Cognitive enhancers, brain boosters, and nootropics are terms for supplements that are used for their positive effects on the brain. These supplements have a wide range of applications, and are used to enhance a wide range of neurological capabilities, including cognition, motivation, alertness, focus and well-being, in healthy individuals.
This article is going to introduce you to the basic mechanisms of cognitive enhancement, and how different types of nutrition interact with human neurotransmitters, resulting in the aforementioned benefits.
What Counts As a Cognitive Enhancer?
What counts as a cognitive enhancer is an important question. Herbs and plants have been used for their brain boosting abilities by indigenous peoples around the world for thousands of years. For example, the perennial herb, bacopa monnieri, was historically used in India as a memory enhancer by Hindu swami's attempting to memorise long passages of Vedic text.
However, in more recent times there has been an influx of synthetic compounds used for similar purposes. Examples include modafinil, a wakefulness promoting agent, and amphetamine, which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
These compounds are very different to their natural and herbal predecessors. Here, we take the view that synthetic pharmaceutical compounds that are intended for medical use should not be taken by healthy individuals without instruction by a medical professional. These synthetic compounds are normally labelled under the term nootropics as opposed to cognitive enhancement supplements.
On this site, all references to cognitive enhancers refer to natural and safe substances intended for use by healthy individuals.
All compounds that may be labelled as brain boosting supplements must follow five basic requirements. They must:
enhance positive functions (memory and learning ability) or reduce negative functions (anxiety and depression)
aid the brain in functioning under disruptive conditions
protect the brain from oxidative stress or chemical damage
improve neuronal firing mechanisms
lack any sedative, stimulant or toxic effects
What Can Brain Supplements Do for You?
Generally speaking, users take brain supplements to gain higher levels of control over their various mental states. As the ongoing developments in technology require us to acquire new skills more and more quickly, and at older ages, it is ever more important that we allow our biology the means to keep up. Cognitive enhancers offer a safe way to expand our capacities to higher potentials.
Furthermore, while cognitive enhancement supplements should not be used as a replacement for medicines prescribed for disorders such as depression, anxiety or ADHD, for those who are averse to the use of pharmaceutical drugs, some supplements can offer a natural alternative to these drugs, with much fewer side effects.
We think that most cognitive enhancement benefits fall under one of seven functions:
Relaxation and Anxiolysis
Focus and Motivation
Mood and Wellbeing
Working memory and cognition
We will go through each of these functions shortly.
The Basics on How They Work
The precise mechanism of action of respective cognitive enhancement substances can get complicated in places; the subject named pharmacodynamics is dedicated solely to it. In this introduction I will try to stick to the basics and keep it as simple as possible.
Cognitive enhancers work by enhancing the function of neurotransmitters. Different neurotransmitters are responsible for different neurological functions, and the manner in which the functioning of a certain neurotransmitter is modulated determines the benefits gained.
The most basic cognitive enhancers are precursors. All neurotransmitters are created by the body out of vitamins and amino acids consumed in our diet. A precursor is a nutrient which, when consumed, is converted in some amount to a respective neurotransmitter. Furthermore, all precursors use vitamin co-factors (such as vitamins B5, B6 and B12) in order to be converted.
Other cognitive enhancers are modulators. This means that they enhance the signalling strength of neurotransmitters, meaning that less of a neurotransmitter is required to fulfil a certain beneficial biological response.
Another class of cognitive enhancers are metabolic inhibitors; these supplements increase the amount of a certain neurotransmitter available by preventing the body from destroying and metabolising that neurotransmitter.
Neuroprotectants are a class of compounds which protect the brain from neurological damage. Many neuroprotectants are antioxidants for the brain, or protect the brain from toxins such as mercury. Neuroprotectants can also repair damage to brain cells, reduce inflammation, and protect the brain from nutritional deficiencies or elevated blood sugar.
A similar class of brain supplements are a collection of plants and herbs known as adaptogens. These compounds are able to prevent the negative physical effects of all types of stress. They work to balance both neurotransmitters and hormones, and many have been found to promote all-round homeostasis.
2 Relaxation & Anxiolysis
Relaxation and calmness are regulated by the neurotransmitter GABA, and so cognitive enhancement supplements that affect this neurotransmitter are called GABAergics.
GABA is our inhibitory neurotransmitter. It reduces neuron excitation throughout the nervous system, blocking overactive brain signals.
3 Focus & Motivation
Focus and motivation are largely regulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, and so dopamine boosting supplements are called dopaminergics.
Dopamine plays a major role in arousal, motivation, positive reinforcement and reward perception. Low levels of dopamine are associated with depression, addiction, lack of motivation, Parkinson's disease and ADHD.
4 Mood & Well-being
Mood and well-being are largely regulated by the neurotransmitter serotonin, and so cognitive enhancement supplements that enhance serotonin functioning are called serotonergics.
Serotonin is considered to be the chief donor of happiness and feelings of well-being. Most of the major antidepressant pharmaceuticals work by modulating the serotonin system.
5 Memory & Learning
Memory and learning are regulated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and acetylcholine boosting supplements are called cholinergics.
Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter that generates alertness upon waking, and it regulates our attention, learning ability and both working and short-term memory. The memory deficits caused by various diseases including Alzheimer's Disease, have been associated with damage to the acetylcholine production system in the brain.
6 Sleep & Dreams
The sleep and wakefulness cycle is regulated by the hormone melatonin.
For those who practice lucid dreaming and some forms of deep meditation, increasing levels of acetylcholine while in REM sleep can increase dream length, clarity and lucidity.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to form new neurological connections in response to changes in an individuals environment. A similar term, neurogenesis, refers to the birth of new neurons.
The final class of natural nootropic compounds are those that increase neurogenesis and neuroplasticity by increasing levels of a protein called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
This class of substances are incredible for enhancing long-term memory, as with technical skills and abilities like learning languages and musical instruments!
These seven functions and the substances that enhance them comprise the foundations of cognitive enhancement through supplementation. There are, of course, many other methods of improving one's performance and enhancing one's experience, and supplementation is an important part of the whole process. Other factors include meditation, yoga, mindset optimisation, posture, flow hacking, forming habits, gratitude, lucid dreaming, binaural beats and diet, among others.
If you want to learn more about how cognitive enhancement supplements actually work in your body, this article goes into pharmacodynamics in a little more detail.
We will also be releasing separate articles addressing each of the seven functions that supplementation can aid, along with the specific plants, herbs, vitamins and amino acids that do so.
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