Can a Pill Make Us Smarter? The Rise of Nootropics

How Nootropics Could Optimize Your Brain Functions

Pill inside of brain cutout
Katarina Radovic/Stocksy United

Is there enough time in the day to get everything done?   

Maybe you spend your days multitasking and trying to beat the clock while working on your laundry list of things to do. Maybe your days don’t go as planned and your to-do list consistently grows at a faster rate than you can keep up with. You wonder if there’s a better way to become more productive instead of supercharging your morning cup of coffee with a triple shot of espresso.


Nootropics may be the answer you’re looking for. Nicknamed as “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers," these supplements have become increasingly more popular in recent years. Nootropics are dietary supplements made from either natural or manmade ingredients that help support certain brain functions, including memory, mental speed, and focus. 

The first nootropic drug, Piracetam, was synthesized in Belgium in 1964 by a Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu E Giurgea. He was the scientific counselor and researcher at a Belgian pharmaceutical company named UCB. He created Piracetam by accident while he was actually trying to develop a drug to create calming effects and induce sleep. At the time, there was a great deal of interest in GABA in pharmacology (gamma-amino-butyric acid), as GABA supplements were found to improve mood, anxiety, and sleep. 

Giurgea created a derivative of GABA in one of his experiments, which later became Piracetam.

This derivative seemed to accomplish the opposite of the calming and sleep inducing effects he was originally hoping for, and it led him to coin the term “nootropic” drugs in the year 1972. 

Based on how Piracetam worked, Giurgea wrote down a specific set of characteristics that a drug must possess in order to fit in this nootropic category.

Nootropics should enhance learning and memory, improve the brain’s resilience to conditions that try to disrupt learned behaviors and memories, and protect the brain against various physical or chemical injuries.

They should help the various sections of the brain work together more efficiently and improve executive processing, which includes things like planning, focus and concentration, and spatial awareness. Lastly, the drugs must be unique and different from other psychotropic drugs and must have extremely few side effects and low toxicity levels. 

Currently, many supplements are classified as nootropics, including many that should not be classified as nootropics, according to Giurgea’s original criteria. While they all have their differences, they share one thing in common: They help your brain create more neuronal connections, which in turn boosts memory, energy, concentration, and focus. 

Everything that our bodies do is the result of neurons (nerve cells) communicating with each other via electrical impulses and chemical signals. These signals carry messages between different parts of the brain and the rest of your entire nervous system. 

What Are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are the chemical substances that send chemical messages between neurons.

This communication occurs in the synapses or spaces between neurons. Neurotransmitters are released by one neuron and accepted by the next neuron via a receptor on the membrane. The receptors are specific to the neurotransmitters in shape and size so they fit together like a lock and key model. The receptor acts like the lock and the neurotransmitter enters and unlocks it like the key. Receptors are the junctions where neurotransmitters can execute their commands. Neurotransmitters are responsible for our thoughts, actions, and everything we do. 

A few examples of neurotransmitters are serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, GABA, and acetylcholine.

The list goes on and on of the numerous functions that these key neurotransmitters affect in our bodies. A brief overview of some of their key functions will demonstrate just how crucial they are to the balance in our bodies: 

  • Seratonin helps control many different functions like mood, relaxation, appetite, and sleep. 
  • Dopamine helps control movement and helps promote energy, pleasure, enjoyment, excitement, and motivation. 
  • Glutamate improves the electrical flow between brain cells and helps with learning and memory. 
  • GABA helps provide a feeling of calmness and stability and helps with the production of endorphins, which are our body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals.  
  • Acetylcholine helps modulate the brain by altering brain speed. It affects the way the brain processes information because it lubricates the cells so information can pass easily between neurons.  This is why acetylcholine boosts learning, memory, focus, sensory perception, concentration, recall, arousal, attention, motivation, and overall cognitive functionality. 

Acetylcholine, glutamate, and dopamine all play significant roles in cognitive function, so nootropic substances often incorporate and increase their effects.

Improvements in learning and memory can help fight against different types of brain degeneration. By altering the concentration of neurotransmitters in the brain, brains which originally had cognitive deficits in learning and memory can benefit a great deal. 

Supplements and drugs can either increase or decrease the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain directly or indirectly, they can mimic the neurotransmitters’ effects, or they can amplify the signals of the receptors.  

How Nootropics Work

The original nootropic, Piracetam, works by amplifying the signals of the acetylcholine neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, thus increasing the effects of acetylcholine. Let’s contrast this with the way that the benzodiazepine category of drugs work, including Xanax. Benzodiazepines amplify the signals of the GABA receptors in the brain, which cause hypnotic, calming, and sedating effects. This is why Xanax tends to make people feel tired, relaxed, and at ease, while Piracetam tends to increase people’s learning, memory, focus, and sensory perception. 

