Nootropics are a broad range of both natural and artificial compounds though 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 work?
Different kinds of nootropics have different functions, and affect people differently. For example, although Adderall is known to boost the abilities of low-performing individuals in areas such as word recall and abstract reasoning, it is otherwise known to impair already high-performers. In a study looking at the effects of Adderall in healthy high-performing individuals, researchers found that although those who took the drug felt they experienced improvements in their cognitive abilities, tests measuring these found none (Ilieva: 2012). Demonstrating a clear placebo effect for improved cognitive functioning, it is possible that given the drug’s reputation for improving cognitive abilities in low-performing people, healthy individuals on the drug mistake its physical byproducts, 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 known to produce varied results on cognitive functioning. Although a singular dose has led to significant improvements in both episodic and working memory of those with remitted depression, among healthy individuals, its effects seem to be minimal (Fernandez: 2015). Moreover, another study has shown that usage of Provigil among healthy juveniles and adolescents may in fact reduce brain plasticity in the long run due to its potential to overrun optimal chemical balances for brain development (Urban: 2014).
Despite these varying 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 a good example of this. A systematic review of the substance when taken with caffeine has confirmed that it improves focus and that, when taken alone, it has also been shown to increase alpha brain waves, something normally associated with relaxed attention (Nobre: 2008). Moreover, the substance is also known to increase concentrations of serotonin, dopamine and Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) in the brain, known to regulate mood, social behavior, memory and sleep (Nathan: 2006). With a reputation for being extremely safe, it has addionally been reported to reduce symptoms of mild to moderate anxiety, with side effects limited to headaches.
Even with more benign nootropics such as L-theanine and caffeine widely available however, it is still generally recommended to look first towards non-chemical solutions towards improving cognitive abilities. After all, there is a strong body of evidence that regular exercise improves memory and fights off age-related cognitive decline, while improving heart health and strengthening the immune system (Sander: 2012, Sifferlin: 2016). Regular sleep is another essential for better cognitive functioning as it serves as time to clear waste from the brain and support learning and memory (Alhola: 2007).
To conclude, although nootropics do seem to be able to improve some aspects of cognitive functioning, the degree to which many of them deliver depends on both the user’s pre-existing conditions and their cognitive baseline. Despite this however, other substances in the same family, like L-theanine and caffeine, may work across the board, delivering positive effects to most people regardless of pre-existing conditions or their cognitive baseline. Even with this in mind though, exercise and regular sleep are still recommended as more certain ways to improve brain functioning.
Heid, Markham: Time
Ilieva I. et al.: Pub Med
Fernandez, A et al.: Pub Med
Urban, Kimberly R.: Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience
Nobre, AC et al.: Pub Med
Nathan PJ et al.: Pub Med
Sander R. : Pub Med
Sifferlin, Alexandra: Time
Alhola, Paula: US National Library of Medicine