What are Nootropics?
What are Nootropics and how do they work?
People all over the World are as concerned about their cognitive health and brain performance as they care about their physical well-being. In doing so, they sometimes address a nootropic – a class of supplements known for their cognitive enhancing and memory boosting effects. The nootropics are sometimes referred as so-called “smart drugs”, but in fact, smart drugs are mostly prescribed medications with nootropic effects, used mostly to treat definite mental or cognitive disorders. A nootropic may enhance concentration and cognitive abilities in patients, but often have tremendousside effects and, when used improperly, can lead to tolerance or addiction. In their turn, a nootropic can be generally referred as non-prescribed herbs, vitamins, dietic supplements and nutraceuticals helping to enhance mental functions such as concentration, attention and memory, to improve neural control mechanisms and to protect brain function (Hill, 2014.) There’re a lot of synonyms for a nootropic: neuro enhancers, intelligence boosters, cognitive enhancers, etc.
History of Nootropics
The use of a nootropic has been known for thousands of years. Their history can be traced back to ancient China, where people used such compounds like ginkgo biloba, ginseng and gotu kola as a component of a herbal tea to boost mental energy, facilitate focusing, learning and recollection. In India, medicinal nootropic plants also known as Medhya Rasayanas are well-described and widely used in Ayurvedic practices of Indian healing and health care system. The main Medhya plants such as Mandukaparni, Yastimadhu, Guduchi and Shankhapushpi are included as a compoment to a wide variation of Ayurvedic drugs due to their evidenced adaptogenic, antioxidant effects (Kulkarni, Girish & Kumar, 2012.)
In the 1960s, the Belgian chemists conducted experiments to use synthetic derivative of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in order to facilitate relaxation and stress-reduction. This is how piracetam (also known as nootropil), the well-known nootropic component of modern medicine, was invented. The modern term “nootropics” (from the Greek words “nous” for “mind” and “trepein” for “towards” or “to bend”) was used for the first time by Dr. Corneliu Giurgea from Romania, who studied the nootropic properties of piracetam. The first studies of nootropic agents of racetam group concentrated on ability of these components to improve memory and to protect brain in definite groups of patients, for example, in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Contemporary nootropics represent a numerous type of compounds including six major classes: medications; neuro-protective agents (mostly vitamins); blood flow boosters like coenzime Q10 or vinpocetine; specific neurotransmitter targets like dopamine boosters, serotonin support (tyrosine, tryptophan, alpha GPC, rosemary, sage, etc.); targeted herbs, foodstuffs and food supplements facilitating brain performance and modulating brain work through creating favorable physiological conditions (green tea containing theanine, grapes rich with resveratrol, etc.); adaptogens mentioned above in association with traditional medicine (Engle, 2014.)
Benefits and side effects
Despite diverse biological functions and chemical composition of the nootropics, the main goals of using them are the enhancing and protecting the brain functions such as concentration, memory and learning, facilitating the interhemispheric information flow, increasing the increase in the performance of the cortico-subcortical control mechanisms and also overcoming cognitive deficit conditions (Malik et al., 2007.) The proven efficacy of nootropic is attributable to their pharmacological effects such as activation of the cholinergic transmission, stimulation of cell metabolism and local perfusion in a brain, increase in ATP/ADP ratio as well as in glucose and oxygen utilization, etc.
There are two key directions of nootropics usage nowadays. The first can be called “adaptogenic usage”. Nootropic compounds are used to improve mental health and performance of such brain functions as memory, cognitive abilities, to boost mental energy. The “target groups” here are, for example, students, people experiencing severe intellectual and/or physical overload trying to maintain their intellectual performance, to stop the processes of aging such as memory loss. With the help of a nootropic, people, with a higher presence of neurotransmitters and better local perfusion in a brain area, can experience better focusing ability and memory, some mood elevation, greater processing ability for brain work, and also longer spans of attention. The second direction is neuroprotection and attempts to reverse mental deficits. The “target audience” here are people with severe conditions threatening brain function (electroconvulsive shock, hypoxia, chemical or physical injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.)
But excessive use of nootropic supplements can be harmful. People starting to use available popular nootropics (Aniracetam, Piracetam, Pyritinol, Vinpocetine, etc.) are attached to a definite outcome (better intellectual performace, better learning results, etc.) But, without considering the ingredients, the proper dosage and limitations, this can lead to non-controlled, excessive consumption (Denton, 2013.) Some nootropics can cause adverse effects like fatigue, depression, psychosis (Hill, 2014.) So, with the large number of available nootropics it’s necessary to clarify the goals, to review the list of ingredients and possible side effects, to consult a physician for proper dosage and to make a choice of a quality product that can assist in improving the brain activity and performance. It’s a very responsible choice, because the mental health is one of the vital factors of a happy and successful lifestyle.