The entire physiological system that deals with creating, transmitting, and receiving the neurotransmitter of acetylcholine in the brain, is called the cholinergic system. Cholinergic drugs and supplements affect the cholinergic system in the brain. They can enhance, inhibit, or mimic the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Damage to the cholinergic system in the brain can cause the brain to degenerate, which is why a deficiency in acetylcholine levels can lead to brain degeneration, such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

Choline is a nutrient found in the foods we eat, such as eggs. Our bodies make acetylcholine from choline, so it’s important that we have enough choline in our bodies. If people have a choline-deficient diet, a cholinergic supplement or drug may give them the extra choline boost their brains need. Cholinergics deliver choline to the brain so the brain can use it to create more acetylcholine. Many nootropics are cholinergics stacked with other substances, such as racetams. Racetams work by activating glutamate receptors which in turn will activate closeby cholinergic receptors. This enhances the functions of acetylcholine in the brain and ultimately enhances memory.  Combining cholinergics and racetams in nootropic supplements and drugs are typical stacks formulated to improve memory, focus, and learning abilities.

On the other hand, there are quite a few drugs that are classified as anticholinergics and antispasmodics. These drugs inhibit the effects of acetylcholine and can increase the risk of dementia in older adults. If you’re concerned about this, it’s a good idea to research whether any of your medications fall into to this category (your doctor may not have warned you about these side effects).

Natural Supplements

A popular and natural nootropic supplement called Alpha BRAIN is currently on the market. Alpha BRAIN uses earth-grown and natural ingredients like Bacopa Minniera, Cat’s Claw, Huperzia Serrata, Oat Straw, L-Tyrosine, L-Theanine, Phosphatidylserine, Pterostilbene, and vitamin B6 to increase memory, mental speed, and focus.   

Since L-Tyrosine is an amino acid precursor to dopamine, it may help increase production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains. Many users prefer Alpha BRAIN over coffee because it helps them be more productive and efficient without taxing the adrenal system like coffee does. Users also report that it boosts their mental performance, helps them form thoughts and sentences better, helps them recall information more easily, improves their focus, and helps them constantly stay in “the zone” of their peak performance.   

Unlike the typical prescription drug nootropics, Alpha BRAIN is BSCG Certified Drug-Free, which means the supplement and its ingredients are free of drugs and other harmful substances that could cause health issues or positive drug test results.  

Prescription Nootropics

There are many prescription nootropics on the market as well, including Modanifil, which is a drug to promote wakefulness. Modanifil is a wakefulness promoting agent, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, including excessive sleepiness from narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea/hypopnea syndrome, and shift work sleep disorder. It helps combat sleep disorders by stimulating neural activity.

There are various theories as to how Modanifil works. It doesn’t cause all of the same side effects typical of other central nervous system stimulants, yet it is believed to be a central nervous system stimulant. It influences receptors which increase levels of noradrenalin, dopamine, and histamine. Research shows that Modanifil affects the neurotransmitters by working on the pathways of glutamate, norepinephrine, epinephrine, histamine, and dopamine in the brain. The increase in these neurotransmitters and natural substances in specific areas of the brain that control sleep and wakefulness causes the overall wakefulness effect of this drug.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, neurotransmitters have the power to not only affect our mood, energy levels, focus, concentration, memory, and sleep, but they also have the ability to positively or negatively impact our health in both the short- and long-term. Improper balance and deficiencies in any of these neurotransmitters can lead to serious health problems. 

For example, deficiencies in acetylcholine can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities, deficiencies in dopamine can lead to Parkinson’s disease, and deficiencies in dopamine and/or serotonin can lead to depression and anxiety. 

Trying to alter neurotransmitter pathways in your brain to achieve a particular effect is not a decision to be taken lightly. You can create serious health problems for yourself down the line by altering the delicate and intricate balance of chemicals your brain, so it’s a good idea to talk to you doctor about taking any nootropic supplements or drugs before experimenting with them yourself. 

Remember that all pills have their own side effects. With so many available nootropic products, each of which have the potential to help and/or harm your health, your doctor can help you figure which one may best for you. The effects of nootropics are different in everyone because we each have a unique neurochemistry that the nootropics affect. 

Many people enjoy an extra edge with increased brain functions including memory, learning, and concentration as a result of using nootropics. Finding the right nootropic for you may be the closest experience you can get to a “limitless” drug. 


Anticholinergic Agents.  U.S. National Library of Medicine: LiverTox, 10 Jun 2014.  Web.  30 May 2016.

Anticholinergics/Antispasmodics.  Web.  30 May 2016.

Brain Basics.  National Institute of Mental Health.  Web.  30 May 2016.

Cognitive Enhancers (nootropics).  Part 2: Drugs Interacting With Enzymes.  Froestl W, Muhs A, Pfifer A.  U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMed:  J Alzheimers Dis, 2013.  Web.  30 May 2016.

Corneliu E. Giurgea. Web.  30 May 2016.

Modafinil.  U.S National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus, 15 Feb 2016.  Web.  30 May 2016.

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