At some point, we’ve all dreamed of having more mental agility, improving our memory, or sharpening our attention. Nootropics promise some of these psychological benefits, so it’s not surprising that their consumption has grown in recent years.
About 15% of people have turned to these cognitive enhancers at least once in the past year, according to studies. Among university students, their consumption is even higher: approximately one-third of them have used nootropics to enhance their academic performance. But what are nootropics? And, above all, what psychological benefits can they offer us?
Understanding the origin, from natural to synthetic nootropics
In the early 1970s, Corneliu E. Giurgea, a psychologist and chemist, synthesized piracetam, a substance that improved neuron metabolism by optimizing oxygen uptake. He classified it as a nootropic, which derives from the ancient Greek words νόος “nous,” meaning “mind,” “intellect,” or “think,” and τροπή “tropein,” referring to “turn” or “bend.” Therefore, a nootropic is something that optimizes the mind.
Giurgea believed that nootropics are substances that activate our cognitive functions, such as memory, thinking, and attention, especially if they have been affected. Therefore, they are a way to enhance brain function to keep us more alert and focused, think more clearly, remember things better, or even be more relaxed, although neuroscientists are discovering that their benefits go far beyond that.
However, the truth is that nootropics are much older, and their use is universal, as they include natural substances as common as coffee and tea, ginseng root, or Ginkgo biloba tree leaves, which have been used in Asia for over 2,000 years to primarily treat brain-related problems and blood flow.
The main difference between natural and synthetic nootropics is that the latter are created in a laboratory. They are not found in nature, although some imitate the chemical structure of components naturally found in our bodies or plants.
Another distinguishing detail is that, having been specifically created to enhance cognitive function, their “active ingredient” is more concentrated, so they can be more effective than natural nootropics. Cognitive enhancers, as they are also known, are designed with optimal bioavailability in mind, so they can more efficiently cross the blood-brain barrier and achieve their purpose better than many natural nootropics.
The benefits of nootropics for the brain
Nootropics do not directly release neurotransmitters, the chemical substances that transmit signals between neurons, but rather modulate their function or stimulate their production. They also have a positive influence on the synthesis of neural proteins and nucleic acids, which are essential for the proper functioning of nerve cells, and stimulate the metabolism of phospholipids in neurohormonal membranes.
However, one of the most important functions of nootropics is to improve glucose and oxygen supply to the brain, so they have anti-hypoxic effects and protect brain tissue from neurotoxicity. Some of these substances are involved in the removal of oxygen free radicals, which can contribute to reducing inflammation that underlies many neurodegenerative diseases.
They also have an anti-aggregant effect and improve the plasticity of erythrocytes, meaning they improve blood properties and its flow to the brain. Due to these changes, brain metabolism is optimized, resulting in a state of alertness, making it easier to concentrate, and enabling clearer thinking.
Particularly promising is the action of nootropics on Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is related to neurogenesis, the process of generating new neurons in key brain regions like the hippocampus. Some nootropics can stimulate the release of BDNF and increase its expression in the brain, which is why their use is being explored in patients with memory loss. However, the benefits of nootropics don’t end there.
Clear mind, balanced emotions
- Enhances short and long-term memory
Many nootropics are used to improve memory, both short-term and long-term. Some act on acetylcholine, known as the “memory molecule” as it is one of the most important neurotransmitters for information retention and learning. For example, racetams, a family of nootropics that includes piracetam and aniracetam, are recognized for their ability to improve brain plasticity. By stimulating glutamate and acetylcholine receptors in the brain, racetams improve communication between neurons and strengthen connections involved in long-term information storage, facilitating the creation and consolidation of memories.
On the other hand, modafinil, initially developed to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, has a significant impact on short-term memory. It acts on neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and histamine to stimulate brain activity and wakefulness. This translates to an alert state that improves concentration and the ability to remember details, leading to better short-term information retention.
- Enhancing attention and concentration
Attention is an essential mental resource for proper cognitive functioning, though staying focused can be a challenge in a world full of constant distractions. Nootropics can help us stay focused on a task, particularly Adderall and noopept.
Adderall is a stimulant prescribed to improve attention and focus in people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It acts on the central nervous system by stimulating the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, which play a crucial role in regulating attention and focus. This generates a state of “hyperfocus” that allows us to stay concentrated on an activity for extended periods of time.
On the other hand, noopept enhances cognition and mental clarity. It doesn’t have the same stimulating impact as Adderall, but it interacts with glutamatergic receptors in the brain to improve cognitive processing efficiency. This results in an increased ability to concentrate and process information effectively, making learning more fluid and stable.
- Mood regulation and anxiety relief
The influence of nootropics on mood and anxiety has opened a new path towards emotional well-being. These substances can not only improve emotional stability but also be used to alleviate anxiety symptoms.
Rhodiola Rosea, for example, has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to help the body adapt to stress. It balances serotonin and dopamine levels, two key neurotransmitters in mood regulation. It also reduces cortisol levels, which tend to spike during periods of anxiety and tension, helping us respond better to adverse situations.
Ashwagandha is another nootropic with anxiolytic and mood-stabilizing properties. It modulates cortisol levels and promotes a state of relaxation. In fact, it has GABAergic properties. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter with a calming effect on the nervous system. Ashwagandha increases GABA receptor activity, leading to a relaxing cerebral effect that reduces anxiety. It also increases the availability of serotonin in the brain to promote a sense of happiness and tranquility.
- Boosting creativity and fluid intelligence
The pursuit of cognitive enhancement isn’t limited to memory and attention; it also extends to creativity. Nootropics have great potential to stimulate creative thinking and innovative problem-solving. In this field, one of the most well-known nootropics is Aniracetam.
Aniracetam acts on glutamate receptors in the brain, a neurotransmitter crucial for signal transmission between neurons closely linked to cognitive function and synaptic plasticity. As a result, it increases neuron sensitivity to signals and facilitates communication between them. This increased efficiency in information transmission provides the necessary foundation for more creative and flexible thinking.
This nootropic also employs another mechanism of action by influencing cholinergic receptors. Aniracetam increases the availability of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that enhances the ability to process information and facilitates connections between seemingly disparate concepts, which is essential in the creative process to generate original ideas and solve problems from novel perspectives.
Do they have contraindications or side effects?
Due to their potential to enhance memory and thinking, as well as their positive effects on mood, coupled with their easy availability, nootropics are increasingly garnering interest. However, it’s important to note that although they are metabolically active substances, most do not show immediate effects after a single dose. They need to penetrate the blood-brain barrier to enhance brain metabolism, so if stable changes are desired, they need to be used over a certain period and in appropriate doses.
They are generally well-tolerated, and contraindications are minimal, although as a precaution, they are recommended to be avoided during pregnancy and lactation. However, some can cause side effects, especially when taken in high doses or for prolonged periods. Common side effects of nootropics include headaches, nausea, and insomnia.
In any case, it’s important to remember that these are substances that are still under investigation, so there is “incomplete clinical evidence of their long-term efficacy, safety, and social consequences,” as researchers from the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague indicated. Therefore, their use should be guided by common sense, and it’s always advisable to seek medical advice.
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