T. M., Leech, J., Murphy, C., DeBros, G., Budson, A., & Solomon, P. (2015). A randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled, parallel group, efficacy study of alpha BRAIN® administered orally. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(S1), P54.
Becker, R. E., & Giacobini, E. (1988). Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of acetylcholinesterase inhibition: can acetylcholine levels in the brain be improved in Alzheimer’s disease?. Drug Development Research, 14(3‐4), 235-246.
Kovalenko, L. P., Smol’nikova, N. M., Alekseeva, S. V., Nemova, E. P., Sorokina, A. V., Miramedova, M. G., … & Daugel, D. N. (2001). Preclinical study of noopept toxicity. Eksperimental’naia i klinicheskaia farmakologiia, 65(1), 62-64.

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