The term nootropic was first used in 1972 by Dr. Corneliu Giurgea to describe a substance that positively affected brain function. Although nootropics are frequently referred to as “smart drugs,” not all of these substances are synthesized chemical drugs. Some nootropics are vitamins, minerals, or herbs that enhance cognition.
There are at least four proposed ways by which nootropics can enhance brain function. The first way these substances may act is by changing the amount of neurotransmitters available to brain cells, or neurons. Nootropics most commonly affect levels of glutamate or acetylcholine, two neurotransmitters that are critical for memory and alertness, among other functions. This class of nootropic substances includes ampakines and racetams, which are thought to improve memory and the ability to focus even during severe sleep deprivation due to their ability to alter levels of neurotransmitters.
A second way these substances can positively affect cognitive function is by preventing or even reversing damage to neurons. Vitamin B1 is an example of this type of nootropic because it appears to have the ability to help heal damaged neurons and has improved memory in people with certain types of brain damage. Antioxidants can also fall into this category due to their proposed ability to prevent oxidative neuron damage.
The third way nootropics enhance brain function is by increasing the brain’s oxygen supply. A popular herbal supplement, ginkgo biloba, is thought to work by this mechanism. One of the mechanisms of action of this herb is its apparent ability to increase blood flow to the brain, resulting in the delivery of more oxygen to the brain. Although clinical studies have provided mixed results regarding ginkgo biloba’s effect on brain function, it is still a popularly sold supplement for enhancing cognition.
Finally, some nootropics are thought to build new neural connections in the brain, which would in theory allow the brain to function more efficiently. Racetams are thought to induce new neural connections in addition to their function as neurotransmitter level modulators. Some studies have suggested that non-drug mechanisms can also increase neural connections in the brain, and some examples of these processes include learning a new language, learning an exercise program that requires agility and coordination, and possibly even doing crossword puzzles or playing video games.
In several areas, selected nootropic substances have shown positive effects on cognitive function in controlled research studies. These include improved memory, stronger focus, and increased alertness without excessive nervousness. In addition, several of these substances have shown promise in helping people with some cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease or brain damage caused by trauma. The ability of nootropics to actually increase intelligence, however, is a subject of ongoing debate.