SEP 09, 2019 8:21 AM PDT

Do Nootropics Really Boost Brain Function?

WRITTEN BY: Annie Lennon

 

Nootropics are a broad range of both natural and artificial compounds thought to improve cognitive function. Including everything from caffeine to Adderall and Provigil, they are popular among students and working professionals alike for their reputation in boosting focus, memory, and creativity. But do they really boost brain function? 

Different kinds of nootropics work differently, and their effects vary. Although Adderall is known to boost the abilities of low-performing individuals in areas such as word recall and abstract reasoning, it is also known to impair already high-performers. In a study looking at how the drug affects healthy high-performing individuals, researchers found that although those who took it felt they saw improvements in their cognitive abilities, tests measuring these found none. Given the drug’s reputation for improving cognitive skills, high-performing individuals may mistake its physical effects, such as an increased heart rate and blood pressure, as evidence for a higher level of functioning. 

Provigil, also known as modafinil, is another nootropic commonly thought to enhance cognitive abilities. Although research has shown that it significantly improves both episodic and working memory for those with depression, among healthy individuals, its effects seem to be minimal. Moreover, another study has shown that use of the drug by healthy individuals under 18 years old may reduce brain plasticity in the long run due to its potential to overrun optimal chemical balances for brain development.  

Despite these different use-cases, however, other nootropics seem to have less risk and seemingly more positive effects across the board. L-theanine, the counterpart for caffeine found in tea, is an excellent example of this. A study of the substance found that realistic dietary quantities can improve focus and increase alpha brain waves typically associated with relaxation. Other research has shown that the L-theanine also increases serotonin, dopamine, and Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) levels in the brain, known to regulate mood, social behavior, social behavior memory, and sleep. An extremely safe substance, studies also say that it may be effective in reducing mild to moderate levels of anxiety.

Even with more benign nootropics such as L-theanine and caffeine widely available, however, it is still generally recommended to first look towards non-chemical solutions to improve cognitive abilities. After all, there is a substantial body of evidence showing that regular exercise improves memory and fights off age-related cognitive decline while improving heart health and strengthening the immune system. Proper sleep has also been found to be essential for better cognitive functioning as it serves as a time to clear waste from the brain and support learning and memory.

To conclude, although nootropics like Adderal and Provigil seem to be able to improve cognitive functioning in some, how well each work depends on both the user’s pre-existing conditions and their cognitive baseline. Despite this, other substances in the same family, like L-theanine, may work across the board, delivering positive effects to most people regardless of their pre-existing conditions or cognitive baseline. Even with this in mind, exercise and regular sleep are still recommended as more frontline ways to improve brain function. 

 

Sources: Time, Pub Med, Pub Med, Frontiers in Systems NeurosciencePub Med, Pub MedPub MedTimeUS National Library of Medicine

About the Author
  • Science writer with keen interests in technology and behavioral biology. Her current focus is on the interplay between these fields to create meaningful interactions, applications and environments.
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